Abdulateef Al-Mulhim
Abdulateef Al-Mulhim
Commodore, Royal Saudi Navy (Retired)

President Obama: Hey Scott, loving the photos. Do you ever look out the window and just freak out?

Scott Kelly: I don’t freak out about anything, Mr. President. Except getting a Twitter question from you.

The above conversation actually took place on Twitter between US President Barack Obama and American astronaut retired UN Navy captain Scott Kelly.

Last week, the International Space Station (ISS) saw the end of a scientific experiment that may not be seen again. Two astronauts, one is America’s Scott Kelly and the other is Russia’s cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko had gone for a one- year experiment aboard the International Space Station. It all started from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazhakstan in March 2015 aboard the Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, which carried them to the ISS. After spending 340 days in the space and carrying out 400 experiments, the two astronauts returned to the planet. The International Space Station is at an altitude of about 400 kilometers above earth and it circles earth at a speed of about 28,000 kilometers per hour. In other words, it circles earth every 90 minutes. Millions around the world watched their return but it turned out that the most talked about thing about their return is the fact that Kelly came back from space two inches taller. Now, this is something many people would like to have. To be two inches taller.

This mission probably changed the space science forever and it changed the way people looked at the space. It could be a giant step toward commercial space flights and closer step for humans toward a trip to the red planet, Mars in the near future. As Astronaut Scott Kelly said, it can be done. In addition to that it was the first time that not only the astronauts who participated in the experiments but millions around the world saw those proceeding through various channels. There were constant flows of Tweets, selfies, updates, live coverage of spacewalks, broadcasting of events aboard the ISS, experimental results and constant broadcast of the whereabouts of the ISS. But, the most important is that while astronaut Scott Kelly was doing human endurance and physical changes while in space at zero gravity, NASA was also monitoring his identical twin brother Mark who is also a former astronaut and naval aviator. I don’t want to even think about the odds of something like this happening again.

It will be months before scientists know the full results and effects of being in space for a year but the results will be very valuable for future missions that might take humans into the outer space. In other words, the one-year mission is far from over. It could be the beginning of another totally different plan, as astronauts are now eyeing Mars.

I have followed every event of this mission from the start. I was honored to be present at NASA’s Johnson Space Center Mission Control in Houston for the launch and I translated and explained in Arabic some of the events that took place aboard the station. Every week I would get an update from Shannon Hartman at the Behavioral Health and Performance at NASA about the general activities at the station. All the experiments and activities were breathtaking especially the spacewalks, which not only required courage but intelligence and common sense. What I really admired the most about the mission was the teamwork. It is an admirable thing to see astronauts from different countries working together to help humans understand more about their planet and the universe. Scientists are serious about going to Mars. And this mission will help them study the effects of living in space on human body and psyche.

Until today, it is known that going to Mars is not going to be easy. Scientists have to develop ways to overcome many obstacles such as faster ways to get to Mars, more efficient propulsion system, better communication, better resupply mechanism and overcoming medical needs. There are also things that the astronauts have no control over them such as sleep-wake cycles, change of vision, bone loss and change in muscle functions. This is why a mission like the one in question will help scientists answer many of the questions. The information and the result of tests that are going to be made public soon will be very valuable. Many NASA scientists are asking for more astronauts to be transported into space to stay for long durations to know more about the effects on humans in zero gravity before being able to send humans to Mars. Many believe that the biggest obstacles in this mission are the resupply mechanism of delivering food and spare parts to the crew and speed of spacecraft taking humans to Mars. But for now, Kelly and Kornienko have played their roles. So, welcome back to Earth.

Written by Abdulateef Al-Mulhim. 340 Days in Space reprinted with permission of Arab News and Abdulateef Al-Mulhim.