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The Twins Paradox – Meeting the twin Astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly

Mark and Scott Kelly are the only siblings to have travelled in space with 4 spaceflights each and NASA’s only set of identical twin astronauts . Today, thanks to the great team over at Space Lectures, I’m meeting the time travelling twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly. The team at Space Lectures announced the twins line up in spectacular fashion at the end of the Tom Stafford event last year with a video from Scott Kelly on board the ISS announcing their visit. I guess if you’re going to do it, do it in true astronaut style from space. The slightly younger Scott Kelly recently spending a year in space, essentially travelling in a high-speed rocket while his slightly older twin brother Mark remained on Earth as the ground control subject, and thanks to the effect of time dilation of special relativity, time travels slower the faster you go, Scott would technically find that when he returned to Earth, his brother Mark has aged more, even if only by a few milliseconds – the Twins Paradox.

Twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly
Twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly

Mark Kelly flew his first space mission in 2001 as space shuttle pilot on STS-108 delivering supplies to the ISS (International Space Station). His second mission was again as pilot on STS-121 with its mission testing new safety and repair techniques. His third mission was as commander on STS-124 delivering the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo to the ISS. Mark Kelly’s final mission was again as Commander on STS-134, the penultimate space shuttle mission and last flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour.

Scott Kelly flew his first flight on Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-103 for a Hubble telescope servicing mission. His second flight was as commander on STS-118 to the ISS. His third flight was as commander of Expedition 26 on the ISS. Scott Kelly’s last flight was to the ISS on Expeditions 43-46, commanding Expeditions 43-45 as part of the ISS Year Long mission to study the health effects of long-term spaceflight with a comparative study of his twin brother Mark who stayed on Earth during this time.

 

Twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly
Twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly

The retired former astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly are sharing the stage for this Space Lecture, part retired astronauts, part double act, but all in good-natured twin sibling ribbing. The rest is in Mark and Scott Kelly’s own words…

MK: Thank you very much everybody, I’m Mark Kelly, the smarter, better looking astronaut.

SK: Hey Mark, I’m standing right here unlike when I was in space for a year and can actually hear what you’re saying.

MK: That was the best year of my life.

SK: Mine too. Why do you get to talk first anyway?

MK: Isn’t it obvious, I’m 6 minutes older than you so I should talk first.

SK: That’s the only 6 minutes when he really was the smarter, better looking one. I’m the more experienced astronaut, I’ve flown in space for 500 days verses your 50 days or minutes or whatsoever that was.

MK: It was 50 days. but if you want to talk experience, I was the pilot of the Space Shuttle twice and the Commander twice and you only did that once.

SK: You know the great thing about being on the ISS for a year? You can’t hear your twin brother whining. I’m Scott Kelly, its great to be here, great to be anywhere with gravity and to those of you who do not appear to be space aliens, I’d like to say good afternoon, and to the rest of you ‘we come in peace.’

MK: It was in September 1962 that our president JFK said we choose to go the Moon and do those other things, not because the are easy, but because they are hard. the greatest gift we can all give our children is to continue to do those hard things, we do those and we can accomplish anything, go to Mars and other places. But what we also need is an enthusiastic, proud people like those in the US, like those here in this room today, space enthusiasts that want to see us go to Mars.

People often ask us what is the best part about flying in space ans having the privilege of being an astronaut, is it the launch, the landing, looking out the window at our beautiful planet Earth, is it floating around in zero gravity. All those things are great, but the best part of flying in space for my brother and I is that it’s really hard and difficult thing to do and that’s what makes it so great. Space is hard, a hard place to work and that’s what we want to talk to you about today, about doing those hard things, having a goal and a plan, taking risks, be willing to making mistakes, testing the status quo and about working as a team. When you put all these things together for us as our careers in astronauts, we’ve learned that the sky is not the limit.

Scott and I grew up in New Jersey, our Dad was a stereotypical tough New Jersey Irish  Police Detective, used to come home at east once a year with a cast on his arm and tell Scott and I that he broke his hand fighting crime. Bar fighting. More bar fighting than crime fighting. Our Mother was a secretary and a waitress pretty much at the same time and this was a time in our lives that we did not do particularly well in school, we didn’t have any goals or great direction and for some reason our Mother decided she was going to become a Police Officer like our Father, this was in New Jersey in the 1970s, and for a woman to become a Police Officer, was a really difficult thing to do. Our Mom had to take a test, part of test was a physical fitness test that included climbing over this 7 foot 2 inch wall. Our Mother was about 4 feet 13 inches tall and she had to climb over this wall.

