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Fact check: Russian space agency head didn't threaten to strand American astronaut

NASA astronaut and Expedition 66 Flight Engineer Mark Vande Hei harvests plants growing for the Veggie PONDS experiment and collects samples for later analysis
NASA astronaut and Expedition 66 Flight Engineer Mark Vande Hei harvests plants growing for the Veggie PONDS experiment and collects samples for later analysis. The space agriculture study explores growing crops in space to sustain crews on missions beyond low-Earth orbit. (Image credit: NASA Johnson)

This week, news outlets (opens in new tab) reported that the head of Russia's Space Agency threatened to leave American astronaut Mark Vande Hei — the record-holder for the longest spaceflight — aboard the International Space Station (ISS) rather than allowing him to return to Earth on a Russian spacecraft. It turns out that the threat isn't true, Ars Technica reported (opens in new tab).

Vande Hei began his mission on April 9, 2021, and is scheduled to return to Earth on March 30, 2022, meaning he will have spent 355 consecutive days in Earth orbit, according to NASA (opens in new tab). The plan is for Vande Hei to land in Kazakhstan along with two Russian cosmonauts, Flight Engineer Pyotr Dubrov and Commander Anton Shkaplerov, aboard the Soyuz MS-19 crew ship, a Russian vessel. 

However, after President Joe Biden instituted new sanctions in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several news outlets reported that Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia's Space Agency, threatened to abandon Vande Hei on the ISS. This claim stems from a video posted Feb. 26 (opens in new tab), which was shared by a Kremlin-aligned publication, RIA Novosti, according to Ars Technica.

Roscosmos TV, the television station of the Russian Federal Space Agency, provided footage for the video but noted that the video was a "joke," Ars Technica reported. The same video also jokingly suggests that Russia might go so far as to detach its portion of the ISS from the American side of the space station, in addition to stranding Vande Hei.

Related: Russian invasion of Ukraine: Live updates 

On Friday (March 11), a NASA spokesperson assured The StarTribune (opens in new tab) that "On March 30, a Soyuz spacecraft will return as scheduled carrying NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov back to Earth." 

And even if Rogozin's threat to leave Vande Hei on the station was legitimate — which it's not — American astronauts Raja Chari, Kayla Barron and Thomas Marshburn, as well as German astronaut Matthias Maurer are all on the ISS, too, Ars Technica reported. So in any case, Vande Hei would be able to catch another ride back to Earth.

Originally published on Live Science.

Nicoletta Lanese
Staff Writer

Nicoletta Lanese is a staff writer for Live Science covering health and medicine, along with an assortment of biology, animal, environment and climate stories. She holds degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her work has appeared in The Scientist Magazine, Science News, The San Jose Mercury News and Mongabay, among other outlets.