Return After 355 Days in Orbit

Return After 355 Days in Orbit

On 30 March, the Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, as well as the American Mark Vande Hei, returned to Earth aboard Soyuz MS-19. With 355 days in orbit, Dubrov and Vande Hei sealed the record of the longest mission on the ISS.

As part of the crew rotation of the International Space Station (ISS), three astronauts returned to Earth on 30 March 2022. These were the Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov and the American, Mark Vande Hei. Commander of ISS Expedition 66, Anton Shkaplerov had handed this responsibility over to Thomas Marshburn the day before 29 March. A Russian citizen, born in Ukraine during the Soviet era, Shkaplerov had recalled, during the ceremony of handing over command  over command, that “the ISS is a symbol of friendship, cooperation and the future of space exploration.”

Return to Kazakhstan

Early in the morning, Anton Shkaplerov, Pyotr Dubrov and Mark Vande Hei took their places in the Russian ship Soyuz MS-19 which left the station on 30 March at 07.21 Universal Time (official time of the ISS). According to the usual procedure, the craft released its orbital and service modules so that the capsule with its thermal shield could dive into the atmosphere, while its passengers were protected from the extreme heat of re-entry. The landing took place as planned on the plains of Kazakhstan at 11.28 Universal Time, i.e. 5.28 p.m. local time. The NASA TV video below shows the complete operation.

In Kazakhstan, as usual the Russian space agency Roscosmos teams took care of recovery operations. The return to the plains of that country has no connection to the war in Ukraine, this region being that used for years for landing Soviet and then Russian crewed flights. A NASA team was present to take care of Mark Vande Hei who would be back in Houston in the United States within 24 hours. For the time being, and even if geopolitical tensions have had some consequences in space, the ISS programme which brings together five agencies (NASA for the USA, Roscosmos for Russia, ESA for Europe, JAXA for Japan and CSA for Canada) is not in jeopardy.

A Record of 355 Days

Anton Shkaplerov is therefore returning from a stay of 176 days. He had joined the station on 5 October 2021 with Soyuz MS-19, the same ship which made the return journey on 30 March. With this Shkaplerov concluded his fourth mission (all to the ISS) and has accumulated in total 709 days in orbit.

From left to right: Mark Vande Hei, Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov photographed in their Soyuz ship soon after their landing when the hatch was opened by the ground teams.

From left to right: Mark Vande Hei, Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov photographed in their Soyuz ship soon after their landing when the hatch was opened by the ground teams.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The duration of the flight, however, was different for Pyotr Dubrov and Mark Vande Hei, being 355 days. Indeed, the Russian and the American had been aboard the ISS since 9 April 2021, i.e. before Shkaplerov (they had been transported by Soyuz MS-18). The arrival of a film team (an actress and director) of the Russian television channel Channel One for around ten days in October 2021 meant that Dubrov and Vande Hei did not return on “their” Soyuz MS-18, but later on MS-19. The extension had been planned well in advance and with their agreement. In effect, the two astronauts hold the record for the duration of a continuous mission aboard the ISS with 355 days. The previous holders, with 340 days, were also a Russian and an American, Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly (from 27 March 2015 to 2 March 2016).
Mark Vande Hei also holds the longest continuous flight by an American, taking the title, logically, from Scott Kelly. The latter, congratulated his compatriot on Twitter on 15 March, on the very day Vande Hei exceeded 340 days.

Mark Vande Hei, having carried out his second mission after a previous 168 days, has a cumulative total of 523 days. Pyotr Dubrov was returning from his first orbital flight.

Flights aboard the ISS which exceed the usual duration of six months, however, are not seeking to establish records. They are carried out because they are of scientific interest in several ways. The main one is to study the impact of a long-term space flight on the human body to prepare missions to the Moon and, above all, Mars. Some effects on health only become apparent beyond the six continuous months which are the norm for the station. Furthermore, an astronaut on mission is, in a way, a model of accelerated ageing, the data collected also being of interest to medicine on Earth!
To conclude, we must remember that Dubrov and Vande Hei’s 355 days remain below the record of Valeri Polyakov with 437 consecutive days aboard the Mir station in 1994/95.