To help our Mother out, our Dad made this built a replica ion the back yard and made it an inch higher and we’d watch our Mother go out there, initially she couldn’t reach the top ans when she could she would just often fall off into the dirt. But after moths of practising, our Mother took this test and instead of getting over in the required 9 seconds, got over in 4 1/2 seconds which was almost faster than all the men and became one of the first female Police Officers in that part of New Jersey. This was the first time in our lives we saw that the power of having a goal and a plan of what it meant to work really hard.

 

Astronaut Mark Kelly STS-134 commander
“Practice, persistence and just not giving up was the only thing that ever really worked for me.” Mark Kelly

SK: So Mark and I grew up in New Jersey in the 60s and 70s, the height of the Apollo space programme and a TV show ‘I dream of Jeannie’ and I remember when Neil and Buzz took those first steps on the surface of the moon but I don’t ever remember wanting to be and astronaut and thinking that was something I was capable of, I was such a poor student growing up, I couldn’t pay attention. I spent more tie looking out the window, willing the clock to run faster, more than looking at the blackboard. I think if I was at school today I’d be diagnosed with ADD, so being an astronaut was something completely beyond the realm of possibilities. I do remember the first time I said I wanted to be an astronaut. I was in the first grade, in the boys urinal, next to a classmate, doing what first graders do in there, peeing on the floor. He turns me to and asks what do I what to do when I grow up, I said play baseball of the Mets, he turns to me and says I want to be an astronaut. I thought that sounded cool and then said I wanted to be one.

MK: I think we all have goals, one of my early goals, even before I got out of high school, I was going to become one of the first people to walk on the planet Mars. This was when I was about 17 years old, I figured out if I worked hard enough and got lucky, I’d maybe make it to Mars someday. I left NASA about 5 years ago and never did make it to Mars. But I did get kind of close, I made it into space 4 times, many of you may think that’s impressive getting into space 4 times, just think of how impressed the aliens were when I told them I had visited the planet Earth 5 times. My plan was to become a naval aviator, navy pilot, then a test pilot, then an astronaut. I graduated from university in 1986, headed off to flight school in Pensacola, Florida to start flying for the US Navy. Top Gun came out in 1986, kind of embarrassed to tell you this but I’m going to tell you anyway, literally as I drove through the gate at the naval air station, that cheesy music from the movie, playing on the tape deck, think it was the Danger Zone song. I get there, I start flying and very quickly find out I am not Maverick. I’m not a particularity good pilot, I really struggled.

You know what the Navy does to you after a year at flight school? They send you to land on a ship for the first time. I could barely land on the runway. When the Navy sends you to land on an aircraft carrier for the very first time, there isn’t anybody crazy enough to go with you. Heading off to what felt like the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, you get above the ship, initially for a touch and go landing where you touch down and take off again, do that few times and on the third time down, I put my tailhook down, this hook is supposed to catch one of the 4 wires across the back of the jet. Well, it didn’t, went up in the air again and on the fourth time I landed generally in the right place, the hook grabs one of the wires, its like getting a crash in your car, you come to an abrupt stop, raise the hook, come to the catapult and shot off the front of the ship at a 130 mph in a couple of seconds.

Did that a couple of more times, the entire experience is just a blur, I barely remember any of it with the exception of one of the deck hands giving me a single obscene gesture with one of his fingers. Later I go back to the naval air station and I’m being debriefed by the instructor pilots that was watching from the back of the ship, you know the first thing he said to me is “Are you sure this career is for you.” I’d be the first to admit how poorly I did, I think Tom Cruise would have been better, I don’t mean the character from the movie, I mean the actor. I didn’t give up, I really believe this. No matter how good you are at the beginning of anything you try, it’s not a good indicator how good you can become. I’m a prime example of someone who was able to overcome a serious lack of aptitude, but practice, persistence and just not giving up was the only thing that ever really worked for me.

