by chrisjones

In cavernous Building 9 at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, tucked behind a privacy screen, there is a working model of the International Space Station’s toilet. Scott Kelly flicked the three switches that power it up—its control panels, stamped in Cyrillic, flashed with a succession of green lights—and he nodded when a familiar hum filled the air. Three years ago, he commanded the space station for six months, and he came to know the Waste and Hygiene Compartment well. In late March, Kelly will return to his former home as the first American astronaut assigned to live in space for twelve months. This summer, between his morning robotics training and his afternoon Russian class, he took a refresher course in the orbital evacuation of his bowels. The toilet does not have a seat. It dawned on him that he will not sit down for a year.

He will spend that year falling so fast he will appear to float—in the instance of the toilet, over a small square of plastic with a circular hole just a few inches across. Only his feet will be anchored by restraints. It is better than it used to be. For the two shuttle missions earlier in his career, Kelly’s training included a toilet with a closed-circuit camera in its bowl, pointing straight up. He had to learn to assume the position by checking a nearby monitor, as though he were using a bombsight.

Now, on the space station, considerable air suction assists in maintaining alignment. Stool is drawn into a clear plastic bag that lines the hole; the bags have distinctive red release tabs. After the astronaut cleans up with gauze and Huggies Natural Care wipes—NASA doesn’t endorse any particular brand of wipe; it just happens to fly Huggies—they’re pushed into the same bag, which is removed, tied up, and shoved into a metal canister the size of a milk jug that, when full, will be jettisoned in a trash ship and turned into a shooting star. Finally, the bag is replaced as a courtesy to the toilet’s next occupant. When the new bag isn’t properly installed, it’s called short bagging, and short bagging is the sort of thing that can strain crew relations.

Weightlessness changes everything, and it will change Scott Kelly. Because he won’t be sitting, and because the human body is a ruthless and efficient machine, over time his pelvis will lose its bursa sacs, which cushion his hip joints against earthly hazards like toilet seats but become obsolete in space. He will also urinate some significant percentage of his blood reserve—stored in his legs on the ground, but risen into his overstuffed core in the absence of gravity—into a separate piece of the WHC. More specifically, he will take the hose that hangs to the left of the toilet, remove the plastic cap off the yellow, narrow-mouthed funnel at its end, open the urine valve, check to see that there’s sufficient air suction in it, too, and aim for the middle. The urine will then pass through a series of centrifuges and purification systems and come out the other end as his water supply.

Before the urine enters the first separator—a $700,000 Russian-built piece of hardware that spins the air out of it—it will be given a dose of a syrupy, almost black liquid called pretreat. Its exact composition is secret, but it’s some toxic combination of chromium trioxide and sulfuric acid. Human urine, left untreated, will release particulates that will give the water-purification system the equivalent of the bends. This is a problem that had a team of engineers scratching their heads. Their literal solution was to fight the particulates with pretreat, now one of thousands of responses to the challenges of life in space, our ever-growing collection of improvisations and sidesteps that will allow us, one day, to get from here to there.

In such a complicated environment, however, solutions often give rise to more confounding problems. One day during Kelly’s six-month mission, in 2010–11, the toilet’s lights flashed red instead of green. He removed a panel and discovered a faulty hose connection had led to a pretreat leak. In microgravity, the solution didn’t drip or conveniently pool. It formed a shimmering sphere of acids the size and color of a cannonball that now floated out of the cabinet.

Kelly hadn’t been in space long enough to have suppressed all of his gravity-bound instincts. He grabbed an old T-shirt to soak up the pretreat, as though he’d spilled oil in his garage. Unfortunately, that old T-shirt had sweat and therefore water molecules trapped in its fibers. Pour a little acid into enough water and it will disperse. Introduce a small amount of water to a cauldron of acid and something else happens. That old T-shirt didn’t act like a sponge. It was flint. Now Kelly saw and smelled smoke.

