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Men With Missions: The Year-Long ISS Trailblazers

Pictured shortly before the launch of the Expedition 23-24 crew in April 2010, Scott Kelly (back left) and Mikhail Kornienko (front right) had already worked extensively together as backup and prime team members. Photo Credit: NASA

Monday’s announcement of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko as prime candidates for the long-awaited year-long expedition to the International Space Station is exciting on many levels. For the United States, it marks a clear leap forward in terms of space endurance, and by the time Kelly returns to Earth in early 2016 he will have accrued a cumulative 540 days—about 18 months—of his life off the planet, more than any other American in history. And although Russia has done year-long (and longer) missions in the past, this expedition will be their first such voyage in almost two decades…and the first ever to be undertaken aboard the ISS. But more importantly in a true sign of how “international” the ISS has become, this joint expedition between two old foes would have been unimaginable a mere quarter of a century ago. The men who will fly the mission both served in their respective militaries—Kelly as a Navy aviator, Kornienko as an Army paratrooper—but are a true embodiment of what The Partnership has become.

In fact, Scott Joseph Kelly retired from the US Navy and his rank of Captain in June 2012, after 25 years of service, and presently remains employed by NASA as a civilian. He was born in Orange, N.J., on 21 February 1964, one of two identical twin brothers who would both be selected as astronauts not long after their 32nd birthdays. Describing his relationship with his brother, Mark—who flew four Shuttle missions and commanded last year’s final flight of Endeavour—Scott Kelly admitted to a NASA interviewer that “we are competitive people and have been competitive our whole lives, in sports. However, we don’t seem to be very competitive amongst ourselves. We certainly encourage each other to do our best, but if one person is better at certain things than others, it’s really not a big deal to us.” As circumstances transpired, Scott became the first of the siblings to venture into orbit, as pilot of the STS-103 mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope in December 1999, and also became the first to secure command positions: leading both a Shuttle flight and an International Space Station expedition.

He graduated from high school in his hometown in 1982 and entered the State University of New York Maritime College, earning a degree in electrical engineering. In May 1987, Kelly received his naval commission and was designated a naval aviator two years later at Naval Air Station Beeville in Texas. “I decided I wanted to become a Navy pilot because I wanted to land high-performance jets on aircraft carriers,” he told the NASA interviewer in the weeks before his STS-103 mission, “and the bottom line is that the only place you can do that is the United States Navy.” Initial training in the F-14 Tomcat was followed by an assignment to the VF-143 fighter squadron—“the world-famous Pukin’ Dogs,” according to Kelly—and deployments to the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Early in 1993, Kelly was selected for the Navy’s test pilot school at Patuxent River, Md., and upon graduation in June of the following year he undertook test work on both the F-14 and the F/A-18 Hornet. During this period, he became the first pilot to fly the Tomcat with experimental digital flight controls and performed high-angle-of-attack and departure evaluations of the aircraft.

Kelly earned his master’s degree in aviation systems from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 1996, the same year that both he and Mark were accepted by NASA—on their first application—as astronaut candidates. “I think being an astronaut became tangible for me when I was working as a test pilot in Pax River,” he told a NASA interviewer whilst training for his second Shuttle mission, STS-118, in August 2007. “The commanders and pilots of the Shuttle are typically military or former military test pilots, so having had that background kinda made it much more likely that I would be considered for the job.” Yet by his own admission, it was not until very close to the time when he was accepted that Kelly realised that the job of Astronaut was something that he could really achieve. It was no longer a far-off, abstract goal, but it was far from easy. “Timing and preparation and luck aligned for me to get an interview,” he explained, “and then get selected.”

Scott Kelly will become the first American to spend three Christmases in orbit. He flew aboard STS-103—the only occasion on which a Shuttle has been in space on Christmas Day—in 1999 and was in command of the International Space Station over the festive period in 2010. His year-long expedition in 2015-16 is also expected to oblige him to spend the holidays away from family and friends. Photo Credit: NASA

After selection, Kelly underwent extensive instruction in Shuttle and ISS systems and in March 1999 was assigned to his first flight, as pilot of STS-103. This mission was originally scheduled for June 2000 and would have involved a record-breaking six EVAs by astronauts Steve Smith, John Grunsfeld, Mike Foale, and Claude Nicollier to extend and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope’s capabilities. Unfortunately, in early 1999 the telescope suffered multiple failures of its critical gyroscopes and flight rules dictated that a ‘call-up’ repair mission should be considered in such an eventuality. Launch was moved forward to October 1999, but eventually slipped until December. Whilst other Shuttle crews typically trained for more than a year, Kelly found himself preparing for his first flight…in only a few months. The mission was spectacularly successful and became the only Shuttle flight to take place over the Christmas period.

