Mark Vande Hei, one of NASA’s astronauts, will stay on the International Space Station until March of next year, setting a new American spaceflight duration record in the process.
Vande Hei and Russian cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov’s six-month stays on the station have been extended by another six months, according to the agency. Along with Oleg Novitskiy, the two were launched to the station on the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft on April 9.
Normally, after the launch of a replacement crew on Soyuz MS-19 in October, the three would have returned together on that spacecraft. However, Roscosmos announced earlier this year that it would send director Klim Shipenko and actress Yulia Peresild, as well as cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, to the station on that spacecraft.
Shipenko and Peresild will film scenes for a movie on the station for nearly two weeks before returning on the Soyuz MS-18 with Novitskiy. Shkaplerov, along with Vande Hei and Dubrov’s extended missions, will stay on the station for six months.
According to NASA, Vande Hei and Dubrov will return in March 2022 with Shkaplerov. While NASA did not provide an exact return date, Vande Hei tweeted that he expected to be in space for 353 days. Scott Kelly’s “one-year” mission to the International Space Station in 2015–16 set the record for the longest spaceflight by an American astronaut at 340 days.
“An extended stay was a possibility that I was prepared for from the beginning,” Vande Hei wrote. It’s a dream come true to be able to do this with such wonderful crewmates while also contributing to science and future exploration!”
Vande Hei said he was aware of Russian plans to film a movie on the station in October, which would have taken seats that would have been used for him to return home after six months, even before the launch. “Honestly, for me it’s just an opportunity for a new life experience. I’ve never been in space longer than six months,” he said in a preflight briefing in March.
Nelson expressed his gratitude to Vande Hei in a tweet of his own. “Thank you, Mark, for your dedication to @NASA and research that will prepare humanity for Artemis missions to the Moon and, later, Mars!”
Vande Hei may be given a second chance to perform a spacewalk as a result of his extended stay. Last year, he was supposed to go on a spacewalk with Aki Hoshide.
That being said, NASA had to postpone it due to a “minor medical issue” involving Vande Hei. The agency provided no further details, but Vande Hei later tweeted that he was suffering from a pinched nerve in his neck. Thomas Pesquet took the place of Vande Hei on that spacewalk, which took place on Sept. 12.
Vande Hei’s extended stay on the station gives NASA more time to figure out a long-term solution for Soyuz seat access. Rather than purchasing the seat directly, NASA enlisted the help of a third party, Axiom Space. Axiom Space purchased the seat from Roscosmos and then traded it to NASA for a spot on a future commercial crew mission.
NASA and Roscosmos have been negotiating a direct seat exchange, with Russian cosmonauts flying on commercial crew vehicles in exchange for NASA or other partner astronauts flying on Soyuz. Those conversations are still ongoing.