Fire is the primal fear of astronauts. Every American astronaut who has been killed in a space suit has died in flames. There was a terrible fire on Mir, the old Soviet space station, and it’s whispered about in Houston like a ghost story. (It wasn’t fatal; cosmonauts tend to die by asphyxiation or in falls to earth.) That’s not only because the crew can’t escape outside or because the fire will consume their oxygen. Fire, like just about everything else, behaves differently in weightlessness.

A candle’s flame always points up because of gravity. Fire is superheated gas that’s lighter than the air around it. That’s why volcanic plumes and hot-air balloons rise. We can fight fires because they have a predictable architecture, built with a spine like a book. In orbit, fire is not lighter than air. It weighs the same as air, which weighs the same as everything else. A candle’s flame no longer points up because there is no up. A candle’s flame is round. A fire will imitate the sun. Kelly’s trip to the bathroom now threatened to turn into a ball of anchorless flame.

Happily, one of Kelly’s crewmates was a chemist named Cady Coleman. She understood the nature of acids—she knew that too little water might ignite them, and yet enough water rendered them harmless. But how could she bring one to the other? There was no hauling a bucket from the sink. Coleman found a large plastic bag, soaked some towels, threw them in the bag, and then caught the smoldering ball of acids with it as though she were scooping up a fish in a net. In time, the bag—its combination of enough water and not enough oxygen—snuffed out the threat. It was less warfare than a kind of siege.

Now, in Building 9, Scott Kelly looked down at the toilet that will again be his. The lights on the panels continued to flash, and the fans continued to whir. There was the hose with the yellow funnel. There were those clear plastic bags with the distinctive red tabs, and the metal canister into which they will be stuffed. There was the pouch of Huggies.

“A year is a long time,” he said.

The International Space Station photographed by the shuttle Atlantis in 2010.

The Russians proposed the one-year mission. Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, has always been more intrigued by the risks and rewards of long-duration flight than NASA has been. Four cosmonauts spent more than a year in space on the uncomfortable bucket that was Mir, the last in 1999. A narrow-faced Russian named Sergei Krikalev is the current record holder for the most time lived in orbit. Over six missions, he has spent eight hundred and three days, nine hours, and thirty-nine minutes weightless. Semi-famously, he was on Mir when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Mir didn’t have many windows, but whenever Krikalev found his way to one, he looked down on a new world.

The International Space Station was built in that tumultuous reality. Fearful that aimless Russian rocket scientists might seek stable employment in places like North Korea or Iran, the Americans proposed a more harmonic convergence: the grandest and most difficult construction project in history, built out of Russian wisdom and American largesse. Today, the station comprises two distinct halves, augmented by Japanese, European, and Canadian contributions. The Russian segments are narrower and more austere. The Russians don’t process their urine; they just piss into tanks. They also carpet their modules in Velcro, using nearly every available surface to secure a battalion of objects that otherwise would be satellites. The Americans don’t have nearly as much Velcro in their quarters. They’ve deemed it a fire risk.

By treaty, there is agreement between the U. S. and Russia that their conjoined space programs are out of political bounds. Whatever events might be unfolding on earth, whatever airliners might be shot out of the Ukrainian sky, there are no sides in space. It helps that the Russians possess our only means to manned orbit—the Soyuz spacecraft—and that the Americans control much of the station’s electrical plant and the gyroscopes that maintain its attitude. “We have something up there that is holding us together,” says Michael Suffredini, NASA’s manager of the ISS Program Office. “Right now we have six crew onboard, and we all understand that these men and women are the next step for humanity.”

But like countries and their arrangements, the station has a life span: It will stop defying gravity in 2024, or not long after. While it always has been used as a weightless laboratory—more than a thousand investigations in materials and medical research have been undertaken since Expedition 1 in 2000—the Russians wondered whether the station’s residents might be part of a larger experiment in the time they have left. Six-month expeditions have become the industry standard, but a journey to Mars—MAPC in Cyrillic—will require a crew to spend as long as three years in space. So the Russians proposed that, in the decade or so before the station falls to earth, as many as twelve subjects be rocketed up, delivered in pairs, to test the physical and psychological limits of humans in weightlessness. (Those four brawny men on Mir were never subjected to intensive diagnostic study; cosmonauts still refuse to give stool samples.) The Americans, fresh off the stunning success of the Mars rover Curiosity, agreed. We’ve proved we can reach Mars with our machines; the exiled dozen will help us decide whether we can reach it with our feet.

