NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei has surpassed Scott Kelly’s record of 340 continuous days in space, having marked his 341st day aboard the International Space Station (ISS) on Tuesday, March 15. Currently in orbit for the second time in his career, Vande Hei last set foot on his home planet on April 9, 2021, and will have spent a total of 355 days on the ISS by the time he finally returns to Earth on March 30.
The previous NASA record was set by Kelly back in 2016, and Vande Hei had no intention of raising the bar when he set off on what was meant to be a six-month visit to the space station last spring. However, plans changed in September 2021 when he and his fellow crew members were asked to give up their seats on a Soyuz rocket traveling back home so that a Russian film crew could leave the ISS instead.
In the turbulent months that followed, events on Earth led to fears that the American astronaut could be abandoned on the station by Roscosmos, which is tasked with shuttling personnel to and from the ISS. Responding to sanctions against Russia following the country’s invasion of Ukraine, Roscosmos boss Dmitry Rogozin had something of a Twitter meltdown, posting a number of bizarre messages including a video that appeared to show the Russian segment breaking away from the space station and leaving Vande Hei behind.
However, Rogozin later brushed off criticism of his thinly veiled threat by describing it as a “joke”, and the Russian space program has since confirmed that Vande Hei will be allowed to travel back to Earth on a Soyuz rocket at the end of this month.
“I can tell you for sure, Mark is coming home on that Soyuz,” said NASA’s ISS program manager Joel Montalbano in a press briefing. Referring to the cooperation between the US and Russia aboard the ISS, he went on to explain that “all these activities have continued for 20 years, and nothing has changes in the last three weeks.”
However, Russia recently stated that its cosmonauts will no longer collaborate with scientists from other nations aboard the ISS, throwing the entire project’s future into doubt. Tensions have since reached surreal new heights, with Rogozin engaging in Twitter spats with both Scott Kelly and Elon Musk as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to rage.
While Vande Hei now holds the record for the longest continuous spaceflight by a NASA astronaut, his stint in orbit falls some way short of that achieved by Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, who spent 438 days aboard the Mir space station in 1994-95. Another cosmonaut, Gennady Padalka, holds the record for the most cumulative days in space, having spent 879 away from Earth across five separate missions between 1988 and 2015.