Russia threatens to leave American astronaut in space

Mark Vande Hei of Minnesota is due to return from the International Space Station on March 30 aboard the Soyuz spacecraft along with two Russian cosmonauts.

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National News

March 12, 2022 - 7:53 AM

In this photo from February 28, 2018, Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, left, of Roscosmos shakes hands with US astronaut Mark Vande Hei of NASA. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war is threatening Mark Vande Hei’s scheduled return to Earth from space at the end of the month.

The Benilde-St. Margaret’s and St. John’s University graduate is set to parachute to a landing in Kazakhstan on March 30 with two Russian cosmonauts.

But President Joe Biden’s sanctions against Russia prompted threats from the head of the Russian space agency and ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin: In a Feb. 26 video, Dmitry Rogozin “threatened to leave Vande Hei behind in space and detach Russia’s segment of the space station altogether,” ABC News reported on Wednesday.

Vande Hei is orbiting about 250 miles above Earth aboard the International Space Station, where for more than two decades, U.S. and Russian space agencies have collaborated on research and maintenance of the station.

NASA said Friday it continues to work with all its international partners, including the Russian State Space Corporation Roscosmos, for the ongoing safe operations of the station and the return of crew members to Earth.

“On March 30, a Soyuz spacecraft will return as scheduled carrying NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov back to Earth,” a NASA spokesperson said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune on Friday.

“Upon their return, Vande Hei will hold the American record for the longest single human spaceflight mission of 355 days.”

Vande Hei completed his first space flight in 2018 as an Expedition 53/54 crew member, during which he conducted spacewalks, researched microgravity and measured the sun’s energy input to earth.

Last April, Vande Hei joined two Russian cosmonauts on the Expedition 64/65 crew, which was tasked with conducting hundreds of experiments to learn more about living in space, which NASA said was critical “to understand and overcome the challenges of long-duration spaceflight and those insights gained will help send humans to the moon and eventually to Mars.”

Vande Hei was selected as an astronaut in 2009 after becoming a professor of physics at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. Previously, he served as a combat engineer in the Army.

He’s been a colonel so he knows how to deal with people under tough situations. He’s the right guy to be up there. I’m less confident about the people that are in Moscow …

Thomas Kirkman, physics professor at St. John’s University,

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Biden announced sanctions against Russia, including cutting more than half of the country’s high-tech imports, noting that such a move will “degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program,” ABC News reported. That prompted Rogozin’s threat to abandon Vande Hei.

Thomas Kirkman, a physics professor at St. John’s University who taught Vande Hei as an undergrad, said Vande Hei’s work ethic, education and military experience will help him deal with the unfolding tension with professionalism.

“I suspect he’s looking out the window at Ukraine occasionally. But he’s been a colonel so he knows how to deal with people under tough situations,” Kirkman said. “He’s the right guy to be up there. I’m less confident about the people that are in Moscow but I suspect the people that are in the space station are professionals.”

Vande Hei’s parents, Tom and Mary of Chanhassen, declined to comment on the possible delay to their son’s scheduled return.

Last March, Tom Vande Hei said he and his wife traveled halfway across the world to watch their son’s first launch but were unable to attend the second launch last April due to the pandemic.

“The tough part is right now, because of COVID, we haven’t touched Mark for a year and he’s been in Russia since January,” Mary Vande Hei said last year.

In recent years, Vande Hei has shared his experiences with central Minnesota community members, including speaking with students via long-distance video calls from the space station in 2018 and again last September.

At an international video press conference last spring in Star City, Russia, Vande Hei lauded the successful partnerships that’s made space research such a success in the last few decades. He also said he was only scheduled to be in space for six months but said his trip could get extended — which it did — and said that would be a “bonus.”

“We try to make sure we’re ready for anything,” he said.

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