As NASA seeks their next mission, Russia holds the trump card: access to the International Space Station.

Mastracchio’s unglamorous return home last week in a Soyuz capsule has been described by some veteran astronauts as akin to going over Niagara Falls, in a barrel, on fire.

Around the world, in Houston, mission control could only watch for critical signs of success, such as parachute deployment, listen to Russian flight directors and review the data being relayed from Kazakhstan.

When he finally reached the ground Mastracchio remained far from home, but at least it was spring, and the landing spot on. All Soyuz astronauts undergo two nights of winter survival training in case their spacecraft landing goes awry, and they’re stranded in the central Asian hinterlands for a couple of days. It’s a far cry from the handshake with the NASA administrator on a sunny Florida runway that awaited most shuttle astronauts.

Published: May 18, 2014
Length: 11 minutes (2,923 words)