The astronauts aboard the International Space Station are advancing science and setting spaceflight milestones, and each achievement contributes to relationship-building that will support long-duration missions to Mars while benefiting humans back on Earth through advances in science.
Expedition 44 commander Gennady Padalka broke the 10-year-old record for the number of cumulative days in space this weekend, as he reached 804 days in space on June 28. His more than two years of cumulative time in space puts him ahead of the previous record of 803 days in space that was set by cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev on August 5, 2005. Padalka’s current mission marks his fifth time in space, and he is set to return to Earth in early September.
Padalka has been on orbit for more than 90 days after launching to the space station on March 27, and he has participated in several investigations, including one on how long-duration spaceflight affects vision. The Ocular Health study will not only help scientists understand how to protect an astronaut’s vision in space, but could also provide insight to changes in eyesight that can help people on Earth who suffer from ocular diseases such as glaucoma, high blood pressure or are confined to long-term bed rest.
Padalka is not the only crew member marking milestones on the orbiting laboratory this year. Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti set a new duration record for a single mission for European Space Agency astronauts, Italian astronauts and all female astronauts with her 200-day stay aboard the station. The previous record holder for the most days in space by a woman was astronaut Sunita Williams, who spent 195 days in space in 2007. Cristoforetti broke the record thanks in part to an extension on her mission after the Russian Progress 59 cargo craft failed to reach the space station after launching in late April.
Astronaut Scott Kelly is also set to break a record in October when he will surpass astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria’s record for the single-longest spaceflight by an American. Lopez-Alegria spent 215 days in space as commander of the Expedition 14 crew in 2006. Kelly will reach 216 days in space on October 28.
Kelly’s record-breaking will not stop in October as he continues on as part of the One-Year Mission along with cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. The pair arrived at the space station in March, and are participating in studies that examine a variety of effects of long-duration spaceflight such as the psychological effects of extended stays in space, and how astronauts perform functional tasks after spending a year in a low-gravity environment. Kelly’s twin brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly, will participate in parallel studies on Earth that will help scientists compare the effects on the body and mind in space.
The One-Year mission is a significant stepping stone in NASA’s Journey to Mars. The investigations in progress on the space station will help scientists better understand the effects of long-duration missions on humans, and how to protect them as they begin to live and work on the red planet. The strong U.S.-Russian collaboration during the One-Year Mission also is crucial in strengthening international partnerships that will be key in taking humans beyond low-Earth orbit.
As crew members break individual records this year, they also will celebrate a broader historic milestone. November marks 15 years of continuous human occupancy aboard the space station. The first resident crew of the station arrived on November 2, 2000. Expedition One included Commander Bill Shepard, Soyuz Commander Yuri Gidzenko and Flight Engineer Sergei Krikalev, and lasted more than four months. Since that time, there has never been a period when humans were not living and working in space.
Every milestone that is met and every record that is broken on the space station helps humans better understand how long-duration spaceflight affects bodies and minds, and creates more opportunities for applying the knowledge gained on orbit to improve the quality of our lives here on Earth. Seventeen years after the launch of the first space station module, it continues to be a place where we are doing research off the Earth, for the Earth.