With about 1 percent of his 342-day mission—which began Thursday, with a rousing launch aboard Soyuz TMA-16M, from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan—now complete, U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly spoke yesterday (Monday, 30 March) to his identical twin brother, Mark, as well as NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Dr. John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and President Barack Obama’s science advisor. During the exchange, Kelly discussed his ambitious voyage, which marks the first joint U.S.-Russian One-Year Mission, the first flight of such extreme duration to occur aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and the first of its kind to take place in the 21st century.
Less than three days into his planned 49-week mission with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, Kelly spoke from Japan’s Kibo laboratory and described how he was “really looking forward to the privilege of serving NASA and the nation as a crew member aboard this really wonderful space station we have.” He told Bolden that returning to the ISS—which he previously visited as commander of shuttle mission STS-118 in August 2007 and, more recently, aboard Expedition 25/26 from October 2010 through March 2011—was “like coming to my old home.” Bolden described the lengthy voyage as “a really important step on our road to Mars,” and Kelly paid tribute to the cohesive nature of the station’s incumbent Expedition 43 crew, which, in addition to the two One-Year crewmen, also consists of Commander Terry Virts of NASA, together with Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Gennadi Padalka and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti. “The international partnership,” Kelly explained to Bolden, “is one of the things that has made this such a success and it’s one of the things that’s most important to us right now.”
In short order, Bolden introduced Dr. Holdren, who had previously met Kelly during January’s State of the Union Address, when the astronaut was invited as a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama. The OSTP director congratulated him on behalf of President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and wished Kelly and Kornienko good luck on “this unprecedented year-long mission.” Technically speaking, of course, three piloted voyages in excess of one year have been accomplished in the past. Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov having spent 366 days in space between December 1987 and December 1988, after which Valeri Polyakov recorded an empirical endurance record of 438 days from January 1994 through March 1995 and, most recently, Sergei Avdeyev completed two back-to-back expeditions and accrued 379 days between August 1998 and August 1999. Each of these historical flights occurred aboard Russia’s long-since deorbited Mir space station, and the One-Year Mission aboard the ISS will benefit from a far more sophisticated suite of experiments to monitor the health and performance of the crew.
Yet Dr. Holdren was correct in his assertion that Kelly and Kornienko’s lengthy period in orbit marks “a really important milestone as we work toward the President’s goal of sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030s.” He noted that the One-Year Mission will produce scientific results “that only a prolonged stay on the International Space Station can provide” and expressed his gratitude to Kelly to taking on President Obama’s challenge to take an active role on social media and Instagram. “We enjoyed looking at your first image from space,” Holdren told the astronaut, referring to a selfie which Kelly tweeted to his 96,200-strong following, shortly after setting up camp in his crew quarters in the space station’s Harmony node.
Responding to Dr. Holdren’s comments, Kelly described the ISS as “one of the most amazing facilities, scientific achievements [and] engineering achievements that we’ve accomplished and the amount of work and science up here we can get done in all different disciplines—whether it’s exploration or the experiments that improve life on Earth—is very important to our people in the U.S. and the international community as a whole.” Closing his address, Dr. Holdren told Kelly that “you guys are all heroes up there and we’re depending on you,” before Bolden passed the session over to Mark Kelly, who witnessed last week’s Soyuz TMA-16M launch in person at Baikonur. Introducing Scott’s identical twin brother, the administrator quipped that Mark fooled everyone on launch morning, by shaving off his moustache, which Bolden said was “the only way I could tell you two apart!”
The Earth-bound Kelly twin expressed appreciation for the opportunity to have been able to see his brother launch into space “one more time.” Mark Kelly flew four times aboard the shuttle—piloting the STS-108 and STS-121 missions in December 2001 and July 2006, then commanding the STS-124 and STS-134 missions in May-June 2008 and May-June 2011—and accrued more than 54 days in orbit, before retiring from NASA in the fall of 2011. However, as detailed in a recent article by AmericaSpace’s Emily Carney, he is participating extensively in a “Twins Study,” which will see both brothers support a range of comparative genetic experiments, including blood sampling and psychological and physical testing. This research will be compared across the twins to identify any subtle changes induced by spaceflight. Mark Kelly hoped that the Twins Study would “give us information on what we need to one day go to Mars.”
Pointing out that although much is known about the engineering of reaching Mars, he explained that precious little knowledge exists about the human physiology effects when embarking upon such an enormous endeavor. Mark pointed out that the Twins Study, therefore, represented “a unique opportunity.” Unique, indeed, for although fathers and sons have traveled into space—including Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr and Sergei Volkov and Yuri and Roman Romanenko, as well as U.S. spaceflyers Owen and Richard Garriott—the Kelly twins represent the only siblings (and the only identical twins) ever selected together for astronaut training. The entered NASA’s corps in May 1996, both as shuttle pilots, and it was Scott who first drew a flight assignment, in March 1999, as pilot of the STS-103 Hubble Space Telescope (HST) servicing mission. Launched in December 1999, the eight-day flight saw Kelly become one of few Americans ever to spend Christmas in orbit. Having later served aboard the ISS during Christmas in 2010, and, with the expectation that he will do so again in 2015, Kelly will become the first U.S. astronaut to spend as many as three of the festive seasons away from the Home Planet.
Touchingly, Mark also paid tribute to his and Scott’s father, Richard, whom he described as “a trooper” and “the only parent who has to go through eight times watching one of their children launch into space.” With Mark’s four shuttle flights, combined with Scott’s two shuttle missions and two ISS expeditions, this eclipses the experience of the parents of U.S. astronauts Jerry Ross and Franklin Chang-Diaz, who saw their sons launch on no less than seven occasions. Mark described himself as “very fortunate to be a small part of this mission” and highlighted the importance of his brother remaining in orbit for almost a whole year. It would provide, he said, a clearer understanding of how “the unforgivable environment of microgravity and the radiation environments affects the human condition” and stressed that a voyage to Mars was “not going to be a one-year flight; it’ll probably be more than two years and there’s a lot to learn there.”
Closing, Mark lauded his brother for taking on a huge challenge, “that I know he didn’t take lightly,” and Bolden ended the conversation by telling Scott that his girlfriend, NASA Public Affairs officer Amiko Kauderer, and his daughters, would be watched over by the agency during his time in orbit. Kauderer herself had earlier told her 4,500 followers about the bittersweet experience of Kelly’s departure for a year. “6 flights, 4 countries, 1 amazing rocket launch,” she tweeted. “My heart now in orbit; sun sets home. Adventure begins #yearinspace.”
Yesterday’s conversation was followed by a busy day for the Expedition 43 crew, who will remain together as a six-person until mid-May, whereupon Virts, Shkaplerov, and Cristoforetti will return to Earth aboard Soyuz TMA-15M, leaving the space station under the command of Gennadi Padalka and formally kicking off Expedition 44. Later on Monday, Virts tweeted that the crew participated in routine emergency training and celebrated the 89th day of 2015 with a shout-out to his “Mighty Fine” U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 1989.
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