 

Astronaut Scott Kelly STS-118 commander
“Small manageable steps that became that giant leap for me.” Scott Kelly

SK: Despite all my efforts in school, I managed to graduate in the bottom half of my high school class, college year. I was 18 years old and it was just expected that I would go off to university. So I did and I applied to a few and got accepted to one and when I showed up I realised I had actually applied for the wrong school, I thought I was applying for another university in Baltimore, Maryland, thinking I was going to the university of Maryland College Park. I was waiting for the football game on Saturday and we didn’t even have a football stadium. I was basically going through the same experience in high school, I couldn’t pay attention, I didn’t know how to study, waiting for the day to get over, wasn’t even going to class very much. One day I was walking across the campus and I go into the book store to buy gum or potato crisps, not a book. So I see this book on the book shelf, it was a red, white and blue cover, I was attracted t it, it really caught my interest.

Brought it back to my unmade dorm room and was captivated by the stories of the early military pilots and the test pilots that became the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts. The book was The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. I read it from cover to cover very quickly and I recognised traits in these guys, that despite being this 18 year old kid who’d never been able to do his home work, I recognised traits in them that I had in myself. I decided right then and there, that this was the spark to get me moving in a positive direction, get me doing those hard things. You might wonder how this kid at 18 years old becomes this very successful astronaut at the end of his career, that’s a giant leap. But for me it was a bunch of very small manageable steps, teaching myself how to do my homework, going to class, changing schools, getting accepted into the Navy, getting to flight school, small manageable steps that became that giant leap for me.

MK: For all of us, life is a set of challenges, whether it’s personal or professional challenges. One of the big professional challenges for me in the summer of 1990 was when a guy named Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait. I was a pilot of an air plane A6 Intruder, a two-man, all weather ground attack plane. I was stationed over in Japan on an the aircraft carrier USS Midway and by the fall (Autumn) of that year we were going down by the South China Sea, across the Indian Ocean, up into the Persian Gulf and we got there in November.  On January 17th 1991, it was time for me to fly my first combat mission, I’d been training for this for about 5 years. I was the pilot of the A6 Intruder, the other crew member was my bombardier navigator Paul Fujimora, really good at his job. We head up to the flight deck early to fly our first combat mission. It was a dark night, no moon, they guys were loading up hundreds of bombs and missiles onto the airplane and on that night we were to drop 8000 lbs of ordnance on a hanger on an airfield near Basra in southern Iraq. We get into this air plane, we turn on the batteries, the radios, we hear that another A6 Intruder just like ours has been shot down over southern Iraq. We start our engines and take off, go to an airborne tanker and get a full load of gas and then proceed north towards the southern coast of Iraq in the northern part of the Persian Gulf. As soon as we get over land, we see AAA (anti-aircraft-artillery) coming up at our airplane as the Iraqis move then guns back and forth, like a snake coming up at the sky at you. Winston Churchill said about his experience in combat that there was nothing more exciting than being shot at and missed. Speaking from experience, this part is kind of important.

We had top go through this part of Iraq that had these SAMs (surface to air missiles), big air defence systems that they got from the Soviet Union, we made this left hand turn and found ourselves right in the middle of these missile envelopes, most of the missile batteries to my left, over my left shoulder. I’ve got to tell you that one of the worst feelings that I’ve ever had in my life is seeing a missile come up at an aeroplane, big bright dot, just getting bigger and not moving forward or aft in the canopy. If it stays in the same position and just gets bigger, you know what that means? It’s coming right at you. Immediately as soon as I see this thing, I say “Paul, I think we have a missile tracking us.” Now Paul’s job is to find this hangar on our radar and infra-red displays. His only response to me was “Roger, I’m tracking the target.” A little while later I say “Paul, this isn’t good, the missile is getting really close.” Again, the same response. He’s doing what we in the Navy or NASA call compartmentalisation. Focusing on the stuff you can control, not worrying about the stuff outside your control. No matter what industry you work in, or your job, there are often things that are outside your influence, and the things that are outside of your control, it doesn’t make any sense to pay attention or worry about them. All we can do is focus on the stuff we have some control over.

 

Space Shuttle Endeavour’s last mission on STS-134 commanded by Mark Kelly
‘The Sky is not the limit’ Mark & Scott Kelly.

The missile is getting closer, I have to do a little last-ditch manoeuvre, I add full power, roll the aeroplane upside down, put the stick in my lap, the missile goes over the top and explodes, there’s a big flash and the air-plane shakes, I turn the air-plane up right, check the instrument panel and both engines are still running, hydraulic systems still have pressure, it doesn’t seem like we have any holes in the aeroplane. As we turn back from the target, you know whats worse than seeing the first missile? It’s not going well at all. We go through this same process again with Paul incredibly focused, focused on the stuff he can control. These time, we go upside down the missile goes over the top, the missile doesn’t explode and goes off into the distance. A little while later we end up in our 30 degree dive over the airfield, bullets coming up over the clouds, we’re going down through the clouds, eventually I can see the runway and the hanger. I hit the button on the stick and the bombs go flying, the aeroplane gets a lot lighter, and you don’t hang around to see if you hit anything, it’s not like TV, just turn around and leave. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is in all of our lives to just pay attention to the things we can control and not worry about the rest of the stuff.

