THE LONGEST MISSION: Astronaut Scott Kelly prepares for record-b - WDRB 41 Louisville News

THE LONGEST MISSION: Astronaut Scott Kelly prepares for record-breaking year in space

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Astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko, both of whom are expected to stay aboard the International Space Station for a year. (Credit: NASA) Astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko, both of whom are expected to stay aboard the International Space Station for a year. (Credit: NASA)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Astronaut Scott Kelly is a man of few words.

During a round-robins conference call, a reporter (not this one) asked the 50-year-old to describe what would differentiate his upcoming year-long stay aboard the International Space Station, from previous missions lasting only six months. Kelly's response was brief.

"The duration."

Awkward silence.

"That's it," he added.

It's an answer John Wayne himself would have loved, but Kelly wasn't trying to be terse. When listening to him, one gets the impression that – at least when dealing with the media – he speaks slowly, carefully analyzing each word before setting it loose upon the masses.

That kind of deliberate focus is probably a good thing, especially when you consider what Kelly is about to do. In March, Kelly and his two crewmates – Russian cosmonauts Gennadi Padalka and Mikhail Korniyenko – will travel to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule, joining a crew of three who are already there. But this mission will be different: instead of the usual stay of six months, both Kelly and Korniyenko will be living on the space station for a full year.

"It's almost like I feel like I'm just moving there and I'm not coming back," Kelly said.

One for the record books

It's not that living in space for a year hasn't been done before. It has – just not by Americans. During the late 80s and early 90s, a handful of Russian cosmonauts earned that distinction during their stay on Russian space station Mir. By trying it again now, scientists hope they will be able to better analyze the effects that long-term exposure to spaceflight has on human physiology, in order to better prepare us for a trip to Mars.

"It was a long time ago," Kelly said of the Mir program. "And it was their program, their science, and at a time where neither of us – Russia or the United States, or the other international partners, for that matter – had the capability to do the type of science that we can do today with regards to the MRIs and ultrasounds and the ability that we have to look at our blood chemistry – all this kind of stuff that's changed dramatically in the last 20 years."

In Kelly's case, NASA has another advantage: an identical twin. Scott's brother is Mark Kelly, who is also an astronaut (retired) and the husband of former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. While Scott is in space, NASA will monitor Mark's physiology, comparing it to his brother's and noting any changes in Scott caused by the effects of spaceflight.

"Flying this flight for a year is going to help us understand whether or not we're on the right track to understand human physiology so we can go to Mars, which will take even longer," Kelly said.

Keeping the lights on…

But Kelly freely admits that it isn't easy just pack up and leave home for a year. Things still need to be taken care of back home: bills have to be paid and taxes have to be filed.

"Recently, in the last year, my electric company for whatever reason, changed their billing system, and twice they just disposed of my credit card information that they charge my bill to automatically every month," Kelly told me. "If that was to happen while I'm in space, and I don't know about it, it's quite possible my electric could be turned off at my house. I actually called them and gave them a bunch of crap about that recently."

And then, there's the landscaping.

"I have a guy who does my yard work, but he doesn't come into the backyard to pick the weeds," Kelly said. "Now I'm paying him more to pick the weeds."

But most of all, Kelly says he's concerned – as any father would be – that his 20-year-old daughter is taken care of.

"I've got to make sure that she's got everything that she needs to be able to take care of herself, if she has any kind of problems," he said. "I've got to line up people to be there for her to help her with things. A 20-year-old is not necessarily the most responsible person – although she is pretty responsible, but still not a complete adult. Those are the kinds of things I think about."

Tempered realism

Not only is this a different type of mission than previous missions, this is a different type of crew. There are no "rookies" on this crew: no Reid Wiseman or Samantha Cristoforetti venturing into space with wide-eyed innocence for the very first time. All three of these men are not only experienced, but very experienced (Padalka Has already clocked over 710 days in space), and that history shines through in a sort of tempered realism – a sort of been-there-done-that nonchalance – that I imagine only veteran astronauts can have.

For example, Kelly knows it won't all be giddy anticipation and zero-g acrobatics. He'll also have to battle insomnia.

