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Kellys at ISSRDC
Scott and Mark Kelly talk about their astronaut experiences, including the ongoing “twins study”, in an on-stage interview with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta (left) at the ISS Research and Development Conference July 12. (credit: J. Foust)

What happens after a year in space?

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Most of the attention that the California city of San Diego received last week has to do with Major League Baseball’s annual All-Star Game, which the city hosted July 12. For much of the space community, though, their interest was not in the exhibition game downtown but at the Town and Country Resort several kilometers away, which hosted the annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference.

And that conference did have some stars of its own, most notably former astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly. The twin brothers were keynote speakers at the luncheon on the conference’s first day, also July 12, in the form of an on-stage interview with CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Scott Kelly noted that ISS crews always have to be on-guard for potential emergencies. “I think that, for long periods of time, that’s one of the things that becomes fatiguing.”

Scott Kelly is a star for his latest, and last, NASA mission, spending nearly a year on the ISS and setting an American endurance record in the process. (While NASA celebrated the flight as a “year in space,” Kelly’s mission, with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, lasted 340 days, causing some to dub it a “light year.”) Kelly returned to Earth March 1, and continues to participate in post-flight studies, and recuperate from this extended spaceflight, even after retiring from the astronaut corps at the end of March.

More than four months after his return, Scott Kelly told the conference audience he’s feeling well. “I’m feeling pretty good,” he said. “I certainly had some effects initially from being in space for so long, but I think the lingering effects are something that a lot of astronauts experience after being on the space station for a long time.”

One of the biggest issues with adaption, he said, is getting away from the tightly-structured schedule of a space station astronaut. “Readapting to life on Earth, where you don’t have that kind of very tight control, is somewhat difficult,” he said. “It takes a while to back to being able to manage your time well.”

Prior to his nearly year-long trip to the ISS, Scott Kelly spent about six months on the station. “It seemed to take about six months for me to start to feel really back to normal,” he said of reacclimating after that earlier flight. “I’m hoping it’s not going to be a year, not a one-to-one relationship.”

In spaceflight, much of the attention on the risk focuses on launch and landing. However, Scott Kelly noted that the real risk is simply being in space for an extended period, when any number of problems, from malfunctioning equipment to the risk of an orbital debris impact, can happen without warning.

“It is always in the back of your mind that you always need to be ready to respond if you do have an emergency on board,” he said. “I think that, for long periods of time, that’s one of the things that becomes fatiguing, always having to be ready in case something happens.”

“So for the last year, while he was in space,” Mark Kelly said, referring to Scott, “I was the lowest paid federal government employee.”

Mark Kelly agreed. “Statistically, and by the risk analysis that NASA does, the riskiest time is actually being in space,” he said, versus liftoff or landing, even for the relatively short-duration shuttle flights that he commanded. “The fact that we’ve been able to operate this space station very safely since 1998 with crew members on board is a testament to the engineers and NASA’s safety system.”

A bigger issue, he said, was a feeling of helplessness that he wouldn’t be able to do anything if something happened to a friend or family member while he was in space, An example was on his previous six-month flight, when Mark Kelly’s wife, then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was shot. “That’s what I thought about more than anything else,” he said.

To help address this, flight surgeons and mission managers worked to provide some additional time off for him. “One of the big things on my mind was thinking about time off, and getting them a break from the pace that’s pretty busy up there,” said NASA flight surgeon Stevan Gilmore, who joined the Kellys on stage. “It’s kind of a difficult thing to do,” he added.

The result was four and a half days of “elective time” for Scott Kelly during his 340 days there, in addition to other scheduled time off. “Scott had some involvement in picking what day and how the time would be used,” Gilmore said. “I think that was a very valuable thing.”

“A day off on the station isn’t like a day off from work at home, where you can just ‘check out,’” Scott Kelly said. “You’re still really at work, you’re just not scheduled for certain required things to do.”

Scot Kelly’s flight was not only intended to set an endurance record and collect data on the effects of long-duration spaceflight, including living in microgravity on the human body. Mark Kelly was also involved as part of the “twins study,” in effect using him as a control to better understand the changes Scott experiences while in space.

“It wasn’t bad. I mean, I’ve done thing kind of thing before. And it certainly wasn’t risky,” Mark Kelly said. His involvement was participating in tests, and providing blood and urine samples. He added that he initially offered to participate in the tests for free, but NASA told him they had to pay him, an amount that worked out to be little higher than the federal minimum wage.

“So for the last year, while he was in space,” Mark Kelly said, referring to Scott, “I was the lowest paid federal government employee.”

The analysis of the data collected during the twins study—which continues with post-flight tests—remains in progress. Andrew Feinberg, a Johns Hopkins University professor who was one of ten principal investigators for studies, said the “big study” paper about the research conducted for the study should be published next year.

“For somebody who hasn’t done it before, to see the Earth as a round ball, as a planet, is just an incredible opportunity,” Mark Kelly said. “Would it make sense for me to do that, to write a big check to do it? Probably not.”

Bringing together that many researchers for this effort, he said, has been remarkably free of friction. “We wound up working as a team, instantly,” he said of their first encounter before the mission began. “It became an ego-free endeavor with a group of colleagues, and we all chip in and help each other.”

Both Kellys used the event to promote both NASA’s exploration plans as well as private-sector efforts. That included laments about the lack of perceived public interest in NASA’s exporation efforts and a willingness to fund them.

Scott Kelly recalled an interview he did while on the station when a reporter asked him about whether the discovery of liquid water periodically appearing on the surface of Mars today would accelerate NASA’s plans. “And I said, ‘I don’t know. It might. But if we found money on Mars, that would help us get there really fast,’” he said.

Mark Kelly praised SpaceX’s efforts to land and potentially reuse Falcon 9 first stages (while also disclosing that he does some consulting for them.) “It’s going to change the economics of spaceflight considerably,” he said. “It is incredible innovation that I’m not sure would have happened if we didn’t go this route of commercial crew and commercial cargo.”

Both Kellys offered mixed messages about whether either would go into space again. “It’s a risk versus reward. You’re taking a lot of risk going into space. For somebody who hasn’t done it before, to see the Earth as a round ball, as a planet, is just an incredible opportunity,” he said. “Would it make sense for me to do that, to write a big check to do it? Probably not.”

However, the former shuttle commander added, “I would climb into the space shuttle in a second.”

His recent retirement from NASA, Scott Kelly said, “means I’m probably not going to go to space again with NASA. But I don’t think I’d ever rule it out.” Might he go as a private citizen instead, Gupta asked? “I would never rule it out. Probably very unlikely.”

“For me, being an advocate for the space program and for NASA, I think I can do a lot of good on the outside,” Scott Kelly said. But before that, he said he did something with Mark that they hadn’t done together since they were 15 years old: go on a vacation.