Scott Kelly Reflects On His Year Off The Planet

Mar 1, 2016
Originally published on March 2, 2016 4:12 pm

"I have taken a lot of pictures because I've been up here for a long time," NASA astronaut Scott Kelly said during a recent press conference from the International Space Station. "I've definitely taken some good ones and some memorable ones."

When he returns to Earth on Tuesday evening, Kelly will have spent 340 days aboard the ISS. While that's not quite a year, it's still a record for an American astronaut, and one of the longest-lasting spaceflights ever.

Kelly is not the only member of his family to visit the station. His twin brother, Mark Kelly, was also an astronaut, and flew multiple shuttle missions to the orbiting outpost. The twins grew up in West Orange, N.J., as the sons of police officers. "We lived a pretty exciting and adventurous life," Scott says of his childhood.

Scott Kelly takes his images through the windows of the Space Station's cupola module. It might give the impression that he lives and works with the Earth constantly in view, but that's not the case. Most of the space station's rooms are fluorescent-lit boxes. "You don't get real sunlight," he says.

His photographs have captured some stunning views of Earth at all times of the day and night. The process of photography has changed his perspective on the planet. "The more I look at Earth, and certain parts of Earth, the more I feel [like] an environmentalist," Kelly says. "It's just a blanket of pollution in certain areas. We can fix that if we put our minds to it."

Photography was one small part of Kelly's mission. He conducted numerous experiments, some to determine how space was affecting his health, and others to test new technologies, like a dedicated greenhouse for growing plants in zero gravity. NASA hopes the knowledge gained from his extended mission will prepare the space agency for lengthy missions to places like Mars.

Kelly's photographs have won the astronaut nearly a million followers on Twitter, but he says taking the pictures is only a small part of why he's there. Kelly believes in space flight, and in humanity's future beyond the confines of Earth. "The thing I like most about flying in space is not the view," says Kelly. "The thing I like about it is doing something I feel very, very strongly about."

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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 Kelley's epic journey.

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


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.


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."


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


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


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.


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.


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.