Such an undertaking requires equal parts optimism and resignation. It takes a certain measure of faith to strap into a seat on a missile in Kazakhstan and trust that you will end up safely in orbit. It also takes the belief that we will one day need to. For all the hopefulness astronauts represent, they are among the least delusional people on earth. What Chris Hadfield, a former astronaut and station commander, calls the “North American subculture of pretense”—that sense that we can make all our wishes come true—has been stripped from them over years of simulations that end in their deaths. Astronauts are experts in weakness.

“I’m in this business to take humans beyond low-earth orbit,” Suffredini says. “I believe that’s how this species will survive, when we can inhabit other planets if something happens to this one. We need to start proving to ourselves that we can do it.” Scientific research is often a parade of analogues. NASA uses Antarctica and giant swimming pools as analogues for life in space; the International Space Station is about to become an analogue for an interplanetary Noah’s Ark.

A mustachioed fifty-four-year-old cosmonaut named Mikhail Kornienko will be the first to represent the Russians. The American is Scott Kelly.

The giant Soyuz rocket rolling out on its locomotive toward the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in September.

He is not a formidable human specimen. Like fighter pilots and test pilots—both of which he has been—Kelly is fairly short. (Because of height restrictions on Soyuz, and because aerospace engineers are obsessed with mass and volume, NASA won’t consider astronaut applicants who stand taller than six foot three.) Five foot seven, 185 pounds on the ground—more like five foot nine, 170 after his year in space; “like a supermodel,” he says—Kelly is coiled and capable of significant momentum, but he’s also fifty years old. He shaves what’s left of his hair with a blade. He has sometimes worn a mustache, but he doesn’t anymore. He does wear glasses. (Astronauts do not need to have perfect vision, but it can’t be worse than 20/100 uncorrected.) On formal occasions he’ll wear his Navy uniform—he is a retired captain with more than 250 carrier landings to his credit—but Kelly mostly sports jeans and NASA-issued golf shirts. When he pulls into a place like Chelsea’s, an astronaut hangout just down the road from the Johnson Space Center, and sits at a table with Cady Coleman and Mike Fossum, his fellow station veterans, they look like a group of teachers unwinding after school. You would never know by looking at them what they have done.

That’s until Kelly makes the drive to Ellington Field and pulls on his blue flight suit and survival vest and walks toward a T-38 jet, white with a blue stripe and a NASA logo shining on its tail, a little like a man who knows he has the biggest balls in the room. Astronauts are required to spend a certain number of hours in T-38’s each month to keep their flying, navigation, and troubleshooting skills sharp. Some days, Kelly hurtles across to Mobile or Little Rock and then pounds his way back home. On others, he loops through touch-and-goes, taking off and landing and taking off again. He peels into the sky and disappears into the brightness, announcing his return with the roar of his engines, and he whispers across the ground, the faintest of grazes, before he lifts back up where he belongs. To see Kelly in flight is to see a man transformed.

He was selected for this mission for several cold and rational reasons. NASA wanted a previous commander to take the critical first spot, and it wanted someone who had completed a six-month expedition without any evident physical or mental fissures. NASA also wanted to send up an older astronaut, so the cosmic radiation he will absorb will have less time to turn into cancer before something else kills him. American astronauts are subject to strict exposure limits, the so-called red line they all fear, not because of the tumor risk but because they’ll be grounded. Those limits were established in part using data culled from the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Kelly also has an identical twin brother, Mark, a retired astronaut and close-to-flawless genetic copy. By the end of Scott’s mission, he will have spent exactly ten times as long in space as Mark, who has agreed to serve as a control in a series of detailed comparison studies, tracking everything from the microbiomes in their guts to the relative lengths of their telomeres, a sequence in our chromosomes that’s believed to shorten with stress.

