Vande Hei
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei will set a new record for longest American spaceflight because of a six-month extension NASA confirmed Sept. 14. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA confirmed Sept. 14 that one its astronauts, Mark Vande Hei, will remain on the International Space Station until next March, setting an American spaceflight duration record in the process.

The agency announced that Vande Hei, along with Russian cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov, had their six-month stays on the station extended by another six months. The two launched to the station on the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft April 9 along with Oleg Novitskiy.

Ordinarily, the three would have returned together on that spacecraft in October after the launch of a replacement crew on Soyuz MS-19. However, Roscosmos announced earlier this year plans to send director Klim Shipenko and actress Yulia Peresild to the station on that spacecraft, along with cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov.

Shipenko and Peresild will spend nearly two weeks on the station, filming scenes for a movie, before returning on Soyuz MS-18 with Novitskiy. Shkaplerov will remain on the station for a six-month stay, along with the extended missions of Vande Hei and Dubrov.

According to NASA, Vande Hei and Dubrov would return, with Shkaplerov, in March 2022. While NASA did not give an exact return date, Vande Hei tweeted that he expected to spend approximately 353 days in space. The would break the record for the longest spaceflight by an American astronaut: 340 days, set by Scott Kelly on his “one-year” mission to the ISS in 2015–16.

An extended stay, Vande Hei wrote, was “a possibility that I was prepared for from the beginning. The opportunity to experience this with wonderful crewmates while contributing to science and future exploration is exciting!”

Even before the launch, Vande Hei said he was aware of Russian plans to film a movie on the station in October, taking seats that would have been used for him to return home after six months. “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, in his own tweet, offered his appreciation to Vande Hei. “Thank you, Mark, for your dedication to @NASA and research that will prepare humanity for Artemis missions to the Moon and later to Mars!”

The extended stay may give Vande Hei a second chance to perform a spacewalk. He was scheduled to accompany Aki Hoshide on a spacewalk last month to install equipment needed for future solar panel upgrades. However, NASA postponed it because of what it called “a minor medical issue” involving Vande Hei. The agency didn’t elaborate, but Vande Hei later tweeted that he had a pinched nerve in his neck. That spacewalk took place Sept. 12 with Thomas Pesquet taking Vande Hei’s place.

Vande Hei’s longer stay on the station also gives NASA more time to work out a long-term solution for access to Soyuz seats. NASA used a third party, Axiom Space, to acquire the seat for Vande Hei rather than purchasing it directly. Axiom Space bought the seat from Roscosmos and then transferred it to NASA in exchange for a seat on a future commercial crew mission.

NASA has been working with Roscosmos to reach an agreement to exchange seats directly, with Russian cosmonauts flying on commercial crew vehicles in exchange for NASA or other partner astronauts flying on Soyuz. Those discussions are still in progress.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...