“This really was a mission of endurance, not only in space, but from the time I was a kid.”
Astronaut Scott Kelly’s record-breaking year in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS) lifted off aboard a Russian Soyuz space capsule on March 27, 2015, as a scientific experiment to measure the physiological and psychological impacts of long-duration spaceflight – results that will ultimately help achieve space travel to Mars one day. Scott’s twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, remained on Earth, functioning as the control subject for NASA scientists and researchers.
Prior to launch, each brother underwent various medical tests (ultrasounds, MRIs) with detailed measurements of their bodies – height, weight, eyesight, heart function, and more – creating a comprehensive overview of each man’s overall health before the launch. In addition, researchers completed whole genome sequencing on the DNA and RNA contained in the twins’ white blood cells to discover if a ‘space gene’ was activated while Scott was in space.
“It was kind of a serendipitous thing—the happy accident,” Scott Kelly explained. “I had already been assigned to the flight and I had asked about genetic research. Apparently, the government isn’t allowed to ask their employees to participate in genetic research, but because I asked the question, that opened the door. It gave NASA the opportunity to delve into this area of genetic-based research that they’ve never been able to explore before.”
After Scott’s discussion with NASA, he approached Mark asking if he would be willing to participate in the experiment. Mark did not hesitate. “The science that NASA does is incredibly important and I’m so appreciative of everything that NASA’s done for me in allowing me to be part of the space program for 15 years so I said, ‘absolutely,’ to do whatever they’d like.”
Using the twins’ almost identical genetic makeup, the year-long mission provided scientists an unprecedented opportunity to study how the human body copes with prolonged space exposure. “They also had a lot of additional background data on my brother because he had been an astronaut for as long as I have, going back to 1995,” Scott noted.
During the mission, Scott would collect biological samples monthly and monitor his heart rate and blood pressure, even utilizing ultrasound technology to regularly scan his heart and eyes. Samples collected were used to measure changes in Scott’s body and vital signs and compare to those of Mark on the ground, providing scientists groundbreaking data – breaking down both the short-term and long-term effects of extended time in space.
The first and expected finding was Scott’s space-induced growth – during his year in space, he grew two inches taller than Mark. Researchers also identified an increase in Scott’s methylation rate – a process that turns gene activity on and off. According to Chris Mason, one of the principal investigators of the Twins Study, when floating in zero gravity, the body is trying to manage that situation in new ways. He told PBS NewsHour, “Both DNA and RNA were found to express genes in order to compensate for a lifestyle in space.”
Gene expression dictates which DNA cells are required to function, such as a protein, and acts as a control switch determining when proteins are made and the amount of proteins required to adapt to a changing environment. “The big find was that my telomeres – these things at the end of our chromosomes that shorten with stress and age – actually ended up longer than Marks,” Scott said. “It’s the opposite of what the scientists expected, given the challenging environment on the ISS, exposure to radiation, etc.” Scott’s telomeres shortened within two days after his return to Earth.
“There were some people out there in the media that were speculating that maybe NASA discovered the fountain of youth, which is going into space, which is not true and that’s wild speculation,” Mark noted. “But I think the interesting thing here is, here’s an experiment that the scientists have their hypothesis and they wound up with the opposite result.”
The risk, according to Mason, is that if longer telomeres are in place with higher levels of radiation, cells are more likely to mutate and become an aggressive cancer. “The effects of that radiation at a genetic level – I don’t know what they’ll be,” Scott remarked. “It takes three to five years for the results to be published, so we don’t really know much about the conclusions yet.”
The most recent and interesting discovery (released March 2018) concerns the activation of the “space gene.” At time of publication, 93 percent of Scott’s genes had returned to normal, suggesting long term changes to seven percent of his genes – including those related to his immune system, DNA repair, bone formation networks, hypoxia (oxygen deficiency) and hypercapnia (excessive carbon dioxide in the bloodstream). The changes surprised even Scott. “I did read in the newspaper the other day… that seven percent of my DNA had changed permanently,” Scott stated in a recent interview. “I’m reading that, I’m like, ‘Huh, well that’s weird.’” The complete Twins Study findings are expected to be published at the end of this year, accompanied by a series of small research papers.