But mostly, Scott Kelly was chosen because of the stomach sense that he is, more than just about anybody else on earth, purpose-built to fly. NASA’s psychologists and psychiatrists look for two contradictory-seeming traits in its candidates for long-duration missions: adaptability and resiliency. The first represents an astronaut’s tolerance for the chronic, low-level stress of being away—the confinement, the nearly constant white noise, the shitting into plastic bags. You yield in the fights you cannot win. The second indicates an astronaut’s ability to withstand acute stress, usually associated with an unfortunate turn of events. You fight the fights you must win. “Scott is highly adaptable and highly resilient,” says Al Holland, a NASA psychologist who has tested him extensively. He is some rare combination of grit and give.

One barometer of an astronaut’s adaptability is his feet. Many first-time astronauts, in their opening days and weeks of weightlessness, will cling to some facsimile of verticality: head up, feet down. It makes them look clumsy in their movements, like skiers trying to push uphill. That’s despite the clear messages being sent by their feet that the rules have changed. After about a month in orbit, astronauts begin sloughing off vast quantities of skin from their soles; it takes only that long for their bodies to decide that calluses, like bursa sacs, are biological ballast.

The results can be dramatic. Don Pettit, who has completed two long-duration missions on the station, filmed a crewmate taking off his socks against a black backdrop and a spotlight. It looked like a snow globe. One astronaut made a call to his flight surgeon after a thick wedge of his heel came floating off. “Should I be worried?” he asked Houston. After Kelly returned from his six-month mission, he remembers going for a massage and the woman gasping when she got to his feet. She said they were the softest feet she’d felt in her life.

Kelly’s feet weren’t really feet anymore. It wasn’t just that he had been launching himself headfirst around the station, having discarded every last upright instinct. Because he had no longer needed his feet to be feet, he’d used them as hands. Rather than having two arms and two legs, he’d had four equal limbs. Handrails became footrails. The calluses that he’d lost from the bottoms of his feet migrated to the tops, where he had hooked them around restraints like a trapeze swinger.

Given another year of pure flight, Kelly might evolve into human history’s first true spaceman. Perhaps the migration of his calluses is just the beginning of his adaptation. We always depict aliens as some version of us. They won’t look like us, because in space, even we stop looking like us. We become spiders that don’t need webs.

Not every part of the human body is so easily recast. NASA keeps a risk matrix, a list of thirty-two areas of ongoing physical concern. (Roscosmos has an entire division in Moscow, the Institute of Biomedical Problems, dedicated to addressing them. The Russians usually abbreviate it to the Institute of Problems, because nearly every problem in space is a biomedical one.) Some former crises, like bone loss—studies showed that on long missions astronauts were losing as much as 2 percent of their bone mass per month—have been resolved with new exercise regimes and therapies. Others—like persistent sinus congestion, a side effect of the same fluid shifts that lead to the loss of our blood reserves—have proved harder to remedy but seem relatively minor inconveniences. A sinister few continue to pose major obstacles to prolonged expeditions. One in particular didn’t even present as a problem until the last year or two, and it risks making a trip to Mars impossible.

It’s been dubbed Ocular Syndrome, or VIIP—Vision Impairment and Intracranial Pressure—so named after its possible cause. It was missed for all these years because most astronauts and cosmonauts are middle-aged, and they’ve reached that stage of life when they might be holding instructions a little farther from their faces to read anyway. But as the number of six-month missions on the station increased, more and more residents began experiencing startling changes to their vision. In one instance, it was so bad that NASA considered bringing the sufferer home.

Neither the Americans nor the Russians yet know the cause of Ocular Syndrome. The current hypothesis is that increased pressure in the brain—again, from fluid shifts—is damaging the retinas or optic nerves of certain people, though not all, for whatever equally unclear reason. The one-year missions will help NASA chart these changes and others like them beyond six months. Maybe the effects of weightlessness on the body level off or improve. Maybe they get exponentially worse. Maybe there is the real and terrifying prospect that by the time the first humans get to Mars or try to come home, they won’t be able to see.

