A History-Making Year In Space
A year ago, astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth after the longest time spent in orbit by an American. On his trip, with Russian cosmonaut Misha Kornienko, he executed experiments designed to examine mysteries of the human body and mind. His discoveries often reached beyond science. In a preview of his forthcoming memoir, Endurance, available October 17, Kelly shares how his time in space informed his first year back on Earth.
I think sometimes people want to hear there was one profound scientific discovery from the 340 days I spent circling the planet — something that struck me or the scientists on the ground like a cosmic ray through the skull at some climactic moment during my mission. I don’t have anything like that to offer.
The mission that I prepared for was, for the most part, the mission I flew. The data is still being analyzed, but the scientists are excited about what they are seeing so far. The genetic differences that appeared between my twin brother Mark and me could unlock new knowledge, not only about what spaceflight does to our bodies but also about how we age here on Earth. Emerging results reveal the condition of my telomeres — the ends of our chromosomes that indicate our genetic age — actually improved while I was in space compared to Mark’s, contrary to expectations. The studies I worked on show promise in helping scientists reach solutions to health problems that emerge in long-duration spaceflight — problems such as bone loss, muscle deterioration, damage to vision and the effects of extended radiation exposure.
Results and scientific papers will continue to emerge over decades based on all 400 experiments we worked on. But Misha Kornienko and I were a sample size of only two. We need to see many more astronauts stay in space for longer periods of time before we can draw larger conclusions about what we experienced. Still, I do feel as though we’ve made discoveries — it’s just that those discoveries can’t entirely be separated from what was learned from my other missions in space.
Personally, I’ve learned that nothing feels as amazing as water. The night my plane landed in Houston and I finally got to go home, I did exactly what I’d been saying all along I would do: I walked in the front door, walked out the back door and jumped into the swimming pool, still in my flight suit. I’ll never take water for granted again. Misha says he feels the same way.
I’ve learned that I can be really calm in bad situations. I’ve known this about myself since I was a kid, but it has definitely been reinforced.
I’ve learned that showing up early, whether it’s to a job interview or a spacewalk, is the only way to stay ahead of the game and be successful. “If you’re not five minutes early, you’re already late.”
I’ve learned to better compartmentalize, which doesn’t mean forgetting about feelings but instead means focusing on the things I can control and ignoring what I can’t.
I’ve learned from watching my mother train to become a police officer that small steps add up to a giant leap.
I’ve learned how important it is to sit and eat with other people. While I was in space, I saw on TV one day a scene with people sitting down to eat a meal together. The sight moved me with an unexpected yearning. I suddenly longed to sit at a table with my family, just like the people on the screen, gravity holding a freshly cooked meal on the table’s surface so we could enjoy it, gravity holding us in our seats so we could rest. My girlfriend, Amiko, bought a dining room table for us and sent me a picture of it. Two days after I returned to Earth, I was sitting at the head of the new table, a beautiful meal my friend Tilman had sent over spread out on it, my family gathered around me: Amiko, Mark, his wife Gabby, my father, my daughters Samantha and Charlotte. I could see them all without moving my head. It was just how I’d pictured it. At one point in the after-dinner conversation, Gabby pointed urgently at Mark, then me, back and forth, back and forth. She was pointing out that Mark and I were both making exactly the same gesture, our hands folded on top of our heads. I’ve learned what it means to be together with family again.
I’ve learned that most problems aren’t rocket science, but when they are rocket science, you should ask a rocket scientist. In other words, I’ve learned to seek advice and counsel and to listen to experts.
I’ve learned that an achievement that seems to have been accomplished by one person probably has hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people’s minds behind it, and I’ve learned that it’s a privilege to be the embodiment of that work.
I’ve learned that chicken consommé works much better for a fluid loading protocol than water and salt pills.
I’ve learned that Russian has a more complex vocabulary for cursing than English does, and also a more complex vocabulary for friendship.
I’ve learned that grass smells great, and wind feels amazing, and rain is a miracle. I will try to remember how magical these things are for the rest of my life.
I’ve learned that my daughters are remarkable people and that I have missed a piece of each of their lives that I can never get back.
I’ve learned that following the news from space can make Earth seem like a swirl of chaos and conflict, and that seeing the environmental degradation caused by humans is heartbreaking. I’ve also learned that our planet is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and that we’re lucky to be here.
I’ve learned a new empathy for other people, including people I don’t know, people I don’t like and people I disagree with. I’ve started letting people know I appreciate them, which can sometimes freak them out at first. It’s a bit out of character. But it’s something I’m glad to have learned to do and hope to keep doing.
I’ve learned that a year in space contains a lot of contradictions. A year away from someone you love both strains the relationship and strengthens it in new ways. I’ve learned that climbing into a rocket that may kill me is both a confrontation of mortality and an adventure that makes me feel more alive than anything else in life. I’ve learned that this moment in American spaceflight is a crossroads where we can either renew our commitment to push farther out, to build on our successes, to keep doing harder and harder things — or else to lower our sights and compromise our goals.
If you can dream it, you can do it. We can choose to do the hard things—and if you do that, then the sky is NOT the limit.Captain Scott Kelly