“I hope you know and feel that our nation, our planet, is so thankful to you for your years of dedicated service certainly to our country,” Harris said to Vande Hei in a phone call held on April 6 that was shown in a video that the vice president’s office published online Monday. “Welcome home.”
Vande Hei’s highly anticipated return — in part because of its length — drew even more attention due to mounting geopolitical tensions since Russia’s invasion into Ukraine as he was living with Russian cosmonauts on the International Space Station. Vande Hei returned to Earth with two Russian cosmonauts on a Soviet-era spacecraft.
On Earth, the dynamic between the US and Russia changed quite drastically from when Vande Hei first launched in April 2021 to the space station. Tensions between the US and Russia turned frosty as the Russians were preparing for, and eventually launched, an invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
Ahead of Vande Hei’s return, there were brief concerns that the Russians would abandon the astronaut in space, after Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin shared a heavily edited video showing two Russian cosmonauts floating inside the space station waving goodbye to Vande Hei. NASA has repeatedly reaffirmed that it continues to work closely with Russian space agency Roscosmos.
Last week, Harris — who chairs the National Space Council — announced that the Biden administration would implement a self-imposed ban on anti-satellite weapons tests in an effort to encourage more responsible behavior in space. The move came five months after a successful test of a Russian ground-based missile, which hit a defunct Soviet-era satellite.
The collision created a massive debris cloud of more than 1,500 trackable pieces, according to US Space Command, and threatened the safety of the astronauts on board the International Space Station.
A White House official pointed to the contributions Vande Hei made to while in space and those he will continue to make back on Earth. The official said, “Vande Hei will continue to provide NASA scientists and doctors more information to better understand whether long-term human spaceflight makes astronauts more susceptible to injuries on returning to Earth. Results will also help NASA design protective measures in future spacecraft.”
The astronaut told Harris that he felt the whole experience was a privilege.
“It definitely felt like a privilege to get the opportunity to be up in space that long,” Vande Hei said. “So, thanks to the country for making that a possibility.”
“You were there in search of discovery, in search of science, in search of innovation,” Harris said, asking about how his trip will help astronauts understand what it takes the human body to travel to other planets like the moon and Mars.
“We’ve been on the Moon but we’ve never stayed. We’ve been on board in orbit for more than 20 years, so we know how to stay in space. We do not yet know how to use the resources of another planetary object like the Moon,” Vande Hei said. “My hope is that the record that the team achieved with my flight is something that gets broken pretty quickly as we get better and better at understanding of how to keep a human being healthy and able to function when they get someplace else.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when the call took place. It took place on April 6.
CNN’s Ashley Strickland and Kristin Fisher contributed to this report.