SK: Eventually I started doing better, did well enough at my new college, this time the one I actually applied for on purpose to go into the Navy and flight school and I did well enough to get assigned to the aeroplane that my brother wanted top fly, the F14 Tomcat.

MK: You know what they say about fighter pilots and the F14 Tomcat? That fighter pilots make movies, Attack Pilots make history.

SK: I was assigned the F14 Tomcat and I’m taking it to the ship for the very first time, we don’t have a stick in the back, there is a seat in the back and its usually an instructor, radar intercept officer like Goose in Top Gun but he can’t control the aeroplane, only give a bit of advice, and I remember the first time in this F14 and looking down on the ship and my very first landing in the F14 and I landed so short that the hook of the aircraft hit the back of the ship, the bit that goes down towards the water, not the flat area its supposed to.

MK: This is actually called crashing.

SK: It’s called almost crashing. I rolled into the wires, stopped and I raised my hook and they, chained me down and took me out of the aeroplane and they said to me “the day part of landing on the ship is the easy part, if you can’t even do this during the day, how do you expect to be able to do this at night? You’re not very god at this.” They launched me back off to Virginia beach and had to really dig deep down inside and was given the option of applying for something else, you want to not fly again, guys usually didn’t disqualify during the day like I had just done. But I was willing to take the risk of failing to see what the limit of my achievement was going to be, what u can actually achieve. I was willing to challenge myself and take risks of failing to see what I could accomplish and that’s not necessarily an easy thing to do, set yourself up for failure. But if you want to see how far you can go, it’s a pretty important trait to have – to be wiling to fail.

The Navy eventually set me up with a radar intercept officer that was good at helping guys who had problems and eventually we’re flying together and he says to me you can fly the aeroplane well enough, you can control what you need to do to land, altitude, heading, angle of attack, put the aeroplane where it needs to be but what you’re doing is getting too comfortable with everything that is just right. Too comfortable when everything is perfect, and by doing so, because you’re not making constant corrections, things will soon be off. What he taught me was to fly this aeroplane very precisely, make corrections all the time and test the status quo. If I wasn’t making constant corrections, things are never going to get better and likely going to get worse. I use this philosophy from flying the F14, flying other aeroplanes, flying in space,working in a programme, managing people, managing teams, wherever I work in the rest of my career, I’ve always tried to make constant very small corrections, testing the status quo all the time to make sure things don’t get worse.

 

Space Shuttle Endeavour docked with the ISS during STS-118
Space Shuttle Endeavour docked with the ISS during STS-118

MK: Scott and I became astronauts in 1996 and in 2001 it was time for me to fly my first space flight. When you go up the launchpad on the day you lit off into space, the launchpad is pretty much abandoned because the Space Shuttle is fully fuelled, pretty much a bomb sitting on a hill. You climb into the Space Shuttle about 3 hours before lift off, get strapped in to your seats, laying on your back and you’ve got to turn on all these systems, APUs, hydraulics systems, electrical, environmental, engines in correct configuration, computer system in different modes, 2000 switches and circuit breakers that need to be in the right place. You’re working through this checklist, countdown clock heading towards zero, that clock stops a couple of times to allow you to catch up and when its gets to 6 seconds, those three main engines start and come up to full power producing am million and half pounds of thrust and you’re still sitting on the launchpad with that Space Shuttle bolted down, When the clock hits zero, the bolts explode, the solid rocket boosters ignite and it is literally like the hand of god came down and grabbed you and ripped you off the planet. On TV it looks like you are going up really smoothly…doesn’t feel anything like that. What it does feel like, like going down a rail road tracks on a runaway train at a thousand miles an hour, an incredible amount of vibration. We accelerate from 0 to 17500 mph in just 8 1/2 minutes.

Two minutes into that flight, those solid rocket boosters, come off and parachute back down into the ocean, NASA sends a ship out there to pick them up, get them back to the factory and refurbish them and reuse them. A little while later we are going 25 times the speed of sound, 17500 miles an hour. Those main engines shut down and the external tank comes off, hits the atmosphere and explodes and now we’re in orbit around this incredible planet and its such an amazing thing to see, this round blue ball just floating there in the blackness of space. No strings attached, going around every 90 minutes and all 7 1/2 billion people are there and it is literally an island in the solar system.

