U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris called NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei earlier this month to congratulate him on his record-breaking space mission.
Vande Hei returned to Earth on March 30 after spending 355 straight days on the International Space Station (ISS) — the longest continuous spaceflight by an American astronaut to date.
Vande Hei's mission "really puts us on the path of understanding what travel to Mars would require of a human being," Harris told the astronaut on April 6, during a call she made from the West Wing of the White House. NASA released a video (opens in new tab) of the conversation on Monday (April 25).
"You were there in search of discovery, in search of science, in search of innovation," Harris added. "I'm hoping you might be able to talk a little bit about how that's going to benefit folks on Earth."
Vande Hei spoke of a few NASA experiments studying fire and the immune system that could have applications here on Earth. Regarding his space record, the astronaut added he hopes the mark will be broken soon; a round-trip crewed voyage to Mars would likely exceed his one-year mark in space nearly twofold.
The challenge of deep space exploration, Vande Hei said, is getting a "better understanding of how to keep a human being healthy, and able to function, when they get someplace else."
Within the first hour of landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan, Vande Hei recalled of his March 30 return to Earth, a medical team was doing some tests "to see what kind of capabilities I had before getting any medical attention." (Vande Hei did not elaborate on the testing, which typically includes basic trials such as moving from sitting to standing positions (opens in new tab) to assess how astronauts cope with living in gravity again.)
The testing is important in future space mission planning, he said: "When they [future astronauts] get to Mars, they're not going to have a medical staff waiting for them."
The vice president and NASA astronaut spent several minutes chatting about science experiments, moon travel and Mars, but the video of their remarks did not touch upon the space security subjects Harris has been working on lately.
For example, earlier this month, Harris — who chairs the National Space Council — announced a U.S. pledge not to conduct destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) tests. This decree was at least in part a response to Russia (a partner on the International Space Station) creating a cloud of debris with an ASAT test in November 2021, during Vande Hei's mission. Vande Hei and his crewmates had to shelter in place when the debris came close to the ISS.
The two also left aside discussion of Russia in general; numerous space collaborations have splintered after that country invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. For a while, rumors (based on a satirical Russian news video) spread that this situation would disrupt Vande Hei's plans to leave the ISS on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
NASA kept reassuring the public that the space station partnership with Russia and its space agency, Roscosmos, were proceeding normally. True to the U.S. agency's word, the landing proceeded without incident.
Vande Hei emphasized the importance of NASA's Artemis program, which now has 17 nations signed on in a peaceful pact to explore the moon later in the decade. (Russia is not one of the signatories.) NASA and the U.S. State Department have said the accords are meant to guide peaceful practices and behaviors in civil space generally, not just on and around the moon.
With Artemis, NASA plans to land people on the lunar surface in the mid-2020s and establish a permanent human presence there by the end of the decade.
"I really am looking forward to a time when we've got continuous human presence on another planetary object," Vande Hei said. Landing humans on the moon again will not only be a "huge leap for humanity" but will also "give us a tremendous amount of knowledge about how to survive on Mars," he added.
Previous to Vande Hei, Harris conducted calls with three NASA astronauts in space, according to the White House. She talked with Victor Glover (opens in new tab) and a held a three-way conversation with Shannon Walker and Kate Rubins (opens in new tab).