In 2015, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly embarked with fellow cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko, whom he referred to as his “Russian brother from another mother,” and Gennady Padalka on a yearlong mission to the International Space Station (ISS) that aimed to study the effects of space on the human body.
“The idea behind this mission was to learn things that will help us get to Mars someday,” Kelly told The Jerusalem Post during his visit to Israel last month.
While in space, he conducted 400 different experiments in biology, chemistry, physics, material science, combustion science, and pharmaceuticals. The group also tested fluid shifts in the human body to examine their effect on eyesight, and many samples of the crew’s blood and urine were collected for chemical analysis.
“Day one of a year in space, and I’m thinking to myself, man, this is a stupid thing to be doing. You can’t get away, you can’t call an Uber,” he quipped.
The ISS, he explained, weighs a million pounds, is the size of a football or soccer field and has an internal volume that can fit a five-bedroom house, and is equipped with giant solar panels which it uses to get energy from the sun to make electricity. In addition, there are complicated life-support systems on board to allow the astronauts to survive in the harsh conditions of space.
The idea of being in the space station is “to do science,” Kelly noted, and some of the science experiments are “designed to improve life on Earth.” He spent 340 days aboard the ISS, before flying back to Earth.
For their return, the trio were piled into a tiny Soyuz capsule that hurdled “like a fireball” at 25,000 kilometers per hour (some 15,500 miles per hour) through the Earth’s atmosphere. Kelly jokingly compared the experience to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel while on fire. Upon landing, he felt immediately ill, since his body was unaccustomed to conditions on Earth.
When he got home, the first things he did were to jump into the pool at his home in Houston, Texas, eat an apple pie and drink a beer that was gifted to him by then-president Barack Obama, take a shower for the first time in a year, followed by a long nap.
“When we’re in space, the human body doesn’t handle it so well. Plenty of bad things have happened to us physiologically, psychologically. You lose a bone mass of 1%,” Kelly noted. “If you didn’t do anything to prevent that, then 100 months later, you’d have no bones left. It also affects our muscle mass, our vision, our immune system. The radiation that we are exposed to in space is very high and can have genetic impacts.”
Later testing found a shocking revelation: 7% of Kelly’s DNA was altered in space and has not changed back since. Originally, scientists postulated that the telomeres in human DNA would become shortened – in essence, a person’s lifespan would be shortened due to their time spent in space, since the conditions are harsh and grueling. Still, scientists today do not know what the full effects of being in space on the human body would be. However, in Kelly’s case, his telomeres and telomerase (sections of the human chromosome relating to aging) were actually lengthened, leaving scientists with plenty of questions. Would this lengthen his life? In turn, would humans be able to survive a Mars mission, even though it would take them anywhere between 200 and 330 days to traverse the 225 million km. (140 million miles) and reach the red, rocky planet?
DURING KELLY’S first mission, in March 1999, he was assigned to pilot Space Shuttle Discovery in order to install new instruments and upgrade systems on the Hubble Space Telescope, spending about two weeks in space.
On his second mission, in 2002, he was a commander aboard Space Shuttle Endeavor. There, he worked on testing a system that allowed shuttles that were docked into the International Space Station to connect to electrical power from the grid. This deployment also lasted around two weeks.
His third mission was aboard a Soyuz capsule with fellow cosmonauts Aleksandr Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka, which embarked from the Russian base Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The expedition lasted about a month, and the trio conducted 115 experiments, some of which involved carrying out trials on a water recycling machine, testing the transfer of heat at zero gravity, as well as a Japanese project that analyzed vegetable growth in outer space.
Although Kelly is widely known and respected, he remains humble and recalled that he was not a very good student in school.
“I’d be the kid in the back of the class, looking out the window, wondering how the hell am I going to get out of here,” he told the Post. He went on to later excel in college, after he picked up a book about missions in space that inspired him.
“I decided that if I could become a better student, then maybe I could be a military pilot, maybe a test pilot, and just maybe an astronaut someday,” he said.
He pursued a degree in electrical engineering, enrolling in the US Naval Academy and passing grueling exams to become a naval pilot, before being hired by NASA and undergoing astronaut training at its headquarters in Houston.
Kelly’s wit and sense of humor helped him survive for long periods in near isolation 408 km. (254 miles) above the Earth’s atmosphere.
He added that looking at Earth on his only space walk helped him understand how fragile our planet is, adding that “things look different from up there.” He compared the Earth’s atmosphere to a thin contact lens over an eye, noting that “that’s all that protects us and keeps us alive.”
He described being able to see the effects of pollution that never seem to recede. The rain forests of South and Central America are being diminished by human construction and interference, as well as by the warming climate, he said.
Finally, he encouraged people instead of looking forward to possibly relocating to Mars someday, to work on preserving this planet, as “it’s the only one we have.”