Scott’s journey to becoming a record-holding veteran astronaut – with four spaceflights and the longest single space mission by an American behind him – was challenging. He found himself easily distracted in school, staring out the window or glaring at the clock waiting for the day to end. “If I was a kid today, I would have been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD,” he shared. “It was impossible. Every year, I thought, ‘This is the year I’m going to start paying attention and doing my homework.’ And that would last all of two days.”
His struggles in high school carried over into college, until he discovered a structured environment that would help him focus on schoolwork through the ROTC. He enrolled in the Navy ROTC program at the State University of New York Maritime College. It was there, at the college bookstore, his trajectory shifted and aspirations to become an astronaut came to the surface through the pages of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff – a book about America’s space program in the early days. Scott recalled, “For whatever reason, I related to it and decided that this was what I was going to do.
I wanted to be a naval aviator, to land on a ship because I thought it would be the hardest type of flying. I was absolutely right. That book was the spark I needed to get moving in a positive direction. It wasn’t easy, especially at first, when I had to teach myself how to be a good student and study. But over time, I was able to learn how to compensate for my lack of attention.”
Scott and his twin brother, Mark, shared the same passion for flight and for space, but their journey to the NASA space program took different paths. Mark joined the Navy and graduated with the highest honors, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in marine engineering and nautical science from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1986. In 1994, he went on to earn a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. Scott, meanwhile, earned both a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in aviation systems from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He then spent a year at the University of Maryland exploring the possibility of becoming a doctor before he followed his love of flight and entered the Navy – placing him one year behind his brother Mark.
The twins both applied and were accepted to be shuttle pilots for NASA in 1996, joining the NASA Astronaut Corps. – ultimately becoming the first set of twins to travel to space, though never on the same mission. In 2011, after an illustrious career and four spaceflight missions, Mark announced his retirement from the U.S. Navy and NASA, shifting his focus to his family – assisting wife and former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in her recovery after an assassination attempt where she sustained a critical gunshot wound to the head. A year later, in 2012, NASA selected Scott for the year-long mission.
In preparation, Scott spent the next two years in Russia training alongside Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, who also performed multiple experiments aboard the ISS during the year-long mission. “A really smart person said to me one time, `Teamwork makes the dream work in spaceflight,’ and spaceflight is the biggest team sport there is,” Scott stated upon his return from the ISS. “It’s incredibly important that we all work together to make what is seemingly impossible, possible.”
NASA required a strict regime during the 340-day mission. “I would get up about 45 minutes before I had my first activity to do. I would go and get ready. Kind of like you do for work here, with the fact that you don’t have a shower. Make breakfast. We would have a conference at usually around 7:30 in the morning. We talked to all the different control centers. Then depending on what was scheduled, you’d go about your work day, and it consists of doing science experiments or fixing hardware, general kind of upkeep of the space station.
I’d do a lot of exercises every day. It’s about a 12-hour day before you’re done; then after the conference in the evening, we’d have dinner and then a couple of hours later I’d go to sleep. I’d get up and I’d do it all over again.”
Despite rigorous 12-hour work days, Scott brought his fascinating adventure to social media platforms including Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, sharing spectacular and breathtaking photos for followers all over the world to appreciate. He coined the hashtags #YearInSpace and #EarthArt, promoted NASA’s campaign #WhySpaceMatters and sent a #GoodnightFromSpace photo nearly every night.
Approximately 750 images were shared during his 340 days in space chronicling his journey – each depicting Earth’s cities, landscapes, oceans and atmosphere. The social media blitz was a brilliant partnership between Scott and his now fiancé, Amiko Kauderer, a former public affairs representative at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “I think it was very important to feel connected to the people on the ground, but also maybe more importantly it was something that I could work on with Amiko, who was at the time my girlfriend – it was something we could work on together,” he explained. “It allowed us to have this project that gave us things to talk about at night, in the evenings, and it had kind of [a] metric of how well we were doing. It was easy to see, based on the response you get from what you’re posting.”
Free time was limited, if not scarce. Setting and reaching milestones became a tool by which Scott could remain focused – science experiments, robotics and welcoming crew members to name a few. “That made a difference to me, keeping my sanity,” Scott mentioned. On weekends he would spend time journaling about his experiences.
“I hadn’t done that on my previous flights, but I had the idea to write down my impressions on this one because it was an unprecedented mission and I thought I might want to write about it someday.”
