For the first time in almost five years—and the most recent flight of NASA astronaut Mike Fincke—a U.S. citizen sits within the Top 20 most experienced spacefarers in the world. Last night’s safe return to Earth of Scott Kelly, completing a year in space, has comfortably positioned him in 17th place, with a cumulative total of 520 days, 10 hours, and 33 minutes, spread across his four-mission career. And during the course of his (almost) year-long increment aboard the International Space Station (ISS) with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, he has accrued 340 days, 8 hours, and 42 minutes, and 5,356 orbits of the Home Planet, from the instant he departed Baikonur Cosmodrome on 26/27 March 2015 to the moment the descent module of the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft alighted on the desolate steppe of Kazakhstan, south-east of Dzhezkazgan, at 11:25 p.m. EST on 1 March 2016 (10:25 a.m. local time on 2 March).
In the moments after Kelly and Kornienko’s triumphant homecoming, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden stressed that the One-Year Mission “has helped to advance deep space exploration and America’s Journey to Mars” and that the agency’s premier astronaut has “helped us take one giant leap” toward reaching the Red Planet with humans. Although a piloted voyage to Mars remains, at best, around two decades into the future, the 340 days spent aloft by Kelly and Kornienko are expected to yield significant insights about the impacts upon our physiology and psychology when spending long periods of isolation in the harshest environment ever inhabited by humans. Although four Soviet and Russian cosmonauts—Vladimir Titov, Musa Manarov, Sergei Avdeyev, and the world-record-holder for the longest space mission, Valeri Polyakov—have spent considerably longer in orbit on a single flight than Kelly and Kornienko, the advances in technology promise to make the scientific yield from this increment substantially greater.
“Even though Scott and Mikhail are back from space, the research will take some time to complete,” NASA’s Dan Huot told AmericaSpace. “The time between when science is last conducted on-orbit and when results are published can range from a year or two to six years. We won’t have results from all the research the moment they land. In fact, some samples will still be on the space station once Scott and Mikhail return.”
In two weeks’ time, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams will join Russian cosmonauts Alexei Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka, launching from Baikonur aboard Soyuz TMA-20M to begin a six-month increment, spanning Expeditions 47 and 48. Williams originally trained as Kelly’s backup for the One-Year Mission—having himself logged two previous ISS expeditions and totaled almost 362 days in space—and was widely tipped as a candidate for a potential second One-Year Mission. That proved not to be the case, and although NASA has not confirmed if or when it plans to execute a second year-long flight, there remains a possibility that such a mission might take place before the ISS ends its operational life, sometime after 2024.
“After all the data is collected at the conclusion of the One-Year Mission, NASA and Roscosmos will discuss the possibility of doing additional year-long missions aboard the ISS,” Mr. Huot explained. “NASA is evaluating additional ideas for using the space station as a platform for exploration studies, including doing surface simulations on Earth after ISS landings and additional testing with isolation and confinement.”
Last night’s return of Kelly and Kornienko—joined aboard Soyuz TMA-18M for the journey home by Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, who was wrapping up his own 182-day stay aboard the orbital outpost—ran with exceptional smoothness. The three men bade farewell to their former crewmates, NASA’s Tim Kopra, Russia’s Yuri Malenchenko, and Britain’s Tim Peake, before the hatches were closed between the station’s Poisk module and Soyuz TMA-18M at 4:43 p.m. EST Monday. Prior to the departure, Peake had touchingly tweeted an image of six Lego figurines, representing Expedition 46, and added: “An honour and a privilege to serve with such great crewmates.”
The two spacecraft parted company, as planned, at 8:02 p.m. EST, as Soyuz TMA-18M flew high above eastern Mongolia. Shortly afterwards, Volkov oversaw a series of separation maneuvers and the spherical orbital module and cylindrical instrument module were jettisoned, preparatory to its fiery descent back through Earth’s atmosphere. Encapsulated within the confines of the bell-shaped descent module, Kelly, Kornienko, and Volkov achieved “Entry Interface” shortly after 11 p.m. EST, at an altitude of about 328,412 feet, or 62.2 miles (100.1 km). After passing through the worst of re-entry heating, Soyuz TMA-18M’s twin pilot parachutes were deployed at an altitude of 6.6 miles (10.7 km), followed by the 258-square-foot (24-square-meter) drogue and, lastly, the 10,764-square-foot (1,000-square-meter) main canopy. Together with six solid-fueled rockets in the descent module’s base, these provided for a soft landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan at 11:25 p.m. EST on 1 March (10:25 a.m. local time on the 2nd).
