NASA is preparing for long-term missions to deep space with the help of a pair of identical twins. On March 27th of this year, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly launched to the International Space Station, beginning a one-year mission in space.
Back on Earth, Scott's identical twin brother, retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, has been participating in a number of comparative genetic studies to compare and investigate the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body.
"This knowledge is critical as NASA looks toward human journeys deeper into the solar system, including to and from Mars, which could last 500 days or longer," say NASA officials in a press release. NASA is working toward putting humans on Mars in the 2030s.
The Kelly brothers both became NASA astronauts in 1996 after careers in the Navy. When asked who got the better end of the deal on the twin study, Scott first gave a diplomatic answer to USA Today: that it was a "privilege" to be part of the mission.
Then he admitted, "But sometimes when [Mark] sends me pictures of his breakfast, I'm a little envious."
In addition to studying the health effects of long-term space travel, NASA is monitoring effects of isolation on individual crew performance, as well as how crew interactions change over the 12-month period. The data collected will benefit not only future deep-space missions, but all NASA human spaceflight projects.
A full year in space would break several US endurance records. On this mission, Scott Kelly will spend 342 days in orbit, resulting in a lifetime total of 522 days in space, well past current US record holder Mike Fincke’s mark of 382 days. He will also break the current record for the longest single mission aboard the ISS, set by NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin.
Scott's Russian counterpart, cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, will share his 342 days in space. The two launched into space with Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who remained onboard for six months, becoming the new record holder for most cumulative time spent in space by any human.
After completing his work aboard the space station with Kelly and Kornienko, Mr. Padalka had totaled 879 days in space – "the equivalent of nearly two and a half years on five different flights," as NPR reported. He has said he would like to try for a total of 1,000 days in space.
In addition to scientific advances, the Kelly and Kornienko mission presents an opportunity to warm relations between the United States and Russia; the research collected will be shared between the two countries, as will the costs.
Russia is in the midst of a recession, prompted by falling oil prices and economic sanctions imposed after the country's invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Space News reports that the slowdown is preventing Russia from developing their plans for a separate space station.
"Space can be, and is, a bridge to cooperate even in difficult political situations," Johann-Dietrich Woerner, chairman of the German Aerospace Center, told Space News.