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'It's beautiful out here' | NASA astronaut returns to Earth after record-breaking spaceflight

Mark Vande Hei broke the record for the longest spaceflight by an American astronaut. The previous record was 340 days by Scott Kelly.

HOUSTON — Wednesday was a big day for NASA as American astronaut Mark Vande Hei returned to Earth.

Vande Hei's capsule was scheduled to touch down in Kazakhstan at 6:28 a.m. Houston time and landed on time in the landing zone.

Overnight, Vande Hei and Russian cosmonauts loaded into a Soyuz capsule to begin the journey back to Earth.

Vande Hei broke the record for the longest single spaceflight by an American astronaut, but there were some major concerns he might not return on time.

Vande Hei returned Wednesday morning in a Russian spacecraft.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, questions surfaced about whether the Russians might leave him on the International Space Station after tensions ramped up between the United States and Russia.

RELATED: No, Russia has not left a U.S. astronaut behind at the International Space Station

To make matters worse, the head of the Russian space agency even made threats about the future of the Russian and U.S. space partnership.

Russia eventually issued an official statement that Vande Hei would be returning to Earth as planned, and NASA said its partnership with the Russian space agency is continuing.

Vande Hei landed in a Soyuz capsule in Kazakhstan alongside the Russian Space Agency’s Pyotr Dubrov, who also spent the past year in space, and Anton Shkaplerov. The wind blew the capsule onto its side following the touchdown, and the trio emerged into the late afternoon sun one by one.

Vande Hei, the last one out, grinned and waved as he was carried to a reclining chair out in the open Kazakh steppes.

“It's beautiful out here,” said Vande Hei, putting on a face mask and ballcap.

Despite escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Vladimir Putin’s war with Ukraine, Vande Hei’s return followed customary procedures. A small NASA team of doctors and other staff was on hand for the touchdown and planned to return immediately to Houston with the 55-year-old astronaut.

Even before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Vande Hei said he was avoiding the subject with his two Russian crewmates. Despite getting along “fantastically ... I’m not sure we really want to go there," he said.

Vande Hei surpassed NASA’s previous record for the longest single spaceflight by 15 days. Dubrov moved into Russia’s top five, well short of the 437-day, 17-hour marathon by a cosmonaut-physician aboard the 1990s Mir space station that remains the world record.

Michelle Choi on social media: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

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