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NASA astronaut with record for longest U.S. spaceflight returns to Earth

Mark Vande Hei landed in Kazakhstan, southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan, at 7:28 a.m. ET Wednesday.
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NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who broke a record earlier this month for the longest spaceflight by an American explorer, returned to Earth Wednesday.

Vande Hei landed in Kazakhstan, southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan, at 7:28 a.m. ET. He and cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov began the journey back to Earth in the early morning hours on the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft, according to NASA.

Vande Hei’s ride with the Russians was part of a barter exchange with Houston-based Axiom.

Vande Hei, 55, had been on the International Space Station since Apr. 9, 2021 — spending 355 days in low-Earth orbit and breaking the record held by retired astronaut Scott Kelly by 15 days.

“Broken records mean we’re making progress,” said Scott Kelly, whose 340-day mission ended in 2016.

Despite escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Vladimir Putin’s war with Ukraine, Vande Hei’s return followed customary procedures. A small NASA team of doctors and other staff was on hand for the touchdown and planned to return immediately to Houston with the astronaut.

Even before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Vande Hei said he was avoiding the subject with his two Russian crewmates. Despite getting along “fantastically ... I’m not sure we really want to go there,” he said.

Shkaplerov, in a live NASA TV broadcast recently, added: “People have problem on Earth. On orbit ... we are one crew.” The space station is a symbol of “friendship and cooperation and ... future of exploration of space," he said.

Image: NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei aboard the International Space Station on Nov. 23, 2021.NASA

“Mark’s mission is not only record-breaking, but also paving the way for future human explorers on the Moon, Mars, and beyond,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. "NASA and the nation are proud to welcome Mark home and grateful for his incredible contributions throughout his year-long stay on the International Space Station.”

Vande Hei, in a recent series of NASA videos, said he was looking forward to being outside, making coffee for him and his wife and snacking on chips and guacamole.

While on the International Space Station, Vande Hei experienced about 5,680 orbits of Earth.