Shortly after his return from STS-103, Kelly was named as NASA’s Director of Operations in Russia, a position which called for him to exercise oversight of the astronauts in Star City who were preparing for the first expeditions to the International Space Station. In March 2001, he was assigned as Peggy Whitson’s backup on Expedition 5 and in September 2002 he commanded NASA’s fourth Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO-4) undersea training mission in the Aquarius facility. (He also served aboard NEEMO-8 in April 2005.) Then, just six weeks before the Columbia tragedy, Kelly became the first pilot from the 1996 astronaut class to draw a command position. He would lead Columbia’s STS-118 crew into space in November 2003 to attach a new starboard truss segment. Although the mission was indefinitely suspended in the wake of the disaster, Kelly and most of his crew remained intact and went on to fly STS-118 (albeit on Endeavour) in August 2007.

As a crew commander, Kelly placed specific emphasis upon ensuring that both himself and the members of his team were adequately trained to handle virtually any contingency. “I think the greatest challenge in working on one of these flights,” he told the NASA interviewer, “is making sure that we get trained to an appropriate level to do the mission. There’s so many different complicated tasks we have to do, so making sure that everyone is at the right level of training is certainly the most challenging aspect of it.” Another facet of Kelly’s leadership style came in a subsequent interview, prior to Expedition 25/26: “My primary thing that I look forward to,” he said, “is having a very safe and successful mission and the feeling of satisfaction you get from working at something that’s very, very hard and being successful at it.”

Three years after STS-118, in October 2010, Kelly and cosmonauts Aleksandr Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka launched aboard a Soyuz spacecraft from Baikonur in Kazakhstan, bound for the space station. They spent several weeks with the outgoing Expedition 25 crew of Doug Wheelock, Fyodor Yurchikhin, and Shannon Walker, and upon their departure in November Kelly took formal command of the multi-national outpost and Expedition 26 got underway. The following months were filled with success and trauma: in January 2011, his sister-in-law, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in Tucson during an attempted assassination, but Kelly’s crew—now bolstered by three new additions, Dmitri Kondratiev, Catherine ‘Cady’ Coleman, and Paolo Nespoli—pressed on with their mission. They oversaw the final voyage of Space Shuttle Discovery, the arrival of the final permanent module on the US Segment, and a delivery from Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle. Kelly, Kaleri, and Skripochka returned to Earth in mid-March 2011, after 159 days aloft. Taking into account his time on STS-103 and STS-118, Kelly had accrued a total of 180 days in space.

Kelly’s identical twin, Mark, had maintained his own stellar astronaut career and, for a time, there was some hope that as commander of STS-134 the two brothers might meet up in orbit for a unique handshake. Alas, due to Shuttle launch delays, this was not to be and Mark Kelly’s final space voyage took place in May 2011, eight weeks after Scott’s return. Mark retired from NASA later that year, but when asked about his next level of challenge Scott told a NASA interviewer that he intended to stick around and fly again. That intention, which he said was based upon the presumption of whether “the opportunity presents itself”, seems now to have been accomplished. “I look forward to getting to spend more than just a few weeks and getting comfortable enough to feel I’m actually a resident of the cosmos,” he explained, “rather than just a visitor.”

Mikhail Kornienko, wearing a shirt to honour Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, will play his own part in extending humanity’s horizons beyond Earth orbit. Launched in April 2010, Kornienko was in space on the 49th anniversary of Gagarin’s mission. Photo Credit: NASA

In several ways, Mikhail Borisovich Kornienko shares a number of parallels with Scott Kelly, which seems surprising when one considers that their respective armed forces were on the brink of outright conflict a handful of decades ago. Raised in the city of Syzran in Kuibishev Oblast of western Russia, on the banks of the mighty River Volga, Kornienko’s military bearing undoubtedly came from his helicopter rescue pilot father, who died in an aircraft crash in 1965. The young Kornienko, born on 15 April 1960, was only five years old at the time. “His helicopter crew were over a small city,” he told the NASA interviewer, “and they were on fire. They could not land and the helicopter exploded. I tried to go there every day to lay flowers on the site. There were six people in that crew that perished.”