SK: I’m nit sure why my brother is telling you all this because I flew in space for the first time about 3 years before he did, very much like he described and my first flight was to the Hubble Space Telescope which was having a science emergency. I remember the first 81 /2 minutes, I was so focused on just inside of the cockpit, like mark said there was 2000 switches and circuit breakers. You could push a button a the wrong time and blow the space shuttle up or throw a switch and blow up the auxiliary power unit. What I would tell myself in those kind of moments whether its being the pilot of the Commander of the Space Shuttle or flying on the Soyuz or ISS, that when I’m doing an activity that is so critical, just remind myself that there is nothing more important than what I am doing right now. So the first 8 1/2 minutes I’m looking inside and eventually the main engines cut off and we’re floating around in space. It was dark and I looked out for the first time and after a few minutes I see something on the horizon I don’t really recognise having never flown in space before.I turned to the Commander of the Space Shuttle and ask what the hell is that? That’s the sunrise. As the sun came up I saw how the brilliantly blue planet Earth was, the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life, breathtaking.

 

Mark Kelly on space shuttle Endeavour
Mark Kelly on Space Shuttle Endeavour

Two days later we rendezvoused with the telescope, put it in the payload bay, did three spacewalks. fixed it perfectly and sent it out on its way. Ever since then I’ve had this kind of relationship with Hubble and an appreciation for how its shown us our place in the universe. A number of years ago they pointed the telescope at a spot in the sky that was absolutely black where they thought there was absolutely nothing and left it pointed there for two weeks. They developed the image and over 3000 galaxies, much like our Milky Way galaxy with billions of stars. A few years later they pointed the telescope in the exact opposite direction, same thing again. We know the universe is distributed evenly around us and from this data we got back from Hubble and elsewhere, astronomers have been able to determine there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sands on all the beaches and every desert on Earth. I’ve flown over a lot of sand during my 500 odd days in space and its hard to imagine more star than grains of sand on a single beach, let alone all the sand on planet Earth. People often wonder and ask about life out there, did you ever see anything funny, so what I tell them is that when I was in the Navy, I visited Area 51, there were no aliens there.

MK: Because we moved them all to Are 52. Please don’t share that with anyone. My wife Gabrielle Giffords is a member of Congress and when she entered Congress for the first time in 2007, I thought we had the risky jobs. I’d flown two flights in space, Scott had as well, but as it would turn out, my wife Gabby was the one who would nearly lose her life serving her country. On the day she was injured, nearly assassinated, there was no clock for us. What I mean by that, the big events in my life, a combat mission, a space flight, you know what decisions need to be made by what time. I was at home where I lived in Houston, she was in Tuscon meeting with her constituents, the people that elected her, met with them in a grocery store. I’d just got off the phone with my wife Gabby, I knew she was going to this event. A little while later my cell phone rings and Gabby’s chief of staff said that Gabby had been shot. Other than that call we didn’t have that much information. I started thinking to myself did that really happen. I called my wife’s chief of staff back and that’s when she gave me the really devastating news that my wife Gabby had been shot in the head from a would be assassin.

 

"I've flown over a lot of sand during my 500 odd days in space and its hard to imagine more star than grains of sand on a single beach, let alone all the sand on planet Earth" Scott Kelly.
“I’ve flown over a lot of sand during my 500 odd days in space and its hard to imagine more star than grains of sand on a single beach, let alone all the sand on planet Earth” Scott Kelly.

At that point I realised that this was going to be the biggest challenge of my life. I had to get to Tucson in Arizona in a hurry and I lived in Houston in Texas. I had a good friend with a private aeroplane, so we go to the airport and take off. One of the worst dumbest things I’ve done is to leave the TV on, on this corporate aeroplane and watch this day unfold on TV. We get about halfway with all the news channels pronouncing my wife Gabby dead. we just sat there looking at my wife’s picture for about 30 minutes with that little graphic at the bottom that says Gabrielle Giffords 1970-2011. A little while later the media comes back saying she was in surgery. The news shouldn’t be announcing people dead, that should be left up to doctors to do. My wife Gabby certainly wasn’t going to get taken out by cable news.

