On March 27, 2015, I was in Baikonur, Kazakhstan to watch another launch of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). Although I had been to Baikonur many times in the past to observe Soyuz launches, this time was very special. As a guest of one of America’s most experienced astronauts, Scott Kelly, I watched as he and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko lifted off for a one-year mission to the ISS. For Kelly, it would be a record-breaking mission, as no other American astronaut had ever flown that long in space.
Scott’s historic flight ended March 2. He and Kornienko, along with cosmonaut Sergey Volkov, returned safely to Earth, landing in their Soyuz spacecraft near Zhezkazgan in Kazakhstan. This was Scott’s fourth time in space and his second long-duration flight. He now holds the American records for consecutive time in space (340 days) and total time in space (540 days). Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov holds the world record for consecutive time in space (437 days) and Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka holds the world record for total time in space (879 days).
Kelly’s first two flights to space were shorter missions aboard U.S. space shuttles: an eight-day mission as the pilot of Space Shuttle Discovery in December 1999, and a 12-day mission to the ISS as commander of Space Shuttle Endeavour in August 2007. During his Discovery flight, the crew performed three spacewalks (EVAs), successfully installed new instruments and upgraded systems on the Hubble Space Telescope to enhance its scientific capabilities. On his Endeavour mission, the crew performed a total of four EVAs, installing a truss segment, a new gyroscope and an external spare parts platform on the ISS. Kelly’s third flight in October 2010 was his first aboard a Russian Soyuz (the U.S. would launch its last space shuttle flight in July 2011) as well as his first long duration mission to the ISS. He assumed command of the Space Station in November 2010 and returned to Earth in March 2011.
Kelly’s successful one-year flight represents a significant and game-changing step forward in better understanding the impact of long-duration spaceflight on the human body and how to alleviate its deleterious effects. Both Kelly and Kornienko are to be commended for their willingness to step forward and accept the challenges of living in space for a year to provide knowledge that will in turn help enable future long-duration space exploration missions.
Many lessons have been learned as a result of this one-year flight. But perhaps the most important and lasting lesson, given this season of great political rhetoric, is not how an American or a Russian may now be able to explore the outer reaches of the universe, but rather how two nations can work together to help enable the human species to go forward. Kelly’s mission should be an example to the world, from its very beginning a year ago in Baikonur to its successful completion on the steps of Kazakhstan, of the success that can be achieved if nations choose to work together for the betterment of all humankind.
George W.S. Abbey is a senior fellow in space policy at the Baker Institute.