Much of Kornienko’s childhood was spent with his grandmother and, later, with his mother and brother in Chelyubinsk, a city on the very border of Europe and Asia, to the east of the Ural Mountains. Whilst studying there, he had the opportunity to take a parachute jump. “I was about 16 at the time,” Kornienko reflected, “and it made quite an impression on me to do a parachute jump.” After his early schooling, he worked at a radio equipment plant and in May 1978 joined the Soviet Army. He became a paratrooper, served in Azerbaijan, and completed his military service as a Junior Sergeant in May 1980, but remained a member of the Moscow Militia until 1986.

It was at this stage in Kornienko’s life that his paths changed. He attended evening classes at the Moscow Aviation Institute and graduated in 1987 as a mechanical engineer, specialising in liquid-propelled rocket engine design. A career in the space programme beckoned and during the tumultuous years surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union he worked at Baikonur as a launch equipment specialist and later for several commercial companies. During this period, he worked under Vladimir Barmin, a contemporary of the legendary Sergei Korolev. Late in 1995 Kornienko joined the Energia Corporation as an engineer, participating in EVA trials, and in February 1998 was selected as a cosmonaut candidate. In the following years, he served on the backup crews for Expedition 8 and Expedition 15, but unenviably waited more than a decade for his first space mission.

In April 2010 he launched from Baikonur aboard a Soyuz spacecraft, shoulder to shoulder with fellow cosmonaut Aleksandr Skvortsov and NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell-Dyson, for Expedition 23-24, which ran for almost six months. Halfway through the mission, he and crewmate Fyodor Yurchikhin performed a six-and-a-half-hour EVA to ready the newly-arrived Rassvet Mini-Research Module for its future role supporting the docking of Soyuz and Progress vehicles. Kornienko and his crewmates landed safely in Kazakhstan in late September 2010 after a 176-day mission. Kornienko was awe-struck by his experience of living away from Earth. However, he missed the sights and scents of home. “I missed trees,” he told an audience upon his return home. “I even dreamt of them; I even hallucinated. I thought I smelled a real fire and something being barbecued on it! I ended up putting pictures of trees on the walls to cheer up. You do miss the Earth there.”

Both Kelly and Kornienko are not alone in highlighting the importance of their work as a means of advancing humanity beyond its present horizon of low-Earth orbit. During Expeditions 23-24, Kornienko participated in many experiments in life sciences, with the primary goal of understanding the effects of the microgravity environment upon the human organism over long periods of time. Yet the International Space Station offers something more than that. “It’s a priceless experiment in international co-operation,” said Kornienko. “We are learning to work together and in my opinion the next step is interplanetary exploration of space, the Moon, or Mars.”

In his NASA interview, before launching on Expeditions 23-24, Kornienko paraphrased his countryman Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. More than a century ago, the work of this humble Russian schoolmaster achieved something which has today bestowed upon him recognition as the father of modern cosmonautics. The Earth, said Tsiolkovsky, is the cradle of humanity…but humanity cannot remain in the cradle forever. We humans are already taking those first tentative steps to remove ourselves from the cradle and Kelly and Kornienko will do so for an entire year of their mortal lives.

Many criticise the slowpoke pace at which various governments pursue space exploration with humans, but five decades is a tiny period of time when one considers the enormous expense, risk, and physical, psychological, and technical demands involved. Australia was sighted by the Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon in 1606, but no real attempt at permanent European settlement was made until the latter half of the 18th century, more than 150 years later. By contrast, in a mere third of that span, we have gone from launching the first of our kind into the heavens, to walking in space, to bringing ships together in space, to walking on the Moon…and, with the trailblazing steps of Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko and those who follow them, hopefully to walking on Mars, too, in our lifetimes.

