After nearly a year on the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth on Tuesday night, completing, along with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, the longest continuous stay in space.
Kelly, Kornienko and his fellow cosmonaut Sergey Volkov touched down in Kazakhstan at 10:26 a.m. Wednesday (8:26 p.m. Tuesday Pacific time). The Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft that ferried them back from the space station landed southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan, NASA said.
NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly, right, and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko, left, and Sergey Volkov rest outside the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft minutes after they landed near Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, on Wednesday. Kelly and Kornienko completed a record year-long mission on the International Space Station. Volkov returned after spending six months on the station.(Bill Ingals / NASA)
U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly, back on Earth. Kelly’s identical twin brother, fellow NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, has spent the last year on Earth. Because the brothers have the exact same DNA, the twins are giving agency scientists a unique opportunity to examine how living in space affects the human body.(Bill Ingalls / NASA)
Ground personnel help Sergey Volkov of Russia out of the Soyuz TMA-18M space capsule.(Kirill Kudryavtsev / Pool)
Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko is carried into a medical tent after landing.(Bill Ingals / NASA)
A search and rescue team works at the landing site of the Soyuz TMA-18M space capsule that carried the International Space Station crew back to Earth.(Kirill Kudryavtsev / Pool)
International Space Station crew member Mikhail Kornienko inside the Soyuz TMA-18M space capsule after landing in a remote area of Kazakhstan.(Kirill Kudryavtsev / Pool)
Search and rescue teams work at the site in Kazakhstan where the Soyuz TMA-18M space capsule landed.(Kirill Kudryavtsev / Pool)
Russia’s Soyuz TMA-18M space capsule, carrying the International Space Station crew, descends over Kazakhstan.(Kirill Kudryavtsev / Pool)
Kelly will fly to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where, after a brief rest, he’ll be examined by a bevy of scientists itching to examine him and gather samples.
But Kelly won’t be alone. He’ll be joined by his identical twin, retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly. The pair have been participating in what might be the most far-out twin study ever conducted.
This unique study “is absolutely essential if we’re ever going to send people to Mars,” said John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and President Obama’s senior science advisor. Holdren said he planned to meet Kelly on the tarmac upon his return to Houston on Wednesday.
While Scott Kelly has orbited the planet for 340 days, his brother Mark has remained on Earth. Because their genetics are practically identical, the brothers are offering scientists an unprecedented opportunity to understand the many different effects that space travel can have on the human body.
Studies of the astronauts will allow NASA to see the physical and psychological effects of extended stays in space, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a former astronaut who spent six days in orbit aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1986, said in a statement.
“As we prepare to go all the way to Mars in the decade of the 2030s, there’s going to be a lot that we’re going to have to learn,” Nelson said.
While the idea is nothing new – every astronaut that spends time on the space station is basically a willing human test subject – this stay was unprecedented in length, as well as for the parallel Twins Study that used Mark Kelly essentially as a control subject.
The Twins Study consists of 10 different experiments from several different research institutions, together examining how life in space affects human health.
“When you go up in space there’s no gravity, so all this fluid shifts upward towards the head and it causes a number of issues for astronauts,” said Brinda Rana, a molecular geneticist at UC San Diego who is involved in two of the 10 research projects.
The most harmless of microgravity’s effects also seems to be the most visible, she added – astronauts’ faces look puffy in space.
But there are many more concerning health issues related to this fluid shift in the body, she said, including the raising of intracranial pressure, visual impairment, and inflammation potentially linked to cardiovascular disease, among others.
The research doesn’t end with Kelly’s return from orbit: The scientists will continue to monitor both brothers to tease out any long-term effects of a year in orbit.