Russia says it will not strand American astronaut in space despite media reports

Last week, a flurry of news reports claimed that Russia was threatening to leave an American astronaut stranded on the International Space Station in retaliation for sanctions imposed on the country as it continues to invade Ukraine. However, Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos is attempting to assuage those fears, stating that the astronaut will be returned to Russia as planned.

Mark Vande Hei, a NASA astronaut, has been stationed on the International Space Station since April 2021. Vande Hei and two cosmonauts were launched to the ISS on a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan. His stay on the ISS was extended to a full year, and he is scheduled to return home on March 30th in another Soyuz capsule. When he returns home, he’ll hold the record for the longest continuous spaceflight by an American astronaut, with a duration of around 353 days.

Last week, rumours circulated that Russia might refuse to bring Vande Hei home on the Soyuz. The source of the confusion was a video posted on March 5th by RIA Novosti, a Russian state news programme, showing Vande Hei on the International Space Station with his fellow Russian cosmonauts. The clip was edited to make it appear as if the Russians were going to abandon him and then detach the Russian portion of the ISS entirely.

However, the seriousness of this “threat” was never certain. The video was shared to Dmitry Rogozin’s Telegram channel, along with a message from RIA Novosti implying that it was a joke. The caption reads, “The Roscosmos television studio jokingly demonstrated the possibility of Russia withdrawing from the ISS project — the undocking of the Russian segment of the station, without which the American part of the project cannot exist.”

However, the video was widely reported in the United States. Several news outlets, including Good Morning America and Fox News, reported that Russia was threatening to abandon Vande Hei. In a new storey from TASS, another of Russia’s state-run media outlets, the country refutes those claims.

“On March 30, US astronaut Mark Vande Hei, Russia’s Anton Shkaplerov, and Pyotr Dubrov will return home in the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft,” Roscosmos said in a statement, according to TASS. All previous Soyuz landings have been in Kazakhstan, so Vande Hei and the rest of his crew are expected to land there as well. Meanwhile, NASA has stated that the US space agency and Roscosmos are continuing to collaborate on the International Space Station and that operations are proceeding normally.

Roscosmos attempted to downplay the controversy in a TASS report debunking Vande Hei’s claims. The corporation’s press service stated, “Roscosmos has never let anyone doubt its reliability as a partner.”

To be fair, determining when to take “joke” space reports from Russian media and Dmitry Rogozin seriously is becoming a challenge for Roscosmos’ partners. Rogozin has been on a Twitter rant over the last few weeks, tweeting a slew of angry statements and memes in response to US and European sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. They’ve ranged from ominous threats — such as when he suggested the ISS crashing down on the US without Russia’s help — to amusing videos, such as this one of a Tom and Jerry cartoon with characters labelled “Ukraine,” “Russia,” and “NATO.”

Rogozin is the head of Russia’s space programme, and what he says on social media can sometimes become policy. On March 2nd, for example, Rogozin tweeted a video of himself issuing a series of conditional demands to Roscosmos customer OneWeb. On March 5th, Roscosmos was scheduled to launch a new batch of satellites for OneWeb from Kazakhstan on a Russian Soyuz rocket, but Rogozin said Russia would not proceed with the launch unless the company guaranteed the satellites would not be used for military purposes and the UK government divested its entire stake in OneWeb. Roscosmos rolled back the Soyuz from the launchpad after the company refused to comply with the demands. The launch never happened.

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