Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov handed over "the keys" to the International Space Station today (March 29) as NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei said goodbye to the international space crew.
In a ceremony aboard the orbiting lab that NASA broadcast on a livestream this morning, Shkaplerov formally shifted his command of the station to NASA astronaut Thomas Marshburn. After arriving in October 2021, Shkaplerov is now leaving the station alongside fellow cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei. The trio are set to return to Earth aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule tomorrow (March 30), even as Russia's invasion of Ukraine enters its second month.
"I know you. You're professional, and I know you will [be a] very professional commander of ISS," Shkaplerov told Marshburn during the ceremony, while handing over "the key" to the station.
But Shkaplerov had some lighthearted jokes for the new station commander as well.
In the fall of 2021, Russia's military conducted an anti-satellite missile test against a defunct Soviet satellite. The test obliterated the satellite, creating thousands of pieces of debris. And it took place so close to the orbit of the space station that the crew had to duck for cover in their docked vehicles. No one was hurt during the event, but it was certainly cause for alarm.
"Some satellites tried to kill us but we worked together very hard," Shkaplerov joked to Marshburn during the ceremony today. The comment seemed to draw smiles from the rest of the crew, who floated nearby Shkaplerov and Marshburn during the ceremony.
But Shkaplerov had a more heartfelt sentiment to share as well, which seemed to be a comment on international tensions back on Earth, which are at an all-time-high after Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. International leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden have condemned the invasion, but the space station remains harmonious.
"People have problems on Earth. On orbit we are one crew. I think ISS is a symbol of the friendship and cooperation, like symbol of the future exploration of space," Shkaplerov said as he handed over the keys.
Shkaplerov has served as the commander of Expedition 66 on board the station since Nov. 6 after launching on Oct. 5 alongside Russian film director Klim Shipenko and actor Yulia Pereslid. He will return to Earth tomorrow with Dubrov and Vande Hei, who both arrived at the orbiting laboratory in April.
Vande Hei, who can be seen smiling and clapping during the ceremony in space, will be returning to Earth with the pair aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule. With Russia's war ongoing, there have been questions over whether Vande Hei would make this return aboard a Soyuz or find a U.S. ride home. But it seems as the landing is going forward as planned.
The NASA astronaut will be returning to Earth a record-holder. With this mission, Vande Hei will have beaten the record for longest single spaceflight by an American astronaut. Previously, the record was set at 340 days, but Vande Hei will blow way past that number with a record-breaking 355 days in space.