US astronaut Mark Vande Hei describes talking politics with Russians on ISS

After returning from 355 days in space, Vande Hei said he wasn't worried about apparent threats made via social media that his Russian counterparts could abandon him.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

NASA astronaut and Expedition 65 Flight Engineer Mark Vande Hei cleans the International Space Station's Plant Habitaton on Aug. 31, 2021.

NASA/Thomas Pesquet

Days after returning from his record-setting 355 days in space, US astronaut Mark Vande Hei described what it was like on board the International Space Station with Russian cosmonauts as the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolded back on Earth. 

"There's a sense of powerlessness that goes along with it, when you see people that need help and you can't do anything about it," Vande Hei said in a news conference Tuesday.

The invasion, he said, "was not a topic I shied away from." However, he added, they weren't very long discussions, and the group remained focused on their mission together. 

"They were and continue to be very dear friends of mine," he said. "I never had any concerns about my ability to continue working with them."

Vande Heil returned to Earth last Wednesday with two Russian cosmonauts in a capsule that landed in Kazakhstan. Vande Hei's 355-day mission in space was the longest spaceflight for a US astronaut.

The ISS program, which involves the US, Russia, and other nations, is slated to run through 2024, but the US is aiming to extend it until 2030. 

Questions about Russia's cooperation with Vande Hei stemmed from a strange social media post originally posted by Russian state news studio RIA Novosti. The news entity shared a heavily-edited video on Twitter that appeared to show the Russian cosmonauts on the ISS abandoning Vande Hei in space. Later, Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, shared the video to his Telegram channel, along with the message that the new studio "jokingly demonstrated the possibility of Russia withdrawing from the ISS project."

Rogozin has a history of sending combative, questionable messages over social media. He recently engaged in a heated exchange with former astronaut Mark Kelly after the American criticized Russia's invasion of Ukraine and Rogozin's past threats to pull out of the ISS. In  a quickly-deleted tweet, Rogozin wrote, "Get off, you moron!" adding, "Otherwise, the death of the International Space Station will be on your conscience."

Vande Hei on Tuesday said he had heard about the Twitter exchange with Kelly but "kind of laughed it off." 

As for the suggestion Russia could abandon him, Vande Hei said, "I never perceived those tweets as anything to take too seriously. I had too much confidence in cooperation to date to take those tweets as anything but something that was meant for a different audience than myself." 

The current conflicts between Russia and the United States demonstrate "one of the reasons we've been able to have an International Space Station," Vande Hei added. "Some people that don't care so much about space care about international relations, and having a space where we can cooperate, I think, is really important for a peaceful future."

Rogozin's most recent threat to rescind support for the ISS came last Saturday. He tweeted a series of pictures of letters, stating they were from NASA chief Bill Nelson, the head of the European Space Agency Josef Aschbacher, and the head of the Canadian Space Agency Lisa Campbell, respectively. The letters, Rogozin said, were in response to his request for the removal of sanctions against a number of enterprises in the Russian rocket and space industry.

Nelson's letter in response said, "NASA will continue to work with relevant U.S. Federal departments and agencies to facilitate continued cooperation and operation of the ISS."

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