Despite rumors circulating that the U.S. astronaut, who is aboard a Russian spacecraft, was at risk of being stranded in space by his Russian companions, NASA confirmed that all three would be back on Earth by the end of this month, according to a Fox News report.
There was much speculation that Mark Vande Hei, a retired Army colonel who has just broken the record among U.S. astronauts for the most prolonged continuous stay in space, would be left behind by his Russian counterparts due to the growing conflict between the two countries over Ukraine.
However, during a press conference on Monday, March 14, Joel Montalbano, NASA’s International Space Station program manager, assured that all three would return to Earth together.
“I can tell you for sure: Mark is coming home on that Soyuz,” Montalbano said. “We are in communication with our Russian colleagues; there’s no fuzz on that.”
Despite the problems both countries present on Earth, which involved U.S. economic sanctions on Russia, Montalbano said they had not compromised the professionalism of the astronauts currently living on the station.
“They continue to operate, you know, above all this work, and there’s really no tensions with the team,” Montalbano said. “They’ve been trained to do a job, and they’re up there doing that job.”
A series of events caused a flurry of speculation in the media that there would be problems within the International Space Station (ISS) program and ominously claimed that Russia threatened to strand a U.S. astronaut in space.
One of the events was the appearance of a video, shared by Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti, edited to make it appear that Russian astronauts were leaving Vande Hei behind after separating the Russian part of the ISS.
Further increasing speculation was the announcement by Russia’s federal space agency, Roscosmos, that it would withdraw several commercial partnerships and activities in response to U.S. sanctions imposed on it, including no longer selling Russian rocket engines to U.S. companies, according to a report by Space.com.
In the first round of sanctions, Biden targeted Russia’s air and space industry. On Feb. 24, he said, “We estimate that we will cut off more than half of Russia’s high-tech imports, and it will strike a blow to their ability to continue to modernize their military. In addition, it will degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program.”
The American astronaut will depart with Russian cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov from the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz capsule to land in Kazakhstan on March 30. Vande Hei, by that date, will have completed 355 days in space, breaking the record for the U.S. Russia holds the world record with 438 continuous days.