Image released by the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos of the Soyuz MS-1 capsule landing in Kazakhstan with two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut on board, March 30, 2022 (Russian Space Agency Roscosmos/Handout)
A Soyuz spacecraft brought two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut back to Earth from the International Space Station on Wednesday, a rare example of Washington-Moscow cooperation amid tensions over Ukraine.
The Soyuz MS-19 capsule, aboard Russians Anton Chkaplérov and Piotr Doubrov, as well as American Mark Vande Hei, landed as scheduled at 11:28 a.m. GMT in southeastern Kazakhstan, according to images broadcast by the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
Three helicopters landed immediately next to the craft to pick up the passengers returning from space.
After being dragged from the capsule by several men, Mr. Chkaplerov gave his thumbs up to indicate that he was fine, with a broad smile.
“The descent to a low runway and landing was smooth, the crew is in good health,” Roscosmos said in a statement.
The two Russian cosmonauts will be transported aboard a special plane to a Russian base in the Moscow region to readjust to life on Earth, a process that will take several weeks, the space agency added.
Astronaut Vande Hei will “depart on a NASA plane to Cologne, Germany, to refuel (from the device) before returning home,” the US space agency said in a press release.
Russian cosmonaut Anton Chkaplerov after the Soyuz MS-19 capsule landing on March 30, 2022 near Yezkazgan, Kazakhstan (NASA/Bill INGALLS)
This trip comes in a context of strong tensions surrounding Ukraine between Russia and Western countries, led by the United States, which have questioned several space cooperation projects.
In early March, Roscosmos had published a video jokingly saying that Mark Vande Hei could stay on the ISS instead of returning with the Soyuz spacecraft. Faced with the concerns of the Americans, the Russian agency then had to ensure that the astronaut would indeed travel.
Mark Vande Hei holds the record for consecutive days spent in space by an American astronaut, with 355 days.
US astronaut Mark Vande Hei after the Soyuz MS-19 capsule landing near Yezkazgan on March 30, 2022 in Kazakhstan (NASA/Bill INGALLS)
In this context of tensions, Roscosmos boss Dmitry Rogozin, who multiplies nationalist statements on social networks, confirmed in mid-March that the operation of the Russian ships supplying the ISS will be disrupted by Western sanctions against Moscow in connection with the invasion of Ukraine.
According to him, it could even cause the ISS to “ditch or land”.
Space cooperation between Russia and Western countries has been one of the few areas that has not suffered too much from the tensions that have increased since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
But in recent weeks, several cooperation projects have been hit hardest by the crisis surrounding Ukraine.
Graphical representation of the 2 Russian cosmonauts and the American astronaut returning to Earth on March 30 and those remaining in the International Space Station (ISS) (AFP/)
For example, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced in mid-March that it had suspended the Russian-European ExoMars mission and the search for alternatives to launch four other missions because of the offensive in Ukraine.
And for its part, Moscow has suspended the launch of OneWeb satellites, forcing the British operator to turn to billionaire Elon Musk’s American company SpaceX.