After nearly a year in space, the best cure is … a blast of fresh air?
So said astronaut Scott Kelly, who now holds the record (340 days) for the longest period an American has spent in space, describing his return to the frigid temperatures of Kazakhstan on Wednesday along with his roommate for the past year, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.
Feeling the rush of bitterly cold air when the hatch of his Soyuz capsule popped open after touchdown was “amazing,” he told NASA in an interview before returning home to Houston. He arrived early Thursday.
"I don't mean to say it's not fresh on the space station," he said, ”but there's nothing like new cold air coming into the capsule."
The two men had long yearned for nature through their mission at the International Space Station, a dry run for what NASA says will be eventual trips to Mars.
"Just like Scott, I wanted to see Earth and I wanted to smell that fresh air. This is an unforgettable feeling," Mr. Kornienko said.
In Houston, Mr. Kelly was welcomed back by Mark Kelly, his identical twin brother who is a retired astronaut. Also in the welcoming party: Scott Kelly’s two daughters, his girlfriend, who has been chronicling his mission as a NASA public affairs officer and his sister-in-law, former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Mark’s wife.
“All things considered, he's feeling great. He said the first thing he wanted to do when he gets to his house in Houston is jump in his swimming pool,” wrote Mark Kelly of his brother’s return on Thursday on NBC News' website, calling the mission a “massive milestone” in the history of America’s space program.
On Wednesday, Scott Kelly took a call from President Obama, who tweeted “Your year in space is vital to the future of American space travel. Hope gravity isn’t a drag!”
The focus turned nearly immediately to the next frontier — a trip to Mars, which NASA says it hopes to accomplish by the 2030s. It is running a series of medical tests to see how the body and the mind would fare during that 2 1/2 year expedition. Upon returning from the International Space Station, Kelly appeared to need little assistance walking and seemed highly energetic while waiting to return to Houston, the AP reports.
He has particularly active on social media throughout the year, chronicling his journey through hundreds of photos of Earth. On Wednesday, he posted a photo of his first salad on Earth on Twitter, saying it would be important to grow fresh food during an expedition on Mars, like his space station lettuce crop.
The two astronauts have described their return to Earth as bittersweet, though Kelly said that the isolation could be challenging. At the six month mark last September, he said, “I felt like I had been up there my whole life."
The space station is now being manned by three men, with three more set to arrive in two weeks.
But their missions are far from over as Kelly and Kornienko were both whisked to medical tents just after they touched down in Kazakhstan for tests where they attempted to stand, walk, jump, and navigate obstacles, which they would be called on to do immediately after touching down on Mars.
Those tests — along with blood, saliva and urine collections — will continue for weeks if not months. Both Kelly brothers served as guinea pigs for an eventual Mars mission, one in space and one on the ground.
They cast the mission as a team effort, with Mark Kelly noting that his brother had “the fun job” but faced some potentially lethal risks, such as the potential to ingest a poisonous leak of ammonia, which is used to cool the space station and the danger of rapid depressurization that could come from a piece of space debris “as small as a pencil eraser.”
The record marked a milestone for America, though the world record of 438 days was set in the mid-1990s by Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov. The Kelly brothers said they were looking forward to setting the next milestone by moving beyond low-earth-orbit to Mars.
“I’m definitely encouraged on our ability to go even longer,” Scott Kelly told the crowd when he arrived in Houston. “I mean, even though I looked forward to coming home and there were things that I missed, I felt like if it was for the right reason, I clearly could have stayed however long it took.”