With only 10 weeks remaining until their launch aboard Soyuz TMA-16M to the International Space Station (ISS), U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Gennadi Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko spoke with candor, excitement, and humor at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, on Thursday, 15 January, about their respective roles on the first One-Year Mission of the 21st century. The three fiftysomethings—who have a combined age of 160, as well as boasting a total of eight previous spaceflights, eight EVAs, and a cumulative 1,066 days in orbit between them—are currently scheduled to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 2:42 a.m. local time on 27 March (3:42 p.m. EST on the 26th). Although Kelly and Kornienko will remain aloft until early March 2016, Padalka will return to Earth in September and be replaced for the second half of the One-Year Mission by fellow cosmonaut Sergei Volkov.
As described in a recent AmericaSpace article, Padalka, Kelly, and Kornienko will all position themselves highly on the list of the most experienced spacefarers of all time when their respective missions end. Padalka is presently the world’s fourth most seasoned astronaut or cosmonaut, with more than 710 days, spread across four flights to Russia’s Mir orbital outpost and the ISS. Five weeks after he launches aboard Soyuz TMA-16M, he will enter third place, then second place about three weeks after that, and finally—on 28 June—will seize the crown from incumbent record-holder Sergei Krikalev as he surpasses a career total of 803 days. By the time Padalka returns to Earth in mid-September, he will have logged a grand total of 878 days in orbit, which represents about 2.4 years of his life. He is expected to retain this record through at least the first half of 2017.
Thursday’s press conference began with a specific focus upon Padalka, whom Kelly described as “the most important guy on our flight, because he’s our Soyuz commander, he’s the space station commander for Expedition 44 and on this flight he’ll break the record for the longest duration of any human ever to stay in space.” He noted that the “One-Year Crew” moniker is not entirely accurate, in view of Padalka remaining aboard the ISS for half of that period, but the veteran cosmonaut creates a tangible link between past and present. His first mission, to Mir, between August 1998 and February 1999, was flown in the company of fellow cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev, the most recent human to have embarked on a voyage of more than a year.
Although four Russians—Avdeyev, Vladimir Titov, Musa Manarov, and Valeri Polyakov—have each spent a continuous period of more than 365 days in orbit, their flights were made in the 1980s and 1990s, when medical technology was not as advanced as it is today to examine or mitigate the effects of microgravity on the body. Throughout the majority of the Mir era, and into the ISS era, most crews have spent no longer than about six months in orbit. “I’m hopeful that there’s not a big cliff out there,” Kelly remarked, with regard to the physiological and psychological unknowns of ultra-long-duration spaceflight. He stressed that on a standard, six-month mission it was typical for crews to have accomplished their primary goals and feel ready to come home during Month Four, about two-thirds of the way through their flight. He and Padalka were broadly in agreement that this was about the optimum time to be mentally prepared to come home, although for Kelly and Kornienko they will have far longer to remain in orbit. “Hopefully that’s a Two-Thirds phenomenon,” Kelly joked, “and not a Four-Month phenomenon!”
For Kelly, the records will fall like ninepins throughout his 12 months in space. In mid-October, he will pass fellow NASA astronaut Mike Fincke as the most experienced U.S. spacefarer, with over 381 days of combined time, spread across four missions, and by the end of that same month he will have passed Mike Lopez-Alegria’s 215-day achievement for the longest single U.S. mission. When Kelly and Kornienko return home in March 2016, after a mission of 342 days, they will both have about 540 days of cumulative time in space (some 18 months) which will place both men in the Top Twenty most experienced spacefarers in history. It will also make Kelly by far the most seasoned U.S. astronaut. Two other U.S. astronauts currently in training for ISS missions—Jeff Williams on Expedition 47/48 in March-September 2016 and Peggy Whitson on Expedition 50/51 in November 2016-May 2017—are expected to approach Kelly’s record, but whether either of them will surpass it remains to be seen.