"Going to sleep in space is not easy," he said. "I think it's because that, when you're on Earth and you get into bed, it's more comfortable than sitting up or standing up or walking around. So it is kind of like a relief at the end of the day to crawl into your comfortable bed."

"But in space, when you go to sleep, you might as well just shut your eyes wherever you are, because you're just floating and you're going to float while you're asleep, so you don't get this sense of any kind of a relaxing feeling."

He says he plans to combat this insomnia by getting into the same habits that help him sleep at home.

"On Earth, my ritual is to just watch TV for a while," he said. "And I can do that in space – just watch a recorded program or something. Or sometimes I'll read."

"I am going to consider that more this next time, because I think it's important that I sleep better than I did last time."

Kelly isn't the only bookworm on the crew. Korniyenko, Kelly's crewmate, also can't get to sleep without reading a few words – but it has to be a particular type of book.

"I do have one thing about books," he said, through an interpreter. "Before I go to bed, I need to open a book. And it can't be an online, or, like, e-read or anything like that. I need to have a physical book in my hands. And there are a few books on board, and there is one particular book which I really enjoy reading. It is called ‘The Twelve Chairs' by Russian writers Ilf and Petrov. It's a funny story in general, so I can open it on any page and start reading there – five minutes, and then I fall asleep."

(REPORTER'S NOTE: The book, 'The Twelve Chairs,' by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov, is a Russian satire written in 1928, and focuses on a treasure hunter trying to recover family jewels recently seized by the newly installed Communist party. It can be purchased here.)

Books aside, experience also brings with it a realistic assessment of the dangers involved. That danger came surprisingly close to home just one day before this interview, when an alarm indicated that there was an ammonia leak aboard the International Space Station's U.S. module, and current crew members Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti and Anton Shkaplerov had to evacuate, joining their three other colleagues who were berthed on the Russian side. That event turned out to be a false alarm, but it did serve as an unpleasant reminder of what can go wrong in space.

When asked about the risks of his one-year mission, Korniyenko, was surprisingly franker than most.

"Of course I am worried," he said, "because I understand that it is going to be difficult to go away for 12 months. It's very dangerous – it's a rather dangerous mission, and I am worried."

"But at the same time, I would say that this worry – or the feeling, like, of trepidation or fear – is the normal feeling that any normal person who starts on such an important mission should have. So it's not a paralyzing fear."

Coming home?

But despite their experience, all three of the crew members of Expedition 43 say they are looking forward to aspects of their mission. It may not be new to Kelly, but he says there are certain things about space travel that never get old.

"A lot of it," he said. "Riding the rocket. Floating. Looking at the Earth. Working with the folks on the ground and the folks on the space station to do something that's really, really challenging and complicated." 

For his part Gennadi says (also through an interpreter) that he tried to quit spaceflight after his third mission, but "life turned out different," and now he's heading back into space again.

"It is difficult to explain. I am just consumed by my work," he said, adding that the people at Roscosmos (the Russian space agency), the European Space Agency and Johnson Space Center in Houston, are all like extended families -- families that are difficult to leave.

But, he adds, he has loftier goals than simply flying aboard the International Space Station. Like so many new astronauts and cosmonauts, he has his eyes on NASA's new Orion space capsule.

"I dream of flying on a spaceship, like a partner spaceship," he said. "I was actually scheduled to fly on the shuttle, but because of the Columbia disaster…all the change in the schedule. So both I and my colleagues are waiting very patiently for a new manned vehicle on the U.S. side. I know that there is an agreement that we'll be flying both on the Soyuzes and on the upcoming U.S. vehicle. This is very important for safety and redundancy. So if the time comes up and I'm invited, of course I want to fly again. And I want to fly in your new vehicle, in a new SpaceX – manned flight – or Orion, but it doesn't all depend on me."

But for now, Kelly says he's just keeping his eye on his own goal -- one year in space -- and making it home safely.

"It's almost like I feel like I'm just moving there and I'm not coming back – or it's gonna be so long that when I come back it's almost like I never lived here, maybe."

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