Although flight surgeons say only that further study is required, there is some evidence that Ocular Syndrome affects only men, and that if it affects them in only one eye, which it sometimes does, it will always take hold in their right eye. That might be a quirk of limited sample sizes; far more men than women have been to space. Or it might prove the opening to some stunning revelation, an invitation to discover a fundamental difference in the human eye not only between men and women but also between the hemispheres of the brain.

We can’t just choose to send women to Mars instead, because the women of Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved far more receptive hosts to cancer. At higher orbits, cosmic radiation is so intense, astronauts see fireworks through their sleeping masks; Scott Kelly could tell when he was between South America and Africa even with his eyes closed, because of the fiery presence of the South Atlantic Anomaly, where the inner Van Allen radiation belt bends closest to the earth.

If we don’t give ourselves a better option than crews of blind men or radiation-sick women, then we won’t survive Mars or its defenses. Getting there is only half the equation. Living and working there, in one-third earth’s gravity—already weak, light-headed, and sore, and now your blood and bursa sacs and feet adapting again—is the other. The most beautiful lure of interplanetary space is its demand that we first conquer us.

Each week in space, long-duration astronauts have private conferences with NASA’s shrinks. Not even their flight surgeons can listen in. Together they work through a long mental-health checklist: workload and habitability, family and personal relationships, mood and cognition. If the call is a videoconference, note will be made of the astronaut’s appearance and mannerisms. The psychologists and psychiatrists are looking for the speed wobbles that can be the precursors of a larger crash. In Kelly’s case, one of the measures of his orbital mood will be his sense of humor. He is deadpan and dry on the ground, and the working theory is that space makes you more of what you are. It is a compounding environment. If you are a man of faith here on earth, you will be devout above it. What concerns the shrinks is subtraction, anything that looks like lessening.

After his six months away, even Kelly, born flyer, was ready to land. “I’ve taken all my pictures,” he said to Coleman, and his bags were packed well in advance. He’s a scattershot sleeper on earth, and he gets less sleep in space, and it was beginning to tell on him. Residents on the station are each assigned private quarters, a soundproof box about the size of a phone booth; nobody underestimates the importance of having a door to close. Most astronauts strap sleeping bags on the wall and hang like bats, but Kelly often woke up in strange positions that took his sensory system time to parse. He missed resting his head on a pillow and never shook the desire to roll over, even though without pressure points, sides and backs become as meaningless in orbit as up and down. Some nights he kicked his way out of his bag in his sleep, his zombie arms stretched out in front of him, before he settled against what would have been a corner of his bedroom ceiling at home. He didn’t remember many dreams while in space, but in the dreams he did, he was always on the ground.

At its essence, his one-year mission will be an exercise in absences and their mitigation. Before each trip, astronauts sit through a series of “contingency sims.” They walk through what will happen if something bad occurs to them and what will happen if something bad occurs to someone they love, and they handpick their emissaries to gravity, the people assigned to call them in the event of an earthly emergency or, alternatively, to knock on their family’s door in the middle of the night. No astronauts have lost children while in space, considered the worst of the possibilities to confront, but one learned his mother was killed in an accident. Regardless of the sim, none of them ends with an astronaut returning early. “That’s something you need to understand before you leave,” Kelly says. “There’s no going home.”

Buzz Aldrin once described bravery as a “gradual accumulation of discipline.” Being able to leave comes in stages. Kelly has tried to occupy the doubtful parts of his brain with the countless small details of his departure. He has put all of his bills on automated payment. He noticed during a Russian class that his credit card is set to expire shortly after his launch; he will have to renew it early. He has updated his will. He hasn’t yet reached the gratitude stage most astronauts pass through, when they take the time to savor last steaks or cold bottles of beer, but he has started preparing for goodbye. “Six months is a huge commitment for any astronaut,” his brother, Mark, says. “I think this is a lot more than just twice as hard.”

