NASA Astronauts Return To Earth Amid Tensions Between US,Russia In Space

WASHINGTON — Two American as­tronauts and a Russian cosmonaut re­turned to Earth on Thursday wrapping up a six-month mission at the Inter­national Space Station as tensions be­tween Washington and Moscow threat­en a rare area of cooperation.

NASA astronauts Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold and Oleg Artemyev of Roscosmos touched down on steppe land southeast of the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan at the expected time of 1145 GMT.

The landing came with Russian and US officials investigating the appearance of a mysterious hole in a Russian space craft docked at the orbiting station.

Detected in August, the hole caused an air leak on the ISS but was quickly sealed up.

This week the outspoken chief of the Russian space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, said investigators believed the small hole had been made deliberately and was not a manufacturing defect.

The official, who was placed under US sanctions over the Ukraine crisis in 2014, also bemoaned “problems” in the Russian space agency’s cooperation with NASA that he attributed to interference from unnamed American officials.

Last month the Russian daily Kom­mersant reported that an investigation had probed the possibility that US as­tronauts deliberately drilled the hole in order to get a sick colleague sent back home — something Russian offi­cials later denied.

ISS commander Feustel has called the suggestion that the crew was somehow involved “embarrassing” and NASA on Wednesday expressed doubts over the the­ory that the hole was the result of sabotage.

The US space agency said that rul­ing out defects “does not necessarily mean the hole was created intention­ally or with mal-intent.”

ISS astronauts are planning a spacewalk in November to gather more information on the hole.

The ISS is one of the few areas of tight Russia-US cooperation that had until now remained unaffected by the slump in ties, including after Wash­ington’s sanctions against Russia over Ukraine and other crises.

Earlier the ISS hosted the usual emotional goodbyes as the returning trio left Alexander Gerst of the Europe­an Space Agency, NASA’s Serena Au­ñón-Chancellor and Roscosmos’ Sergey Prokopyev waiting for the next three-person crew’s arrival.

The next launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is sched­uled for next Thursda

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