By this stage, recovery forces had spotted the descending spacecraft and converged on the landing site, where temperatures hovered around freezing. Fortuitously, Soyuz TMA-18M touched down in an upright configuration, allowing teams to quickly extract the three men in relatively short order. “Back on Mother Earth!” exulted NASA’s Rob Navias, as Kelly emerged from the descent module, gave a thumbs-up and took his first few “relishing” breaths of the fresh air of Earth in almost a full year. He was followed by Kornienko and Volkov, both of whom appeared healthy after their lengthy spell in orbit. Greeting Volkov was his father—former cosmonaut Aleksandr Volkov, who flew three missions to the Salyut 7 and Mir space stations, totaling 391 days in orbit, during the Soviet era—and also in attendance was NASA Chief Astronaut Chris Cassidy. “The air feels great out here,” Kelly told the gathered throng, as quoted by Mr. Navias. “I have no idea why you guys are all bundled up!”
Within hours, the three men parted and went their separate ways, with Kornienko and Volkov headed for the Star City cosmonauts’ training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, and Kelly bound eventually for Ellington Field, near the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. For Kelly, his historic mission is far from complete. “The journey isn’t over,” he tweeted from orbit on Tuesday. “Follow me as I rediscover #Earth! See you down below!” His next tweet came a few hours later, during the lengthy flight from Kazakhstan to Houston, when he photographed his first “on-Earth” sunrise in over 340 days, during a stop-over in Norway. “Stretching my space legs on my first refuel stop,” he remarked later in the day.
During the journey, President Barack Obama tweeted America’s newest space hero. “Welcome back to Earth, @StationCDRKelly,” he said. “Your year in space is vital to the future of American space travel. Hope gravity isn’t a drag!” Shortly thereafter, from the air, Kelly responded: “Thank you, Mr. President. For your support & for you phone call as I fly home at a lower altitude tonight!” Betwixt the calls and tweets, Kelly was able to sample his first Earth-bound salad in almost a full year. “Growing fresh food like lettuce we grew on my #YearInSpace is vital for our #JourneytoMars,” he explained.
According to NASA, Kelly is expected to arrive back in Houston—and take his first steps on his native soil in more than a full year—at about 12:55 a.m. EST Thursday, 3 March. Welcoming him back to the home city of the astronaut corps will be his twin brother, Mark, together with Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology Dr. John Holdren and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.
According to Lead Flight Surgeon Steve Gilmore, the physical rehabilitation and “reconditioning” of Kelly after his long mission is expected to last up to 45 days. “We don’t anticipate it to differ from what is done for six-month missions,” Mr. Huot told AmericaSpace. During his final days in orbit, Kelly photographed what he described as “My last sunrise from space,” and it remains to be seen where his NASA career will next carry him. With his return to Earth, he became only the fourth U.S. citizen to land on two occasions aboard a Soyuz spacecraft—joining fellow astronauts Mike Fincke, Jeff Williams, and Don Pettit—and only the third, counting Fincke and Williams, to have logged two launches and landings aboard Russia’s venerable spacefaring workhorse.
It is interesting that Kelly’s co-members of this rather exclusive club should all be fellow members of the very same group of astronauts, who celebrate the 20th anniversary of their selection by NASA this summer. Way back in May 1996, Kelly was one of 35 military and civilian candidates chosen for shuttle and ISS training, on the very cusp of the mammoth effort to build the multi-national space station. They were wryly dubbed “Sardines,” initially because there were so many of them—their ranks swelled to 44 members, with the addition of candidates from the European, Japanese, Italian, French, German, and Canadian space agencies in August 1996—but it is fair to say that many of their rides into orbit, and back home, aboard Soyuz vehicles, imposed similarly sardine-like duress upon them.