Kelly is divorced, but his marriage produced two daughters: twenty-year-old Samantha, who recently moved back with him in Houston, and eleven-year-old Charlotte, who lives with her mother in Virginia. Kelly also has a longtime girlfriend, Amiko Kauderer, who works in NASA’s public-affairs office and has two children of her own. He also has his widower father, Richard, who moved down from New Jersey to join his twin astronaut boys in Houston; Mark and his family; and a wide circle of friends. Kelly will stay connected with them while he is in orbit—there is Internet, a phone, and regularly scheduled videoconferences on iPads—but his six-month mission taught him that it isn’t always enough. Amiko would go outside and record the sound of crickets or the rain to send him, but he is aware of the limitations of substitutes. As much as he loved weightlessness, some aches never went away.

This is really starting to hurt me, he wrote to Amiko one sleepless night. He had hit the three-quarter mark of his expedition, considered by the shrinks to be the hardest time: close enough to the end to see it, but not close enough to feel it. (This time around, Kelly will face a special test at the nine-month mark of his mission. Sarah Brightman, the soprano, will be arriving on the station as Russia’s latest space tourist.) He began watching more TV, even though he rarely does on earth. Recordings of Houston Texans football games were important weekly benchmarks. He saved Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for his daily workouts. He became obsessed with American Idol. “That’s because Sam sings,” Amiko says.

Over the last several months, Samantha has become one of his principal tethers. For years they were miles apart. After his former wife and daughters left for Virginia, Kelly lived an unattached man’s life. When he went up for his six-month mission, he’d been dating Amiko for only a year. He gave up the apartment he was renting and trucked his stuff into storage. Upon reflection, that was a mistake. It left him too groundless. There is a cupola on the station, a half-diamond of flawless windows opening toward the earth. Studies have shown that astronauts are pulled into it mostly when they are passing over home. Kelly didn’t have one. He has since moved into an immaculately kept new house with a yard and a pool, and it felt even more like home when Sam came back to him to start college, bringing her pets with her. She has a collection of tarantulas.

Kelly knows the longer he’s away, the harder it becomes to remember. He will miss a year of Sam’s and Charlotte’s lives. What was once his finish line will soon be his halfway point. He recently decided to have a set of security cameras installed at his house; he can monitor them online. Most of the cameras point outside. His phone chimes when his doorbell does, and he can check to see who’s at the door. But one of them is inside, with a view of his kitchen and living room. When he’s back in orbit, he’ll be able to drop into his sleeping bag with his laptop and see his couch, and his fridge, and his daughter and her family of surrogate spiders. He won’t have to worry about remembering his dreams at all.

It was nearly one hundred days into his six-month mission. Kelly is certain that it was a Saturday, because the rhythms on the station change on the weekends. With sixteen sunsets and sunrises each day, and without seasons to measure the passage of time, it’s considered psychologically beneficial for a workweek in space to mirror a workweek on earth.

Monday through Friday, each day is planned down to the minute, and crews are constantly chasing a line that moves through their schedules like a scanner: fifteen minutes to draw a blood sample; five minutes to tend to the experimental crop of red lettuce. Sunday is, in theory, a day of reflection and rest. Saturdays are something in between. There is work, but it’s Saturday work: stocking the galley, vacuuming skin out of filters. On this particular Saturday, Kelly remembers that he was fixing the toilet again. He remembers, too, that he had the TV on in the background. It was on CNN.

He had just talked to Amiko on the phone. He had caught her at home, where she was indulging in her fully functional bathroom, taking a bath. She was shy to tell him where she was, but the now-strange sound of water splashing had bounced off the satellite between them.

Just down the road, Mark Kelly was spending the day with his teenage daughters, Claire and Claudia. A thousand miles to the east in Virginia, Samantha and Charlotte Kelly were with their mother, an hour deeper into their day. They were helping Sam’s godmother move. A thousand miles to the west and an hour earlier in Tucson, Gabby Giffords, Mark Kelly’s wife and Scott Kelly’s sister-in-law, was meeting constituents in a supermarket parking lot. A twenty-two-year-old man whose name nobody knew approached her.