SK: On this day I was on the ISS, had been there for a few months already and had about 2 1/2 months to go, it was a Saturday and I was fixing the toilet, elbow deep in space toilet, sometimes astronauts do have to do those crappy jobs. I’m fixing the toilet and I get a call from Houston saying they are privatising the space to ground channel. I didn’t think a whole lot about it, they said the chief of the astronauts office was going to come on and they did they told me my sister-in-law had been shot, a bunch of others injured but didn’t have a lot of information. I immediately called my brother, he was getting ready to go to Tuscon, he tole me everything he could. Got off the phone and tried to do whatever I could to support him but being on the ISS there was no way to come home for about another 2 1/2 months. There’s nothing that can happen on the ground when you are in space that will bring you home, it has to be some kind of emergency on the spacecraft. Eventually being in such an isolated place, I realised I had a crew, a space station to take care of, I was the ISS Commander, I really need to focus the stuff I could focus on and control and not the stuff I count which was happening back on the ground.

 

Astronaut Scott Kelly on the International Space Station
Astronaut Scott Kelly on the International Space Station

MK: Around this time on 2011, NASA started considering sending an astronaut to the ISS for an entire year and eventually would turn out to be my brother Scott. Why would we sedn somebody to the ISS for a year? Up until this point we had only sent astronauts into space for as long as 6 months and this was going to be as twice as long. Its to prepare and to learn enough about human physiology and other things if we went to send astronauts to Mars some day. Mars is pretty far away , it’s going to take us 6 months to get there, 6 months to get back and if you want to stay more than a couple of weeks, you have to stay nearly a year. a really long mission if you want to send crew members to the surface of Mars. We have a good understanding of what we’re going to need to know about rocket science with propulsion systems and what the spacecraft are going to look like to do a mission like that. What we don’t understand, what we really need to improve our understanding of and our knowledge is in human physiology. So for that reason my brother Scott spent a year in space.

SK: So in March of 2015 I find myself in central Asia for the second time,getting ready to launch on the Russian Soyuz, similar to what my brother described, you’re in this van, the cosmovan going out to the launchpad. A much smaller rocket, fully fuelled, like a bomb on the top of this hill but unlike the Shuttle where the launchpad is abandoned, there’s like a hundred people up there. The Russian philosophy on this is that if you have friends and they’re going on a long trip, you’re going to be there to see them off. You’re walking past these people and some of these people are smoking cigarettes. You’re going into space, you have no choice, get in the elevator and you go up, get strapped in the Soyuz and its about as small as it can possibly be to fit three grown people inside. Its dark and its loud, you’re strapped in with knees up to your chin. But unlike the Space Shuttle there’s no countdown clock, it seems like its kind of unnecessary in the Russian system. You get to zero and start to hear things going on, somebody says ignition and pretty soon you’re off to the races.

Nine minutes later you’re in space, takes a little longer in the Soyuz, 6 hours later you’re docking with the ISS. Open the hatch and I go inside and it feels like I never left and I’m thinking man this is a dumb thing to do, I’ve got a year ahead of me. And its hard, living in space on the ISS is really hard. The ISS is really big, about the size of a football pitch, like a 5 bedroom house and a combination of a scientific laboratory and your grandmothers basement. When you’re in space you have to bring with you everything you need, food, water spare parts. We lost two rockets when we were on the ISS, the Russian Progress and the Space X Dragon blew up, so you need a lot of stuff up there. Its a really had place to live, when you go to sleep you’re at work, when you wake up you’re at work, everything floats, you have to take electricity form the sun, turn our urine into water, which we then drink, which we then turn back into urine, over and over again. Some of that we use to make oxygen.Not only is human physiology very important, we also want to know how to keep these systems working for very long periods of time so we can go to Mars some day. You’re going to Mars and your toilet breaks and your ability to turn urine into water breaks, you’re dead. Over the course of the time I was there we did 400 different scientific experiments in all different scientific disciplines, some exploration based, how to live and work in space and how to go to Mars. Others were about improving life right here on Earth with basic sciences, research in medicine, stayed pretty during the course of the year I was up there.

 

 International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour
International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour

MK: If you hadn’t noticed, Scott and I are identical twins, a lot of the experiments he focused on for the year while he was in orbit, and I also focused on while here on earth was a thing called the twin study which was a comparative scientific study between the two of us that was done by about 10 different universities, mostly in the US and also one in Europe. These are studies looking at the differences in our DNA genetic material and molecular differences that may have happened because he spent over 500 days in space compared to my 54 days in space, so it’s a significant difference. One of these studies we both find pretty interesting is the study on our telomeres, a piece of your DNA where the length of this structure on your DNA is indicative of your physical age.No the age according to the calendar but how old you really are. The theory is that because Scott spent 500 days in space his telomeres would shorten because of the radiation, zero gravity environment and the stress of being in space, so he would physically be older.

