Astronaut Scott Kelly will become the first U.S. astronaut to spend a year in space. Why? He is volunteering to be a human guinea pig -- to help NASA collect detailed medical and psychological data about the effects of long term spaceflight on a human. He and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in 2015 and return to Earth in 2016.
He was on the space station when his twin brother Mark was struggling to deal with the trauma of his wife's shooting. Mark Kelly, now retired from the astronaut corps, is a married to former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords – and Scott could only offer long distance support to his twin brother when his wife was shot during in January 2011.
Jared Loughner has now pleaded guilty to 19 federal charges in the mass shooting that killed six and injured 13, including Giffords, who was hosting a congressional event that day.
Scott Kelly wished he could have done more to help. That is one of the drawbacks of a long term mission -- there is no easy way home if something happens to a loved one on Earth.
Kelly clearly understands the risks -- and the rewards -- of long-duration space flight. He is, after all, a Navy fighter pilot, used to assignments overseas. He told ABC News in an interview before his last mission to the space station that his research was important to the future of space travel.
Scott Kelly "We need to learn how people can live and work in space for long periods of time, also how the equipment can survive and operate for long periods," he said. "If we are ever going to send people to live on the Moon, we are three days away, or to live on Mars where you are potentially 18 months away, we need to have some very robust systems to allow them to survive there. And the only place you can learn how to build and operate those systems is on the space station."
We already know many of the risks -- NASA has documented the damage to the eyesight of seven astronauts after they returned from spending months in space. Their flight surgeons have gone on record discussing bone density loss, decreased muscle mass, and the psychological isolation.
Why would anyone volunteer for this? The International Space Station is after all, is the only game in town if you are an astronaut and a mission to the dark side to the moon, while a popular topic, isn't funded yet, and Mars? Still decades away.
When will the U.S. space program get back into flying NASA astronauts into space? Hopefully by 2017. Several companies are working to build and certify human rated spacecraft to take crew, and cargo to the International Space Station.
While NASA touts the medical research accumulated from a year in space, the reality is that this also frees up a couple of seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to sell to tourists.
When the U.S. space shuttles quit flying last year, they created a conundrum for companies like Space Adventures, whose business -- sending rich tourists into space -- depended upon the resources of Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency. Roscosmos is the only space agency willing to send tourists to space (NASA won't do it, and now they don't have a spacecraft anyway so it's a moot point). Singer Sarah Brightman announced she is buying one of the seats -- and then launched a concert tour, so time will tell if she is really serious about training for a flight.
Kelly is an experienced astronaut -- he served as pilot on space shuttle mission STS-103 in 1999, commanded STS-118 in 2007, was flight engineer on the International Space Station Expedition 25 in 2010 and commander of Expedition 26 in 2011.
Kelly has logged more than 180 days in space, and a yearlong mission this would bring his total to almost 550 days. Impressive numbers, but the record will still belong to Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who, over six missions, spent 803 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes of his life in space.