Monday, March 30, 2015

The Challenges of a One Year Mission to Space

On Friday March 27 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko launched atop a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, marking the beginning of a year-long mission to the International Space Station.

Kelly and Kornienko, known as the "One Year Crew" launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan along with cosmonaut Gennady Padalka at 19:42 GMT on Friday. The pair will live aboard the orbiting complex for one year, before returning to Earth in March 2016.
Padalka, Kelly and Kornienko prior to launch from Baikonur
credit: NASA

The one year mission will allow scientists to see how the human body will adapt to the microgravity conditions found aboard the ISS, as well as examining the psychological effects of living off the planet for one year.  The scientific community will also be carefully watching how Kelly and Kornienko re-adapt to life back on Earth after spending a year in low-Earth orbit.

Changes in vision are just one of the many side effects that have been observed in some astronauts returning from long-duration spaceflights, and researchers want to learn more about its root causes and develop countermeasures to minimize this risk.

The duo will also have to combat bone and muscle loss (which happens to every astronaut when they fly in space for several months) by exercising for 2.5 hours each day, using the station's treadmills, bike machine known as CEVIS(Cycle Ergometer with Vibration Isolation and Stabilization System) and a weights machine called ARED(Advanced Resistive Exercise Device). For a six month mission, astronauts can lose up to 15% muscle volume.

Just in case you were wondering, this will not be the first time human beings will be sent into orbit for a year-long mission. In 1994, cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov spent 437 days living aboard the Russian space station Mir, before returning to Earth in 1995. Despite suffering from a clear decline in morale for the first two months of his mission, Polyakov was able to regain his pre-flight mood for the rest of his stay aboard the station.

Upon returning to Earth in his Soyuz capsule after a successful mission, Polyakov decided he would rather walk the small distance from his spacecraft to a nearby reclining chair, demonstrating that humans would be able to walk on the surface of Mars after several weightless months in transit from Earth. This extra-long duration mission showed that the human body could deal with the strains and stresses of living in space for such an extended period of time. However, Kelly and Kornienko will be the first space farers to spend a year living on the International Space Station.

ESA astronaut and Expedition 26/27 Flight Engineer Paolo Nespoli, who spent six months living on the ISS in 2010 & 2011, told me that now is a good time to attempt a mission of this nature:

 "I feel we need to know more about what happens to the body and what happens to the mind when you stay in space for a long time, so I think that now is a good time and I think we should do it."

Nespoli went on to mention that the technology we have on the space station is far superior to what Polyakov had at his disposal on Mir, and how it will be easier to connect with family, friends and Mission Control teams all over the world.

Kelly in the station's Cupola during Expedition 26
credit: NASA
"There was a Russian cosmonaut(Polyakov) who stayed in space for well over a year, so the Russians have done this in a more restricted and confined environment than what is today space station, where we have internet, telephone, teleconference capabilities so we can talk to Mission Control whenever we want".

I also asked Doug Wheelock about his thoughts on the upcoming mission, and what challenges would be faced by the one year crew. He went on to say that the biggest obstacles would be dealing with the mental stresses of living off the planet for such a long time:

"I think the greatest challenge will be managing the physiology & psychology of isolation, emotion, & senses... it is critical to stay in the moment".

Finally, I recently spoke with Expedition 35/36 Flight Engineer Chris Cassidy, who returned from the International Space Station back in September 2013, about his thoughts on the one year mission:

"In my experience on coming home day, as we were closing the hatch I thought to myself "What would I think if I was halfway done right now? How would I feel? What would I need? To be honest I felt a little accumulative fatigue- when you're living at your workplace, and you can't shut the door to work and go home in the evening and kick back and watch Monday Night Football- you're there all the time and it eventually catches up to you".

Cassidy, who completed a total of three spacewalks, or EVAs, during his most recent flight, also had a few ideas regarding how the crew doesn't become fatigued with the heavy workload that comes with living aboard the orbiting outpost, suggesting a longer weekend from time to time in the second half of the mission:

"I think my recommendation would be in months 7 through 12, the second half of the year is to have a three day weekend every month because you really need a good recharge. Sunday is a really good day to have a recharge, and to have an extra Sunday thrown in the mix every now and then would go a long way".

The International Space Station
credit: NASA
All in all, it appears that everyone in science and space exploration fields are confident about the one year mission. Both Kelly and Kornienko have lived aboard the ISS before, so it's fair to say that we have a very experienced crew on our hands, logging over 360 days in space between them. In addition, their Soyuz Commander Gennady Padalka will become the first four-time commander of the space station, and upon returning to Earth at the end of Expedition 44 will have logged a total of nearly 900 days in space - the longest time spent in space by any human being.

It is hoped that data recorded from this mission will assist teams on the ground in their understanding of the effects of long terms weightlessness on the body, and what it may be like for humans if they were sent on a mission to Mars in the future. After Kelly and Kornienko return to Earth in 2016, we will no doubt, be one small step closer to the human exploration of the Red Planet.

Godspeed Scott and Misha!

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