Albert Einstein, his theory of General Relativity which has been since been proven would tell you that the faster you travel, the slower time travels. So as Scott travelled at 17500 mph for 500 days, time actually slowed down for him. Remember at the beginning where I said I was 6 minutes older, somebody actually did the maths, now I am 6 minutes and 5 milliseconds older. But what is interesting is what is this radiation going to do with his telomeres. If we came back here in about 10 years and I look like I’m 60 and he looks like he’s 80, you’ll know what happened.

SK: Like I said earlier, living on that Space Station is hard and one of the hard things about it is that you always have to be ready for some type of emergency whether its a fire, ammonia leak, high concentrated ammonia that cools the outside of the ISS,if that stuff gets inside it becomes very very deadly. And also we’re at risk of depressurisation, something hitting us, all that space junk that’s out there, and if it hits us we might have to respond to an emergency depressurisation. So in summer of 2015, I’m running on the treadmill and the control centre comes up, say they’re privatising the space to ground channel, immediately thinking to about the last time and hoping that nothing on Earth to my loved ones. They said there was a satellite coming at you and its going to get within a mile, the same speed as you but in the exact opposite direction, 35000 mph closure, 20 times the speed of a bullet from a gun. We didn’t see it in time to move the ISS out of the way which is what we would normally do. The control centre says Hey Scott, I need you to close all 18 hatches on the US side, I was the only American up there, just in case this thing hits us, that way maybe only one of the modules damaged that way we can save the rest of the ISS, in theory anyway. Getting all 18 hatches closed would take me 2 hours, I go over to the Russian segment, I know what their philosophy is on this, but seeing it in real life is quite shocking. They’re not doing anything to get ready, not closing any hatches, they’re eating lunch. To the Russians, there are only two probabilities that really matter, it completely misses them or it hits them and they are going to disintegrate in an instant, the other possibilities of a glancing blow is so unlikely, they don’t even care to do anything about it. So they ask me if I want some lunch.

 

Soyuz - like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel while you're on fire.
Soyuz – like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel while you’re on fire.

With about 10 minutes to go, we go to the Soyuz, we’re going to use this as a lifeboat, knees up to our chins again and I notice Misha looking out the window and I say to him, you’re not going to see anything, its 35000 mph closure and its dark, I know this myself looking out of my window, and Mikhail says it will really suck if this hits us. It gets down to zero hour and all 3 of us are looking at our watches, getting tense. The clock gets to zero and starts counting up, at 30 seconds, the Russian Control Centre says the time has passed, you guys are safe you can go back to work now . So I go back to opening up 18 hatches and they go back to lunch. The reason I tell you this is because the way NASA approaches things is different from the Russian space agency, and other organisations for that matter, They (Russia) are very professional but NASA would look for every tiny thing that could possibly happen and try to protect for it, especially those things that have significant consequences. Even though it was very unlikely we would get hit, NASA looks to protect those type of things, every possible critical failure.

MK: Spaceflight is dangerous, sometimes I don’t think people understand the level or risk involved. A single spaceflight on the Shuttle or the Soyuz is almost as dangerous as storming the beach at Normandy on D-Day, almost that level of risk but not quite. If we wanted to demonstrate that risk in here to all of you,we could give everybody a deck of cards, you get to pick one card from that deck, but if you pick the ace of spades you lose your life, those are the odds that we deal with on each and every spaceflight. But we make a very strong attempt to drive that risk down to the lowest extent possible. We do that in hundred of different ways, focus on a lot of different things. As a Commander of a Space Shuttle flight or ISS, the one thing we always try to focus on is attention to detail, attention to those small details is so important in trying to reduce risk. If you’ve noticed in aeroplane accidents or accidents with spacecraft, it always seems like there was some minor detail that was missed and led to a chain of events and a catastrophic thing happen at the end. I can’t ever overestimate the importance of just focusing on those minor details.