Back on the station, Kelly was burying himself in his work. He hadn’t noticed that the TV feed had gone out. The signal is lost fairly routinely, whenever the station blunders into a gap in the Ku-band’s coverage. Only a call from the ground finally broke his concentration. It was Houston. The CapCom told him that Peggy Whitson, a veteran astronaut and chief of the astronaut office, needed to talk to him. She would be on with him in five minutes.

Astronauts endure some long minutes, but those were some of Kelly’s longest. During his contingency sims, he had asked that Whitson be his principal bearer of bad tidings. Now, on an otherwise uneventful Saturday, she wanted to talk to him. He felt heavier than he had in a hundred days. Maybe his grandmother had died, he thought. Maybe Sam had been in a car accident. He hadn’t yet connected the black screen on the TV and the phone call. It hadn’t dawned on him that the signal wasn’t lost but cut.

Whitson came on the line. The conversation was made private. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” Whitson said, “so I’m just going to tell you: Your sister-in-law Gabby was shot.”

The way gravity makes weightlessness hard to imagine, space can make life on earth seem like an illusion. When the sun is shining, even our biggest cities become washed out and invisible, swallowed by the vaster stretches of brown and green around them. Vapor trails become clouds, and oil rigs become icebergs. It can be hard to believe that there are traffic jams and baseball games and border crossings down there. And it’s next to impossible to comprehend that someone might have just shot your sister-in-law in the head in a supermarket parking lot on a Saturday morning in Tucson.

Kelly told Whitson that he wanted to know everything, that she shouldn’t seek to spare him. He wanted to feel what his family on the ground was feeling. He couldn’t be with them physically, but he could be with them in every other way. He told his crewmates what had happened, and he told them that he was going to be okay, but he was going to need to spend some time in his sleeping quarters.

The first phone call he made was to his brother. Mark Kelly was still packing his bags in Houston, preparing to fly to Tucson. Over the coming hours and days, Scott made dozens more phone calls—to Mark, to Amiko, to his daughters. He worried that he was calling too much, that in trying to make up for not being there, he might have become too present. “No, it was actually really helpful,” Mark says today.

In fact, “he was the rock, pretty much,” Sam Kelly says. Because of his distance, his sense of disbelief dug in for longer than it stayed in the others, and maybe that’s what allowed adaptation to turn into resiliency, as though he were the last of them with any hope that a different reality might be true.

President Obama announced that on Monday the nation would observe a moment of silence. Kelly would lead it from space, after he had said a few words. Just before he was scheduled to speak, he called Amiko. She was in Mission Control in Houston. He wasn’t sure how long the moment of silence should be. She told him it should be as long as he wanted.

Kelly soon floated in front of the camera and onto the giant screens in front of her and everybody else. “Houston, Station, on Space-to-Ground One,” he said.

“Yes, Station, this is Houston. Go ahead.”

Kelly began by talking about his vantage point and how peaceful the planet looked in that instant from space, and how sharply what he saw diverged from what he knew. As he spoke, his voice grew harder through the crackle, a military man about to give an order. “We are better than this,” he said. “We must do better.” Then he asked for the moment of silence in honor of the victims of another one of those days when we did our worst. It was just long enough. He floated out of the camera’s range, swimming back into his sleeping quarters. Amiko’s phone soon rang beside her again.

Kelly with cosmonauts Gennady Padalka, center, and Mikhail Kornienko, training at Star City outside Moscow last summer.

The one place where astronauts still leave our planet is the place where the first one did: Site No. 1 in the sprawling Baikonur Cosmodrome, carved out of the middle of the Kazakh desert. The launchpad was poured in 1955 under a veil of secrecy so thick—including mislabeled maps and a diversionary mining town also named Baikonur located hundreds of miles to the northeast—most of the men who built it didn’t know what they were building. Sputnik was launched from it two years later. Four years after that, a star-crossed young Russian named Yuri Gagarin sailed into orbit from this Soviet monument to the invisible.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia leased the site from Kazakhstan; it is the last colony of a former empire. The pad is a wide, cracked concrete slab with train tracks embedded in it. The tracks end at an enormous hole framed by steel gantry towers. Underneath the pad, below that hole, a great crater has been dug out of the brown earth, vertigo-deep and wider than the pad itself. The Russians call the crater the otvod, which roughly translated means “getaway.” In September, six months before he was scheduled to leave the earth for a year, Scott Kelly climbed down into that pit.

