It is July 16, 2015 and all three occupants of the International Space Station are squeezing into the Russian spacecraft Soyuz, which acts as a lifeboat in an emergency.
Crew control informed crew members that a large, extinct satellite was approaching them at 14 km / s. The controllers know it will get close, but they are unable to track the object with sufficient accuracy to know if it will graze or hit the target in a devastating way.
The American astronaut Scott Kelly and the Russians Gennady Padalka and Mikhail “Misha” Kornienko crouch in the narrow capsule and follow the procedures intended for such an eventuality to immediately separate from the space station and return to Earth.
This isn’t the first time Scott, a former military pilot, has found himself in a life-threatening situation. But the experience made him think about collective impotence; If the satellite hit the target, there would be no time to escape.
“Misha, Gennady and I, instead of mumbling together in Soyuz, we would have exploded like fuzzy atoms in a million directions in a million milliseconds,” he says in his memoir Endurance.
The routine of the crew on the International Space Station shows many common features of everyday life on Earth: video calls, cleaning, and bad work days. But every now and then – as on the occasion described above – astronauts get a sharp reminder of the hostile environment beyond the comfort of their ship.
As of 2007, Scott made three independent visits to the outpost orbiting in space. He achieved worldwide recognition on his last flight between 2015 and 2016.
Together with Misha Kornienko, he was commissioned to spend a whole year on the space station – twice as long as a regular stay. In more than 100 days, he broke the previous American record for long-term flights set by astronaut Michael López-Alegría.
However, Scott is also known to have an identical twin brother, Mark, who was also a NASA astronaut. Mark, who is about six minutes older, was elected Senator from the state of Arizona in the 2020 US election.
Speaking to the BBC on a video call from his home in Colorado, Scott Kelly says he never felt like going home early.
“My goal has always been to get to the end with as much energy and enthusiasm as at the end of the flight – and I think I made it.”
“I could have stayed there longer if there was a good reason, so I’ve never doubted my ability to do this,” he added.
Despite the fact that astronauts and cosmonauts are being examined for their psychological ability to deal with such situations, he says:
“I know other people have gone through difficult times. I’ve seen it myself – some people face a challenge because they’re so isolated. It’s difficult, but not so difficult that you can’t.”
“I don’t know if it’s all about being introvert / extrovert, but you definitely have to be comfortable having your own entertainment. It’s not for everyone.”
The hardest things, he said, are not being able to get out of the house and experience nature, as well as the space station’s daily work schedule. Another challenge, he adds, has been to share a relatively small place with the same people for so long – “even if all of these people are great”.
However, it was a challenge that could be successfully met, as the confinement in a confined space helped build long-term friendships:
“I was just exchanging emails with Kjell Lindgren (from NASA). My wife and I recently had a video conference with Samantha Cristoforetti (Italian astronaut from the European Space Agency). I’m talking to Misha Kornienko and Gennady Padalka,” he reveals.
The United States pledges another four years of funding for the International Space Station, but there are uncertainties as to whether the laboratory will continue to receive support in orbit thereafter. The station was born in the 1990s during a period of political truce between the US and Russia.
“The space station program was a great example of peaceful international cooperation,” says Kelly.
“My experience with the station’s cosmonauts has always been one of professionalism, respect and mutual trust.”
Kelly was not consumed by work in orbit all year long; he also managed to find time for much-needed fun.
In a viral video he chased the British astronaut Tim Peake in a gorilla costume from the space station. Peake, it has to be said, does a good job as an actor when he’s scared – when he’s really acting.
The gorilla costume – vacuum packed and sent on a supply flight – was a birthday present from Mark. I then ask Scott if it was some kind of internal joke between the brothers.
“My brother said, ‘Hey, I’ll send you a gorilla costume.’ And I said, ‘Why are you sending me a gorilla outfit?’ He replied, ‘Why not?’ “Says Scott with a wry smile.
“That was all the reflection on it.”
The brothers were raised in suburban New Jersey, United States, by parents who were police officers. Her mother was the first female cop in West Orange County where she grew up – and Scott cites her determination as an inspiration for his efforts to become an astronaut.
Mark and Scott demonstrated similar early risk-taking skills, resulting in frequent injuries, including hospitalizations. But there was a time in school when Mark was making progress in his studies while Scott was easily distracted during class.
