After 340 days aboard the International Space Station—the longest stretch for any NASA astronaut—recent ISS Commander Scott Kelly is back on Earth and reflecting on his year in orbit. During a press conference on Friday, the astronaut shared his thoughts on a manned mission to Mars, the utility of virtual reality in space, and how staring down at the Earth for a year changes your view on environmentalism.
Though there are still a year’s worth of physical tests ahead of him and his twin brother, Mark, and much analysis to be done before we start to understand the true impact of living in zero gravity for close to 12 months, Kelly was able to share some first impressions after arriving back home Wednesday.
“The only big surprise was how long a year is,” Kelly said about the mission. “It seemed like I had lived there forever. It seemed longer than I thought it would be.”
Kelly said that, compared to the shorter stints he had done aboard the ISS, he was feeling more intense physical shocks after coming back to Earth this time. He said he is experiencing more severe muscle soreness and fatigue and that his skin has become extremely sensitive, to the point where even clothing and shoes can cause a burning sensation. Kelly also said he thinks his coordination is a bit off as he adjusts back to life with gravity, noting some trouble he had shooting basketballs Thursday. But he also felt confident that a longer spaceflight would be completely reasonable for any properly trained astronaut.
“I personally think going to Mars, if it takes two years or two and a half years, yeah that's doable,” Kelly said about a potential manned mission to the Red Planet. “Certainly the first people that go there, that’s going to be a big motivator: being first to go to Mars.”
One point Kelly made more than once was that his time in space gave him a new concern for the environment. He noted that, from the vantage point of the ISS, he could observe numerous environmental impacts—pollution in parts of Asia, wildfires in California—as well as the notably thin atmosphere.
“You just notice how thin the atmosphere is, how fragile it looks, and that combined with large swaths of pollution is somewhat alarming,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to take care of the environment. People say 'save the planet,’ but the planet will be just fine. It's us that’s going to have a problem.”
While on board, the crew conducted a number of experiments, including testing out a HoloLens device. Kelly said he believes augmented reality and virtual reality technology could be a major asset for space work, especially when connected to the support team on Earth. A maintenance procedure, for example, could be performed wearing augmented reality goggles with the instructions right in front of the astronaut’s eyes, and the ability for remote experts to highlight specific tools or elements. Kelly said the goggles they tested were also equipped with an alien invasion video game, which for some reason didn’t freak out any of the crew.
“It actually has a game on it where there are alien spaceships coming inside the space station and you gotta shoot ‘em with your finger,” Kelly said. “We were playing around with that and it didn't seem to make anyone sick. It was kind of fun.”
After he landed back on Earth, his first meal was a ripe banana—a choice he later realized was particularly appropriate given his recent gorilla suit appearance on the ISS—and when he finally got back to his home in Texas after traveling from Kazakhstan where the Soyuz capsule landed, he hopped in his pool:
“You want to get that water around you,” he said. “We make due with not having a shower on board and it’s not like you feel dirty, but you definitely feel like you would like to jump in a pool. So I did.”