A U.S. astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts were set to depart the International Space Station (ISS) together on a Soyuz capsule back to Earth on Wednesday, despite heightened U.S.-Russian antagonism over the war in Ukraine.
The Russian Soyuz capsule carrying NASA's Mark Vande Hei and his cosmonaut peers Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov was scheduled to undock from ISS at 2:45 a.m. EDT (0645 GMT) and make a parachute landing in central Kazakhstan nearly five hours later.
The landing zone lies roughly 250 miles (400 km) to the northeast of Russia's space launch facility at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Vande Hei, 55, completing his second ISS mission, will have logged a U.S. space-endurance record of 355 consecutive days in orbit, surpassing the previous 340-day record set by astronaut Scott Kelly in 2016, according to NASA.
The all-time world record for longest single stay in space was set by Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov who spent more than 14 months aboard the Mir space station, returning to Earth in 1995.
Dubrov, 40, who launched to the ISS with Vande Hei last April from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, will be completing his first spaceflight, sharing 5,680 Earth orbits and more than 150 million miles in space with Vande Hei, NASA said.
Shkaplerov, 50, just ending his rotation as the latest ISS commander, is a veteran of four missions to the orbital outpost, accumulating 708 total days in space, far exceeding Vande Hei's 523-day career tally, according to NASA. Shkaplerov began his latest space station stint last October.
SPACE RELATIONS TESTED
The joint U.S.-Russian return flight from ISS was closely watched for signs that escalating tensions between Moscow and Washington over the Russian invasion of Ukraine have spilled over into longtime cooperation in space between the two former Cold War adversaries.
Announcing U.S. economic sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin's government on Feb. 24, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered high-tech export restrictions against Moscow that he said were designed to "degrade" Russia's aerospace industry, including its space program.
Dmitry Rogozin, director-general of Russian space agency Roscosmos, then lashed out in a series of Twitter posts suggesting the U.S. sanctions could "destroy" ISS teamwork and lead to the space station falling out of orbit.
The following week, state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti posted a video spoof depicting cosmonauts waving farewell to Vande Hei before Russia's ISS module detaches from the space station and flies away without him to the applause of Russian officials at mission control, leaving the rest of the station sinking lower in orbit.
The clip, described by RIA Novosti as "comic," plays out to the Russian-language love ballad "Goodbye," by Russian vocalist Lev Leshchenko.
At about the same time, Rogozin announced that Russia would stop supplying or servicing Russian-made rocket engines used by two U.S. aerospace NASA suppliers, suggesting U.S. astronauts could use "broomsticks" to get to orbit.
NASA, for its part, has said that U.S. and Russian ISS crew members were well aware of events on Earth but are working professionally together without tension.
The three returning ISS crew were replaced on the space station by three cosmonauts who flew to orbit on March 18, joining the three remaining U.S. colleagues of Vande Hei and a German astronaut from the European Space Agency.
Russia's space agency later dismissed Western media reports suggesting the newly arrived Russian cosmonauts had chosen to wear yellow flight suits with blue trim - the colors of Ukraine's national flag, in support of Ukraine. They were greeted warmly, with hugs and handshakes.
"Sometimes yellow is just yellow," Roscosmos's press service said on its Telegram channel.
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