The NASA Artemis rocket, right, with the Orion spacecraft aboard leaves the Vehicle Assembly Building moving slowly on an 11 hour journey to launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday, March 17, 2022. While at the pad the rocket and Orion spacecraft will undergo tests to verify systems and practice countdown procedures. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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01:56 - Source: CNNBusiness

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The three Russian astronauts who boarded the International Space Station last month in spacesuits that echoed the colors of Ukraine’s flag were paying tribute to their university and not protesting Russia’s invasion, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei said Tuesday.

The yellow and blue spacesuits surprised many observers, who assumed the Russians were showing support for Ukraine. However, the three cosmonauts are all graduates of Bauman Moscow State Technical University, which has yellow and blue in its emblem.

Vande Hei said cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov were caught off guard by the controversy over their spacesuits.

“All three of them happened to be associated with the same university, and I think they were kind of blindsided by it,” he said at a press conference.

Vande Hei said he didn’t shy away from discussing the war with his ISS crewmates.

“They weren’t very long discussions, but I did ask them how they were feeling and sometimes asked pointed questions, but our focus was on our mission together.”

Vande Hei landed in Kazakhstan in a Russian Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft on March 30 after a record-breaking 355 days spent in space. He traveled back from the space station with cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov.

Geopolitical tensions

His return from the ISS was highly anticipated and drew unprecedented attention because of mounting geopolitical tensions fueled by Russian space agency chief Dmitry Rogozin, who made several fiery social media posts directed at the United States.

This included Rogozin retweeting a partially animated video that appeared to threaten that Russian astronauts would abandon Vande Hei in space. Rogozin also engaged in a Twitter spat with retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who held the record for the longest stint in space by a US astronaut until Vande Hei surpassed him.

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is carried to a medical tent shortly after he and fellow crew mates Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos landed in their Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft near the town of Zhezkazgan on March 30, 2022 in Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan.

Vande Hei said he heard about the tweets from his wife. “I never perceived those tweets as anything to take seriously,” he said, adding he saw the tweets as aimed at a “different audience” other than him.

“I just didn’t spend a lot of emotional energy paying attention to it. I heard about it. I kind of laughed it off and moved on,” he said.

On Saturday, Rogozin suggested in a series of tweets that Russia might end cooperation with the ISS due to international sanctions on Moscow and said Russia would prepare “concrete proposals to our country’s leadership” on the possibility of ending cooperation at the ISS with the space agencies of the US, Canada, the European Union and Japan.

NASA said, “the professional relationship between our international partners, astronauts and cosmonauts continues for the safety and mission of all on board the ISS.”

Other parts of Russia’s space program have been affected by the war in Ukraine. The country’s Mars rover project with the European Space Agency is on hold.

The Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft is seen as it lands in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan with  Mark Vande Hei of NASA, and Russian cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov, and Anton Shkaplerov Wednesday, March 30.

Russian crewmates ‘dear friends’

Vande Hei declined to reveal how the Russians on board felt about the invasion of Ukraine. “Those are things that I would prefer that they get to share directly rather than me sharing how they feel about it,” he said.

He said the invasion itself was “heartbreaking, very sad” and he felt “powerless” learning about it while living in space. Vande Hei said it didn’t change his feelings about his Russian crewmates.

“They were, are, and will continue to be very dear friends of mine. We supported each other throughout everything. And I never had any concerns about my ability to continue to work with them.”

Upon landing after his record-breaking mission, Vande Hei said he was able to walk after about eight hours, though he said he was wobbly.

He said he was also happy to eat some guacamole for the first time in a year and was shocked at how normal it felt to be back on Earth after so long in space.

“It’s a little disappointing how normal it feels.”

CNN’s Rachel Crane and Ross Levitt contributed to this report.