U.S. astronaut, two Russian cosmonauts return home from ISS

  • American, Russians return to Earth together
  • Russia and U.S. sparring over Ukraine
  • Vande Hei sets U.S. record of 355 days in space

ALMATY, March 30 (Reuters) - A U.S. astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts safely landed in Kazakhstan on Wednesday after leaving the International Space Station aboard the same capsule despite heightened antagonism between Moscow and Washington over the conflict in Ukraine.

The flight -- carrying NASA's Mark Vande Hei and Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov back to Earth -- had been closely watched to determine whether escalating strife had spilled over into longtime cooperation in space between the two former Cold War adversaries.

Russian space agency Roscosmos broadcast footage of the landing from the Kazakh steppe and said a group of technical and medical specialists had been dispatched to help the astronauts out of the capsule.

"The crew is feeling good after landing, according to rescuers," Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin wrote on Telegram messenger.

Vande Hei, who had completed his second ISS mission, 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.

Vande Hei, 55, smiled and waved as rescuers removed him from the capsule and medics checked his vital signs.

"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 in a statement.

The all-time record for the 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.

It was the first space flight for Dubrov, 40, who was launched to the ISS with Vande Hei last April from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Shkaplerov, 50, who was 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

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 Russia that he said were designed to "degrade" its aerospace industry, including its space program.

Rogozin of Roscosmos had 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. read more

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. read more

NASA, for its part, has said that U.S. and Russian ISS crew members were well aware of events on Earth but were 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 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. read more

"Sometimes yellow is just yellow," Roscosmos's press service said on its Telegram channel.

Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Bernadette Baum

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