Missions » ISS »

9 comments to Men With Missions: The Year-Long ISS Trailblazers

  • Karol

    The Kelly brothers are without question, sterling examples of some of the best and brightest that America can produce. It should make each and every American proud to know that individuals of such intelligence, courage, and character can accomplish such incredible achievements. They overcame every challenge before them, and emerged victorious. I am also grateful for the victory of Mark Kelly over prostate cancer, and that Scott, his twin, knowing the genetic propensity of this killer, took appropriate measures. My Father says that my Grandfather was a great guy who would be very proud of his Grandson working so hard in his studies to become an aerospace engineer. Unfortunately, I’ll never hear that from him as he passed away far to young because he didn’t want to get a PSA and a DRE. No one enjoys invasive physical tests, but everyone cannot become a “rocket scientist” and you AmericaSpace readers are too valuable to lose. Please, get the damn tests! If not for yourself, then for someone who will miss you.

    • Leonidas

      Karol, I’d like to give you my heartfelt condolences about the loss of your grandfather. I’ve been there, losing a family member and I can understand how it feels like.

      With kind regards…

  • Leonidas

    Ben, I so much want to share your optimism about the future of the space program. I didn’t know that nearly 150 years have passed from the first European voyages to Australia to the permanent settlement there. Sometimes I’m hopeful, others I feel like manned spaceflight faces a closing window (it depends on the mood of the day I guess!)

    • Karol

      Leonides, I believe that you Ben, Jason, Tom and others are optimists at heart. Like Ben, I too hope that men will walk the surface of Mars in our lifetimes. (I’d also like to see men walking the surface of the Moon again soon, but that’s another battle). Space exploration WILL happen, when and under what flag(s) is yet to be determined. It is encouraging to remember that there are individuals alive today who heard the “Beep . . . beep . . . beep” of Sputnik AND the song by Will I. Am sent to Earth by Curiosity on Mars. Keep fighting the good fight Leonides, hopefully the “history making news” about what Curiosity has found on Mars that will be disclosed next week will help pry that closing window wide open! :-)

      • Leonidas

        Karol you’re right, I’m an optimist at heart! But sometimes it feels that the world is taking it all away…

        And have I ever said I’m grateful to be able to talk with people such as you?

        • Karol

          So too will I always be grateful to AmericaSpace, Jim Hillhouse,and Jason Rhian for providing a venue whereby I can avail myself of the “tuition-free education” provided by individuals such as Jim, Jason, Ben, Amy, and others who are so obviously, yet so unassumingly, much more learned than I. I am also grateful to AmericaSpace for providing the means by which I can “meet” kindred souls such as yourself Leonides, hopeless optimists who look to the stars and whisper “someday”. I thoroughly enjoy your posts Leonides, and share your passion for NASA space exploration. Where else but AmericaSpace could someone in Greece share his enthusiasm for space exploration with someone in the American mid-west? This is what the Internet SHOULD be, creating and fostering world-wide discourse amongst individuals who will never otherwise meet, in some small way laying to rest the situation faced in Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”, in which individuals who had much in common never met, with unfortunate consequences for both. Thank you very much to all those who make AmericaSpace possible, PLEASE continue the GREAT work! Best wishes always Leonides!

          • Leonidas

            It seems that while we’re a couple of days late, we shared a bit of Thanksgiving! :) And it’s well worth it, to stop for a moment during the day and count our blessings :)

            You put it perfectly and I don’t have anything more to add to it. It may seem trivial, but for me it’s so important to share this ‘melding’ of minds with such wonderful people. How could that be possible without the Intenet? And that’s what it was supposed to be like!

            You know, there aren’t a lot of things to make me feel hopeful about the present and the future, living in a country where the unemployemnt rate has exceeded 25%, where millions like myself are unemployed for so many months and are on the brink of foreclosure. Where they have forgotten how it feels to be productive, and where ‘hope’ is an unknown word.

            In this barren landscape, as silly as it may sound, I experience joy and optimism from my life-long passions, the biggest one of which, being astronomy and space exploration. It’s a type of ‘calling’ I had since the age of 8. And has always provided me with optimism and inspiration.

            “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
            – Oscar Wilde

  • [...] Sergei Volkov. Kelly and Kornienko will fly to the station in March 2015 and will stage the first year-long mission aboard the ISS, whilst Volkov will join them in September-October and accompany them until the [...]