Although two of the international members of his class preceded him into space, Scott Kelly was the first U.S. member of the Sardines to fly, piloting shuttle Discovery on the third Hubble Space Telescope (HST) servicing mission in December 1999. He later served as NASA’s director of operations in Russia, through 2000, before entering long-duration ISS training and serving on the Expedition 5 backup crew. In the weeks before the tragic loss of Columbia, Kelly was assigned to command STS-118, whose crew included teacher Barbara Morgan. Following the resumption of shuttle operations, STS-118 eventually took place in August 2007, after which Kelly entered dedicated ISS expedition training and flew Expedition 25-26 from October 2010 through March 2011. Less than two years later, paired with Mikhail Kornienko, he was named to the One-Year Mission.
Almost 20 years since his selection, Kelly has demonstrated that his class, the Sardines, have contributed enormously to making the ISS Program what it is today. Sardine Pedro Duque flew alongside U.S. space pioneer John Glenn aboard Shuttle Discovery in the fall of 1998, whilst Sardine Julie Payette was on the first ISS docking mission in mid-1999. Sardines Rick Mastracchio and Dan Burbank were part of the first crew to enter Russia’s Zvezda service module in September 2000, whilst Sardines Mark Polansky, Steve Frick, and Mark Kelly piloted or commanded the missions which installed the three major research modules—the U.S. Destiny lab, Europe’s Columbus and Japan’s Kibo—and enabled the backbone of research aboard the station.
Sardines have performed no fewer than 75 spacewalks, from Jeff Williams’ 6.5-hour EVA with Jim Voss on STS-101 in May 2000 to Scott Kelly’s 3.5-hour EVA with Tim Kopra, last December. These excursions have delivered multiple major components to the ISS and have serviced Hubble, as well as featuring the first Swedish and Native American spacewalkers. In fact, of the 10 most experienced spacewalkers in the world, two of them—Mike Fincke and Rick Mastracchio—are Sardines. During the course of her Expedition 5 increment in 2002, Sardine Peggy Whitson became the space station’s first-ever “Science Officer,” whilst in April 2003 Sardine Don Pettit became one of the first U.S. astronauts to return to Earth aboard a Soyuz. The highest-flying Sardines, Duane “Digger” Carey and Mike Massimino, reached a peak altitude of 310-360 miles (498-578 km); in Massimino’s case, he became one of only a handful of humans to have visited Hubble on more than one occasion.
Juxtaposed against these triumphs, of course, are tragedies. Three Sardines—Willie McCool, Dave Brown, and Laurel Clark—died aboard Columbia in February 2003, whilst Fernando “Frank” Caldeiro sadly lost his battle with cancer in the fall of 2009. Their legacies were kept alive by other Sardines, including Jim “Vegas” Kelly, Charlie Camarda, and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, who flew the first post-Columbia shuttle mission. And when Atlantis rolled to her final “Wheels Stop” on 21 July 2011, her four-member crew included a pair of Sardines: Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.
There remain a number of Sardines still on active status, two of whom are currently in training for future missions. Jeff Williams will launch on 18 March, aboard Soyuz TMA-20M, for a six-month expedition, whilst Peggy Whitson—the first Sardine (and the first woman) ever to command a space station, as well as the first female Chief of the Astronaut Office—is preparing to launch in November 2016 for her third long-duration increment. Last year, Mike Fincke was appointed to lead the Commercial Crew Branch of the office, raising the likelihood that he will participate in the next generation of U.S. piloted vehicles.
Twenty years ago, five-time shuttle veteran Robert “Hoot” Gibson, then-director of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate (FCOD), described the Sardines as continuing NASA’s international co-operation in space. Prophetically, he noted: “They have a very exciting time ahead of them.” And as Scott Kelly returns to Houston as America’s newest hero, that exciting time continues, unabated, as the United States completes a dramatic step forward in its effort to land humans on the Red Planet in the coming decades.
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