West Orange native Scott Kelly will spend the next two years traveling the world in preparation for a mission more than 200 miles above it. The NASA astronaut, a retired Navy captain, will visit Russia, Germany, Japan and Canada to learn about computer and robotic systems that are part of the International Space Station. His year-long space mission is expected to begin in 2015. When he returns, Kelly, 49, will hold the record for the longest space flight by an American. Doctors will monitor Kelly, who in 2010 and 2011 spent 159 days aboard the ISS, to understand how prolonged periods in space affect bones, muscles and the immune system. The scientists will be able to compare Kelly’s body statistics with data on his twin, Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut who is married to former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Scott Kelly spoke with New Jersey Monthly about his mission.
New Jersey Monthy: What are you learning on your travels?
Scott Kelly: The space station has complicated systems: electrical power, thermal control, environmental control. It takes our water and we drink it and then our urine is turned back into water to drink again. All the systems—from the U.S., Japan, Europe—work together. We have to know how to repair them and respond to malfunctions.
NJM: What else do you have to study?
SK: We have EVA [extra vehicular activity] training. Space walks might be planned or not planned. We have to know how to go outside and fix something or upgrade the space station. The space suit is its own spacecraft. The robotic arm is complicated. We have to capture a free-flying spacecraft, berth it in the space system and understand the systems on that visiting spacecraft.
NJM: What is the hardest part of the training?
SK: The hardest part is space-walk training in the pool. We’re in a pressurized suit that weighs several hundred pounds. Working in gloves for six hours, manipulating tools, tethers and pieces of hardware, is tough on the hands. When I get out of there, my hands are spent.
NJM: Do you ever feel like a guinea pig?
SK: I wouldn’t use the term guinea pig. We’re medical test subjects, but we play a more active role in the science and collecting the data and even making subjective assessments and offering opinions.
NJM: What appeals to you about the mission?
SK: I wanted to fly again and to be the commander of the ISS. Being more than twice as long [as my previous trip] is an extra challenge. Being in space for a year is hard. That’s what I find appealing.
NJM: How tough is it to be away from your two daughters? [Kelly’s girls are 19 and 10, and live with their mother, from whom he is divorced.]
SK: It’s no different than what people do on military deployments. It’d be different if they lived with me all the time.
NJM: How did you readjust to gravity after your last time aboard the ISS?
SK: I was really sore for a month, and tired. You use different muscles in your neck to hold your head up. In space, your head has been floating on your neck and you don’t notice it.
NJM: What do you like most about the view from space?
SK: Deserts are beautiful: Africa, Australia, the Himalayas. The most beautiful place on Earth from space is the Bahamas. The color of the water and the size of the area that it covers—it’s like no other place.
NJM: Are there tough days in space?
SK: Certainly, January 8th will be difficult. I’ll think about that [day] when I was in space and my sister-in-law was shot.
NJM: How did you hear the news?
SK: [Some news organizations] were reporting that she had passed away.
NJM: Have you read The Right Stuff?
SK: I read it when I was around 18. I thought to myself, Landing a plane on an aircraft carrier at night? I could do that. [Kelly made more than 250 carrier landings.]
NJM: Is it difficult not to shower for a year?
SK: People that have hair miss the shower more than I do.