The ISS seems an unlikely place for a library of books and media – however, astronauts need a break from their routine when orbiting Earth, especially for long periods of time. Personal items were allowed on the mission as long as they collectively weighed less than three pounds. One of Scott’s most inspirational and meaningful items was Endurance written by Alfred Lansing in 1959 – a book about Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. “I brought this book with me on my previous flight as well, and sometimes I flip through it after a long day and reflect on what these explorers went through almost exactly 100 years before,” Scott recounted. “When I read about their experiences, I think about how much harder they had it than I did. Sometimes I’ll pick up the book specifically for that reason.”
“Some time in the future all these small steps will lead to people putting their feet on Mars in the name of science, exploration and discovery. And I’m proud to be one small part of that.“
SPACE SELFIE. Astronaut Scott Kelly kept an active social media presence during his year in space, offering those on Earth a look at life both inside (and outside!) the space station. Scientists are now looking for what they’re calling a “space gene.” By sequencing the RNA in both Scott and Mark Kelly’s white blood cells, researchers have found more than 200,000 RNA molecules that were expressed differently between the brothers. It is normal for twins to have unique mutations in their genome, but scientists are “looking closer to see if a ‘space gene’ could have been activated while Scott was in space,” NASA said.
BOTTOM: The Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of Roscosmos near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, on Wednesday, March 2, 2016 (Kazakh time). Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls.
It was that inspiration and a conversation that inclined Scott to title his memoir Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime Discovery. “At some point, somebody said to me that this really was a mission of endurance, not only in space, but from the time I was a kid,” he said in an interview with collectSPACE in October 2017. “It was an example of sticking your nose to the grindstone and just plugging away… When I heard that, I thought it was a pretty good idea for a title for the book, especially because of the connection I had with ‘Endurance’ and Shackleton.”
Even as an accomplished astronaut, writing Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime Discovery was extremely challenging for Scott. “There are different kinds of hard. It’s not the hard of landing an airplane on an aircraft carrier. It’s not the hard of doing a spacewalk. But writing a book is the type of project that takes a persistent focus over a long period of time, a lot of energy, a lot of work. I’m not joking when I say it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
But he did. Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime Discovery captures Scott’s compassion, candidness and humor in an earnest and straightforward way, taking readers through his journey from school to space along with him. “The other important theme of this book is that you can struggle to find your way, but if you find something you are passionate about, some spark that gets you moving toward that goal with drive and determination, even someone who had ADD as a kid, like I did, can still be successful.”
Scott’s passion and appreciation for science inspired him to team up with 3M to launch the State of Science Index – a study of people’s attitude towards science. Findings in a recent survey from 14,036 adults living in 14 countries uncovered skepticism in the study of science. “The thing that surprised me most was that 38 percent of people thought their lives would be the same if science didn’t exist. In 2020, we’re going to have 9 billion people on the planet – those people will have an effect on the climate, on food availability and on water availability,” Scott said. “These are issues that can only be solved with science.”
One third of the respondents stated science and scientific careers are only accessible to ‘geniuses’ – another finding that concerned Scott. “There might be a ‘space gene,’ but there is no science gene,” he stated. “Some subjects might come easier to some people than others, but the field is open to anyone who is willing to put in the hard work. I was just a kid that couldn’t do homework and who underperformed in school, but with some inspiration and hard work was able to work in a very complicated scientific field.”
Scott also points to increased engagement in the field by breaking down barriers (specifically related to gender) and introducing students to the many career opportunities available in science. While STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degrees are on the rise, he believes it is important for all people to become scientifically engaged. “We as parents, mentors, and relatives need to help draw a connection between a student’s passion point and a science field,” he explained. “The more we can help students understand that they can improve lives through science, the more, I think, they’ll be engaged in the field.”
NASA continues to examine scientific findings from the Twins Study in preparation for future deep space missions, specifically to Mars. “I think Mars should be our next goal. It’s the nearest planet in our system that has Earth-like qualities. It has a little bit of an atmosphere,” Scott remarked. Our second-closest (or first, depending on current orbits) neighbor is roughly a third the size of Earth, and once had water and an atmosphere like our planet. These factors make it ideal for exploration. “I think there’s a lot we could learn about Earth from going to Mars. I think the challenge of doing it alone is worth the goal and the cost.”
Scott described his extraordinary mission as a “baby step” towards the goal of putting humans on Mars. “Some time in the future all these small steps will lead to people putting their feet on Mars in the name of science, exploration and discovery. And I’m proud to be one small part of that.”