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US astronaut returns to Earth with Russian cosmonauts

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The flight carrying NASA’s Mark Vande Hei and Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov back to Earth had been closely watched to determine whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine crisis had soured relations in the joint space programme.

Russian space agency Roscosmos broadcast footage of the landing from the Kazakh steppe and said a group of technical and medical specialists had been dispatched to help the astronauts out of the capsule.

“The crew is feeling good after landing, according to rescuers,” Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin wrote on Telegram messenger.

Mr Vande Hei, who had completed his second ISS mission, logged a US space-endurance record of 355 consecutive days in orbit, surpassing the previous 340-day record set by astronaut Scott Kelly in 2016, according to NASA.

Mr Vande Hei, 55, smiled and waved as rescuers removed him from the capsule and medics checked his vital signs.

“Mark’s mission is not only record-breaking, but also paving the way for future human explorers on the Moon, Mars, and beyond,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.

The all-time record for the longest single stay in space was set by Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, who spent more than 14 months aboard the Mir space station, returning to Earth in 1995.

It was the first space flight for Mr Dubrov, 40, who was launched to the ISS with Mr Vande Hei last April from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Mr Shkaplerov, 50, who was ending his rotation as the latest ISS commander, is a veteran of four missions to the orbital outpost, accumulating 708 total days in space, far exceeding Mr Vande Hei’s 523-day career tally, according to NASA.

Mr Shkaplerov began his latest space station stint last October.

Announcing US economic sanctions against Russia on February 24 US President Joe Biden ordered high-tech export restrictions against Russia that he said were designed to “degrade” its aerospace industry, including its space programme.

Mr Rogozin of Roscosmos had then lashed out in a series of Twitter posts suggesting the U.S. sanctions could “destroy” ISS teamwork and lead to the space station falling out of orbit.

The following week, state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti posted a video spoof depicting cosmonauts waving farewell to Mr Vande Hei before Russia’s ISS module detaches from the space station and flies away without him to the applause of Russian officials at mission control, leaving the rest of the station sinking lower in orbit.

The clip, described by RIA Novosti as “comic,” plays out to the Russian-language love ballad “Goodbye,” by Russian vocalist Lev Leshchenko.

At about the same time, Mr Rogozin announced that Russia would stop supplying or servicing Russian-made rocket engines used by two US aerospace NASA suppliers, suggesting U astronauts could use “broomsticks” to get to orbit.

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