Less than a week after wrapping up the longest single space mission ever undertaken by a U.S. astronaut, Mark Vande Hei took time early Tuesday to discuss his record-setting 355-day increment aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Vande Hei returned to Earth on 30 March aboard the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft, shoulder-to-shoulder with Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov. The trio—with Dubrov having also spent 355 days in space with Vande Hei, as Shkaplerov concluded a 176-day mission—alighted on the desolate steppe of south-central Kazakhstan, about 90 miles (150 kilometres) from the remote town of Jezkazgan.
Launched last 9 April aboard Soyuz MS-18, Vande Hei and Dubrov were accompanied to orbit by seasoned Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky. But with plans for Soyuz MS-19 in October to carry film producer Klim Shipenko and actress Yulia Peresild on a short-duration flight to the ISS, Vande Hei and Dubrov’s nominal seats back to Earth last fall after a standard six-month mission became unavailable and both men were called upon to pull a double-duty increment, lasting only ten days shy of a full year.
Vande Hei welcomed eight unpiloted visiting vehicles—three Russian Progress ships, three SpaceX Cargo Dragons and two Northrop Grumman Corp. Cygnuses—and bade farewell to eight. He was aboard the ISS last July for the troubled arrival of Russia’s long-awaited Nauka lab and the Prichal docking node, the station’s latest permanent component, last November. But Vande Hei did not get to see the arrival of the second uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, which suffered technical issues prior to its planned July 2021 launch and is now not expected to fly before May 2022.
In addition to uncrewed visitors, Vande Hei welcomed four crew-carrying spacecraft: two Crew Dragons, including the arrival of NASA’s Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, together with German astronaut Matthias Maurer last November on Crew-3, and a pair of short-duration Soyuz flights last October and December. He and Dubrov bade farewell to Novitsky in October, when he returned home with Shipenko and Peresild, and Shkaplerov joined them for the second half of their long stay. In today’s comments, Vande Hei said it was “reinvigorating” to have non-professional crew aboard.
All told, Vande Hei’s stay has spanned three consecutive ISS expeditions—64, 65 and 66—and he has lived and worked with 26 humans from the United States, Russia, Japan, France and Germany. He supported hundreds of research investigations, which ran the gamut from studies of cotton-root systems to investigations into treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and a demonstration of a portable ultrasound device. But hopes of a spacewalk last September came to nought, when he suffered a pinched nerve in his neck.
During his 355 days in space, Vande Hei traveled over 150 million miles (242 million kilometers), equivalent to 312 round-trips to the Moon, and circled Earth more than 5,680 times. And when one adds an earlier mission between September 2017 and February 2018, during which Vande Hei logged 168 days in space, he now sits in third place—behind Jeff Williams and Peggy Whitson—on the list of America’s most seasoned astronauts, with a career total of over 523 days.
Less than a week after returning to Earth, Vande Hei noted that his readaptation to terrestrial gravity has proven surprisingly smooth. Within eight hours of landing on 30 March, he was able to walk unaided and currently feels “still uncomfortable”, but “pretty functional”, and paid tribute to the adaptability of the human body. He added that he does have “some aches and pains that I did not have before”. At present, he is working through an extensive rehabilitation program, which includes surveys and samples, but admitted that in terms of his future plans he is not looking beyond the next couple of weeks.
And those next couple of weeks, had he spent them aboard the ISS, might have seen Vande Hei surpass a full Earth-year in space for the first time since Russia’s Sergei Avdeyev in the late 1990s. But America’s new record-holder was philosophical about the number of days. A full year might, he admitted, “make the soundbite shorter”, but flying an ultra-long-duration mission “was not about any record for me at all”.
In comments recently provided to AmericaSpace by NASA, future ultra-long-duration missions are in the pipeline, though none are currently manifested, but Vande Hei hopes that his record will be “remembered as the record that got broken” and sees his 355 days as “a stepping-stone” to the next achievements in space.
Despite having spent 168 days in space in 2017-2018, he noted that he felt better this time around, stressing that working out strategies to deal with his own mental health was critically important. Unlike his first mission—in which he assumed the systems-heavy Flight Engineer-1 role aboard the Soyuz—on this second flight he served in the Flight Engineer-2 seat, which furnished more opportunity to look out the window and simply observe.
But earthly concerns made their way up to the ISS, with Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the fallout from a particularly boisterous Twitter exchange between Roscosmos head Dmitri Rogozin and former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly.
Matters peaked last month when the Soyuz MS-21 crew of Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergei Korsakov arrived on the station, clad in blue-and-yellow flight suits. This prompted instant speculation of their possible sympathies towards Ukraine, but in fact represented the school colors of the Bauman Moscow State Technical University from which Artemyev, Matveev and Korsakov graduated.
However, Vande Hei said talk of the conflict was “not a topic I shied away from with my crewmates”, but the focus remained the mission. He called the war “heartbreaking” and noted a “sense of powerlessness”. But his relationship with his Russian crewmates never wavered. “I never had any concerns about my ability to work with them” he said of the cosmonauts, adding that they have been, are and will remain good and close friends.