In college, it was the party scene that caught Scott’s attention. He attributes it to a telephone conversation with Mark, who told him to put aside the sociability and devote himself to studying, with the turning point in his academic fate.
After training to be a Navy pilot, Scott was assigned to an attack force called the World Famous Pukin ‘Dogs. In the 1990s, he piloted the F-14 Tomcat – the aircraft featured in the movie Top Gun – and performed combat missions during the First Gulf War.
However, Scott strove to be part of an even more elitist group: those who flew on space shuttles. After Scott was selected as a NASA astronaut in class with Mark in 1996, Scott served as a pilot on a space shuttle mission before commanding another in 2007.
On the space shuttle, it is the commander who actually controls the vehicle, and on the extremely difficult landing these skills stand out.
“I’ve only driven once. It’s crazy to think how much time and effort you’ve put into it and then do it once or twice,” says Scott.
“You have a chance to land. If you don’t land, it’s not like adding strength and trying again. You know that not only are your co-workers watching, but much of the rest of the world is watching.”
The space shuttle was a great vehicle, albeit imperfect. And the world was reminded of the enormous risks posed by space travel when the space shuttle Columbia killed seven astronauts after returning to Earth in 2003.
NASA’s safety culture has been criticized for investigations following the accidents involving the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. Losing friends in Columbia, Kelly was preparing to speak at the Virtual Safety Culture Summit with Charles “Sully” Sullenberger, who landed a US Airways plane on the Hudson River, and environmental activist Erin Brockovich at the time of the BBC interview .
“The things we do are extremely risky,” he says.
“Safety must be everyone’s responsibility … everyone must know that they have the power to speak up when there is a problem.”
When it was originally proposed to send one of the identical twins to the International Space Station for a year, a group of scientists envisioned a unique opportunity to study the effects of long periods of space on the human body.
By using marrow as a genetically identical “control” on Earth, scientists would be more certain that any changes they saw in Scott were caused by the space environment. Both twins underwent a series of tests to assess possible changes in their physiology, cognitive abilities, immunity, and DNA.
Among other things, the results showed genetic changes that suggested that Scott’s DNA was regenerating due to damage from cosmic rays.
The scientists also identified unexpected changes in the “caps” at the ends of Scott’s chromosomes called telomeres, as well as changes in blood chemistry, body mass, and intestinal flora. But the vast majority were reversed when he returned to Earth.
Four years later he says, “I have no symptoms of anything that can definitely be said to be caused by this time in space, but I have some structural and physiological changes in my eyes – although they don’t affect my vision. “
Scientists know that some people are more affected by eye changes in the room than others. And there have been studies of the genetics underlying these differences.
The report asks Scott whether, as we learn more about how different people react to the space environment, these biological markers could play a greater role in astronaut selection – perhaps even to the detriment of more traditional traits.
“I think it’s not just a problem for NASA, it’s a problem for our society in general … This goes deep into the question of insurance and the pre-existing conditions – whether genetic susceptibility can be considered a pre-existing condition in any case an ethical discussion has to be held, “he says.
The results of the study with the twins were comforting given the space agencies’ plans to send astronauts on a round trip to the Red Planet, which is 34 million miles from Earth – and each leg of the journey could take nine months.
However, astronauts will be exposed to about ten times the radiation dose they would receive in Earth orbit, putting a long-term risk of cancer and other diseases.
“You have to find a way to protect yourself or get to Mars faster,” says Scott.
“The other option is to accept the risk.”
This is a dilemma that you imagine Scott would have thought carefully. He retired from NASA in 2016 and has been writing and talking about his experiences ever since. He and his wife moved from Houston (the center of the NASA space program with NASA astronauts) to Denver.
In the four years since his departure, new opportunities have opened up for space travel – and capabilities like his are growing. Astronaut Michael López-Alegría, whose long-range flight record was broken by Scott, is now ready to return from retirement to command a privately funded flight to the International Space Station aboard Elon Musk’s Crew Dragon capsule.
Although Scott has had so many successes, it is clear that Scott’s fascination with space travel remains the same.
“If someone asked me, ‘Hey, do you want to fly in space?’ I would say, “Of course, sure.” It depends where I am: I wouldn’t get into a cannon and shoot myself like a cannonball, “he says.
“It would have to be something useful that was safe. But I wouldn’t rule it out. If you know someone who has a missile and needs a pilot …”