Astronauts Back Home After A Year In Space

Mar 1, 2016
Originally published on March 2, 2016 12:10 pm

American astronaut Scott Kelly is back on Earth, ending his extended stay on the International Space Station. Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, who both spent most of the past year in space, landed at 11:26 p.m. ET in Kazakhstan. Cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, who arrived on the ISS last September, also returned with Kelly and Kornienko.

Kelly was lifted from the capsule and placed in a seat to allow his body to readjust to the earth's gravity. Shortly after that, he and his Russian crew mates were taken to a tent and subjected to a range of tests of their vision, balance, strength and dexterity. The tests are in part designed to see how quickly a crew traveling to Mars might be able to begin work after landing on the Red Planet.

Kelly will next travel back to Houston, Texas. After a series of additional medical tests, he says he's headed to his pool for a swim.

Our earlier post:

Here's a fun fact about long-duration space flight: There's no shower on board the International Space Station. "It's kind of like I've been in the woods camping for a year," astronaut Scott Kelly said during a news conference late last week.

Kelly finally gets to come home and wash off the space funk on Tuesday night. He climbed into a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and closed the hatch around 4:40 p.m. ET. His capsule undocked at 8:02 p.m., and he'll touch down just before 11:30 p.m. on the chilly steppes of Kazakhstan.

While in orbit, Kelly posted hundreds of photos, and we've got a selection here.

Kelly's 340 days in orbit shatters the U.S. record for the longest space journey. Only a handful of cosmonauts have logged more consecutive days in space. Researchers are using the mission, which Kelly conducted with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, to learn more about how prolonged spaceflight affects the body and mind.

The study is unique partly because Kelly has an identical twin: retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who stayed back on Earth. Studying the Kelly brothers' DNA may provide some hints about how spaceflight changes human genetics, says John Charles, the chief scientist of NASA's human research program.

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Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly is hours away from returning to Earth. He has spent almost a year aboard the International Space Station. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports on Kelly's epic journey.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Scott Kelly's trip began 340 days ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT KELLY: And lift off. A year in space starts now. Kelly, Kornienko and Padalka on their way towards the International Space Station.

BRUMFIEL: A Russian rocket carried him to the orbiting outpost. Once aboard, his daily routine included doing experiments and taking stunning photographs of Earth. He got breaks for holidays like Thanksgiving, when he squeezed some gross-looking candied yams out of a vacuum pack.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELLY: Man, they are delicious.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is good stuff.

KELLY: Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

BRUMFIEL: And he spoke to Earth routinely, even appearing on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: Did you have the foresight to enroll a frequent flyer club before you went up there?

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Because I understand you've traveled 148 million miles. That's got to be an upgrade to the Sky Club.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Yeah, that would be nice, wouldn't it?

BRUMFIEL: Meanwhile, NASA researchers have been watching him from the ground. John Charles is the chief scientist of NASA's Human Research Program. From what he sees, Kelly is in good shape.

JOHN CHARLES: He's held up very well. He's held up remarkably well.

BRUMFIEL: Zero gravity is hard on the astronauts.

CHARLES: Their bodies become weaker because they're not constantly hefting their mass around.

BRUMFIEL: To chart changes in Kelly's bones and muscles, NASA has been testing him constantly. They've also been collecting samples.

CHARLES: Blood samples from him, saliva samples, fecal samples.

BRUMFIEL: It's all part of a one-of-a-kind study. Scott Kelly has an identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly. Mark has stayed behind on Earth, giving samples of his own. And comparing the twins might reveal genetic changes caused by spaceflight. All this will teach NASA more about how astronauts can endure future missions into deeper space, maybe even to Mars. Charles says he's fairly confident humans can do it, especially as NASA learns more about how to keep the body functioning in zero Gs. But there's also the mind to think about. In a press conference days before landing, Scott Kelly made clear the psychological aspect of the mission was the biggest challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

KELLY: The hardest part is being isolated, you know, in a physical sense from people on the ground that are important to you.

BRUMFIEL: Most of his days have been spent in windowless labs of the space station. He couldn't go outside. He couldn't even get a shower. There's no running water in outer space. Kelly says he kept himself going by focusing on the small milestones along the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

KELLY: And I think that's important. I mean, I think having those kind of milestones that break up a very long-duration flight is something that is critical and maybe something, you know, we're going to have to think a lot about when we are going to Mars where, you know, the next milestone might be six months later when you're arriving on the planet.

BRUMFIEL: Kelly's next milestone comes when he lands later tonight. After undergoing numerous medical tests, he says he's looking forward to a swim in his pool. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.