Asked about how he spent his free time during his previous long-duration ISS flight—the six-month Expedition 25/26 between October 2010 and March 2011—Kelly explained that he read books and watched movies, but that almost an entire year away from the Home Planet will pose a new challenge. “It hasn’t escaped me that I’ll watch a whole baseball season, which is very long, and a whole football season, and then part of basketball and hockey,” he told his audience. “Sometimes those seem to go on for more than a year, because they’re so long.” However, he also intends to keep a personal journal of his experience, as well as participating in an experiment, dubbed “Journals,” in which he will share his year with investigators to understand his psychological changes during that time. Kelly noted that he considers himself to be a “very direct” individual, but that he expects to be highly transparent and honest in his journals, thereby assisting the training of future crews.
He was also pressed as to which milestones he will mark during the long mission. One series of high points for Kelly will be the arrival and departure of respective crews, and, indeed, he and Kornienko will greet or bid farewell to 13 individuals—in addition to Padalka, these include U.S. astronauts, Russian cosmonauts, Japanese, Italians, British, and Danish spacefarers, and English soprano Sarah Brightman—during their time aloft. Questioned as to which of them would sing with Brightman, Padalka replied with a twinkle in his eye: “All of us!” Perhaps offering a nod to the singing prowess of the crew, Kelly then humorously added, “Or none of us!”
With regard to what they intend to carry with them into space, Kelly was philosophical; he felt little personal need to take mementoes, but will be accompanied with family items, as will his crewmates. “I do have a lucky charm,” explained Padalka. “It’s a snowman. I’ve taken it with me on my last three flights. My youngest daughter gave it to me, so I’ll take it along this time as well.” All three men acquiesced that they have access to the internet and Twitter, as well as regular videoconferences and telephone calls from their families, but Kornienko described himself as “more traditional.” He intends to carry a photograph of his deceased parents and his own family in his keepsakes. “They flew with me on my first flight,” he said of his Expedition 23/24 mission in April-September 2010, “and they’ll be coming back again.”
Although all three men exhibited a fondness for the continuous temperature and humidity environment, and general comfort, of the ISS, it was obvious that, for the most part, they missed home during the time in orbit. Kelly jokingly likened the unchanging environment aboard the outpost to Southern California, but remembered longing to feel rain on his face when he returned from Expedition 25/26. Unfortunately, when he returned to Houston in the late spring of 2011, he was greeted by drought-like conditions and the rain held off for several months. For his part, Kornienko paid tribute to the poignant lyrics of the Soviet-era song, “Grass by the Home.” “Our dreams are not those of the space launch’s roar, nor of the ice-blue of Outer Space,” sang the band Zemlyane (“Earthlings”) in 1983, in a hit which has since officially become the first anthem of Russia’s cosmonaut corps. “We dream of the grass by our home, that green, green grass.” Kornienko’s moment of calm reflection was destroyed in a perfectly timed humorous response from Padalka: “Actually, I don’t miss anything on Earth,” he joked, “and that’s why I plan to fly for the fifth time, so that I can finally get to miss something!”
Humor aside, all three men were keenly aware of the seriousness of living and working aboard the ISS, as exemplified in last week’s false alarm, which required the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) crew of Expedition 42 to move over to the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and close hatches for several hours as a precautionary measure. Padalka praised the professionalism of the U.S. and Russian training teams and explained that the final exams for his own crew to handle off-nominal events—including fires, ammonia leaks, and depressurization—are scheduled to take place next week. “We’re ready!” Padalka told the audience, and Kelly added that “what happened … was not a real emergency, but we responded in a very cautious way, which is what we are trained to do and what we have to do to protect ourselves and the space station.”
As the Soyuz TMA-16M crew enters its final 10 weeks on the planet, before launching in late March, there is much to do on Earth and much that all three men hope to experience when they return to space. “My second education is in ecology, so I’ll be doing a lot of ecology on station,” explained Padalka. “I’m most interested in the areas that are undergoing major changes and technogenical processes.” He expressed particular interest in observing areas of Earth where humanity’s influence is a negative one, specifically with regard to oil spills, the retreat of glaciers, and widespread fires. Picking up on the point, Kornienko told how he and some friends climbed the 19,341-foot (5,895-meter) Mount Kilimanjaro—Africa’s tallest mountain—before his first ISS mission in 2010, and he observed a great glacier. He attempted to locate the glacier from the station and intends to try again on his upcoming flight to see if it has suffered any reduction in size.
This article was jointly prepared by AmericaSpace team members Ben Evans and Michael Galindo.
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