SK: So eventually after nearly a year in space, it was time for me to come home, my two Russian colleagues and I would get in our Soyuz, undock and we slow down by a few hundred miles an hour to start re-entering the atmosphere. When you come back on the Space Shuttle its more like driving down Park Avenue in a Rolls Royce, the Soyuz is much different, enters much more steeply, there’s a window right here, there is fire at the side of your head, when the modules separate its done with a bunch of pyrotechnic explosions, there are things banging on the window that’s breaking off, the ablative material flying off in all different directions, like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel while you’re on fire. As soon as you realise you’re not going to die, it’ the most fun you’ve ever had. Pretty medieval but also effective.

 

Scott Kelly returns to Earth
Scott Kelly returns to Earth

Eventually we crash back in Kazakhstan, not far from where we lifted off. The Russians opened the hatch and I smell fresh air for the very first time in a year and within 24 hours I’m back in Houston in my house after a bunch of medical tests, walk in the front door, into the swimming pool, had some apple pie that was sent from the Whitehouse, took a shower for the first time in nearly a year and slept in a bed. The best part about coming home was the feeling that I had just done the hardest thing I will ever do in my entire life, pending a year in space. If you saw me coming out of the capsule, I was smiling, moving my head around, my only goal there was to look better than the guys I was with, a little bit of acting going on, I’m expecting an Academy Award this year. When I got home I was so sore for a number of days, I could barely get out of bed, anywhere where my skin touched, like sitting down, feet, I had Hives for a couple of weeks where my skin was reacting to the fact I had not touched anything for a year. When I stood up I could feel my blood rush to my legs and see my legs actually swell, that’s pretty disturbing. But after a few weeks that went away and after a few months I’d get less tired. My feet still bother me, that;s why you might see me moving around a bit more than my brother, I’m doing better everyday.

MK: Having a successful spaceflight, there are a lot of things that have to come together, leadership, teamwork, and sometimes one of the most critical aspects of making these a successful mission is putting the best team together. As a Commander of a Space Shuttle or ISS you have some say on who our crew members are going to be. There are certain things we look for in other crew members, personally I like people who lean forward and make things happen, then there are the things I don’t like, the ‘yes’ men ‘yes’ women, I am perfectly capable of agreeing with myself, we’re all pretty good at that. When we start training for a spaceflight, for the Space Shuttle, that’s bout 2 years before you lift off 3 years potentially for an ISS mission, I set my crew members down and tell them they are required to question my decisions, not optional, I also tell them don’t do it out loud where they can hear you. If you think we should be doing something differently that effects either safety or mission success, you’ve got to tell e about it, we’re going to figure this out as a team.

SK: So as I was undocking from the ISS for the last time, I was looking out my window and can see this truss of the ISS and was just contemplating the 500 days of my life that I’d spent on the ISS, how we’d built this million pound spaceship in low earth orbit, the hardest thing I believe we have ever done, an international partnership with 15 different countries, including my very good friend Tim Peake who I was on the ISS with, great guy, 15 countries, different languages, including Time Peake’s different language, different engineering standards, putting these modules together in orbit. Some of these modules had never been connected before on the ground, in a vacuum while flying around at 17500 mph in extremes of temperatures of plus and minus 270 degrees, and I just thought that this was the hardest this we have ever done, and if we can do this we can do anything. If we decide we want to go to Mars, we can go to Mars, if we decide we want to cure cancer, if we put the resources behind it, we can cure cancer, if we want to fix the problems with our environment with fiscal problems, political problems, I believe we can do it. We have challenges wherever you might work, you can fix those. We are true believers now that if you can dream it, you can do it, have a goal and a plan, take risks, be willing to make mistakes and work as a team because team work makes the dream work and you can choose to do the hard things and if we do that, then the sky is not the limit

The sky is not the limit.

Then, like an astronaut returning from space in a Soyuz capsule, its back to earth with a bump as the lecture and a polished performance is over from astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly. A few questions from the audience to round off and another great event from the team at Space Lectures with a double signed souvenir.

With Scott Kelly and Mark Kelly
With Scott Kelly on the left and the smarter, better looking and 6 minutes & 5 milliseconds older Mark Kelly on the right.

Links:

Gemini and Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford

Apollo and Gemini astronaut Jim Lovell

Space Shuttle astronaut Eileen Collins

Meeting Fred Haise from Apollo 13

Meeting Ken Mattingly

Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean

Nick Cook

Amateur astronomer, space, history, nerd, extreme dog walker, cat slave, doorstep daytripper, severe tinnitus sufferer. 13.7 billion years in the making - not that much better for it. Knows more about swords than is probably healthy for a man.

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