Record-Setting U.S. Astronaut Expected to Ride Russian Capsule to Earth

As tensions continue to rise between the United States and Russia, a U.S. astronaut will be required to ride back to Earth in a Russian capsule.

Astronaut Mark Vande Hei will break the record for the longest amount of time an American has spent in space on Tuesday, when he surpasses 340 days, the Associated Press reported. Vande Hei's plan to return to Earth with two Russian cosmonauts in the Soyuz capsule later this month remains unchanged, according to NASA.

This has caused some worry, though, as U.S. sanctions and bans against Russia have increased as the invasion of Ukraine approaches its fourth week. Though officials have said the war on the ground will not affect the conduct between the two nations in space, others worry that the countries' space cooperation could be thrown into question.

The 55-year-old Vande Hei is expected to return to Kazakhstan, where he launched from, on March 30, according to the AP. At that point, he will have been in space for 355 days.

On Sunday, NASA Watch shared a video on Twitter it said was made by Russian state news outlet RIA Novosti depicting Russian cosmonauts saying goodbye to Vande Hei on the International Space Station as they depart without him. In addition, Dmitry Rogozin, director-general of Russian space agency Roscosmos, has made statements on his social media regarding the possibility of Western sanctions affecting the ISS partnership.

"Do you want to destroy our cooperation on the ISS?" Rogozin wrote on Twitter, according to a Reuters translation.

However, in a phone call with reporters shortly after the invasion began, Kathy Lueders, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, said the agency is "not getting any indications at a working level that our [Russian] counterparts are not committed to ongoing operation [at the] International Space Station," Space.com reported.

"NASA continues working with all our international partners, including the State Space Corporation Roscosmos, for the ongoing safe operations of the International Space Station, including work to fly crew members to the orbital outpost and to return them safely to Earth," NASA said in a statement sent to Newsweek.

In a Monday briefing, Joel Montalbano, NASA's manager for the ISS program, said NASA's Roscosmos colleagues have confirmed they are ready to bring everybody back to Earth—including Vande Hei.

"I can tell you for sure Mark is coming home on that Soyuz," he said. "We are in communication with our Russian colleagues. There's no fuzz on that. The three crewmembers are coming home—it's Anton [Shkaplerov], Pyotr [Dubrov] and Mark."

In an interview with the AP, Scott Kelly, a retired U.S. astronaut who set the record Vande Hei will break on Tuesday, said he believes the two countries "can hold it together" in space despite the disagreements on the ground.

"We need an example set that two countries that historically have not been on the most friendly of terms can still work somewhere peacefully," Kelly said. "And that somewhere is the International Space Station. That's why we need to fight to keep it"

The Roscosmos video also depicted the ISS being split apart, with Russia separating its own segment of the station, though RIA Novosti described it as "jokingly" demonstrating the "possibility" of Russia withdrawing from the ISS, Newsweek reported.

Experts previously told Newsweek if Russia were to leave, NASA would be able to run the ISS independently.

Follow Newsweek's live blog for updates on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Update 03/14/22 4 p.m. ET: This story was updated to add more information.

U.S. Astronaut to Travel in Russian Capsule
U.S. astronaut Mark Vande Hei has made it through nearly a year in space, but in March 2022, he faces what could be his trickiest assignment yet: riding a Russian capsule back to Earth in the midst of deepening tensions between the countries. In this photo released by Roscosmos Space Agency, from left, Vande Hei, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov, all members of the main crew at the International Space Station, walk prior to a launch at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 9, 2021. Roscosmos Space Agency via AP, File