NASA Confirms US Astronaut Will Return on Russian Spacecraft Later This Month

NASA Confirms US Astronaut Will Return on Russian Spacecraft Later This Month
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Russia will pick up an American astronaut as scheduled later in the month and deliver him to a third country, U.S. space officials said on March 14.

U.S. astronaut Mark Vande Hei is on the International Space Station along with several Russians and other spacefarers.

“The reality is Mark Vande Hei is coming home on March 30 with Anton and Pytor, period,” Joel Montalbano, an official with NASA, told reporters during a briefing.

Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov are also scheduled to fly to Kazakhstan on a Russian craft from the station that day.

The United States and Russia have long cooperated on operations for the station, but since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, questions have been raised about the scheduled flight.

Dmitry Rogozin, who heads Russia’s space agency, has clashed with U.S. astronauts on social media. And Roscosmos, the agency, appeared to make a video that showed Dubrov and Shkaplerov being picked up but waving goodbye to Vande Hei, leaving the American on the space station.

The video, recently posted by a state media outlet, also depicted the Russian portion of the station detaching.

International Space Station crew members Mark Vande Hei of NASA, cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov of Roscosmos are pictured during space suit check at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on April 9, 2021. (Irina Spector/GCTC/Roscosmos via Reuters)

That led to stories about Russia threatening to renege on their agreement and leaving the American behind.

NASA officials on Monday declined to discuss any possible contingency plans.

Montalbano said the scheduled flight hasn’t changed and that Roscosmos has confirmed they will bring back all three astronauts.

“At this time, there’s no indication from our Russian partners that they want to do anything different, so we are planning to continue operations as we are today,” he said.

The United States is sending a contingent of approximately 20 people, including doctors, on the agency’s Gulfstream plane to pick up Vande Hei in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Union republic that abuts Russia.

U.S.-based SpaceX in 2020 started taking American astronauts to the space station after NASA for years relied solely on Russia to ferry the spacefarers back and forth, but SpaceX is not contracted to perform every single flight at this time.

The International Space Station was launched in 1998 and NASA currently plans to keep it in operation through 2030.

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