Officially, he was in Kazakhstan as a backup for an American named Barry “Butch” Wilmore, a crew-cut Tennessean with a wife and two young daughters who was about to launch to the space station with two Russian crewmates as part of Expedition 41. If Wilmore had fallen in the shower or betrayed some previously undiscovered cavity in his nerve, Kelly would have taken his seat on Soyuz TMA-14M, and another American would have taken Kelly’s place in history in March. Less formally, and more hopefully, Kelly was there to complete a dress rehearsal for his departure, another step in his gradual accumulation of discipline. He would do everything that he will do except go.

The Russians put much faith in patterns and their repetition, and part of their prelaunch ritual is that the backup crew clambers down into the otvod and inspects the bottom of the Soyuz FG on behalf of their captive colleagues, quarantined against prelaunch illness. Kelly was awed to look up at essentially the same collection of boosters that the Russians have employed since 1967. Two nights later, where he was standing would be filled with white-hot flame, but on that bright morning, in the silence and shadow, he was afforded a lung-emptying view. He wasn’t looking up at a “bird” or a vessel or a ship. Soyuz, plainly and unmistakably, is a big fucking rocket.

Earlier that morning, at precisely seven o’clock—because that’s when Gagarin’s Vostok had been ferried to the pad, and so that’s when every manned rocket the Russians have fired up since has begun its long journey into space—the rocket was pulled horizontally, business-end first, through a gaping maw in the side of Building 112 by a green locomotive. It can seem as though Russia’s space program is a celebration of the past as much as it is a hedge against the future. There are constant reminders of who and what came before. As always, one of the locomotive’s headlights had been put out; nobody seems to remember why anymore. A soldier with a sniffer dog walked the track ahead of it. Other soldiers with machine guns marched beside it. The track was aimed due east, toward a just-rising sun, its glow banking bright orange off clouds. In one of humanity’s great pieces of theater, Soyuz rolled out into the light.

It was muscular and sleek in the thin morning air, the locomotive clanging and whistling ahead of it in wordless testimony to the evolution of our engines. It was more than 160 feet of power and restraint, of stages and modules, from its rhino’s ass through its four gunmetal-gray boosters and its lathe-perfect middle, tapering to its gleaming white cap with its seamless hatch and, somewhere behind it, three seats, shaped more like cradles. When the locomotive stopped and the rocket sat still before a small crowd that could see its breath in the cold, it felt almost impossible that so much of this great and artful machine would be burned up and spent, except for its most essential parts, which would require only five hours and sixteen minutes to catch and dock with the station, orbiting at 17,500 miles an hour, somewhere up there. On some nights, if the mathematics and angles are right, you can see the light of the space station streak across the sky three minutes and sixteen seconds before the huge rocket lifts off like a greyhound chasing a mechanical rabbit. It can feel like too great a distance to close in so little time.

Mars can seem that way. Michael Suffredini believes that it’s possible for one of us to stand on it by 2035, if the will is found and the right investments are made and we figure out a less diabolical way to dissolve particulates in urine. That means it will probably take longer than he hopes. Whether we reach it in the lifetime of Scott Kelly is a function less of our ability than our desire. Mars never seems more remote than when we’re putting bullets into congresswomen in parking lots. It never seems closer than when we’re standing on the cracked concrete at Baikonur. The Kazakh desert already looks as though it belongs to another planet, barren except for conquering packs of wild dogs and herds of camels. “It’s a good first step,” Kelly says. It already feels so far from home.

At the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, underneath a shining titanium monument of a rocket soaring into the sky, there is a black-and-white photograph of Yuri Gagarin as a boy. He was short because his family was poor and he was malnourished—it was wartime—but he was a beautiful boy. The photograph is there mostly for other children to see, mounted close to the floor, so that they might remember that this giant was once their size. When the Russians were more deeply invested in the hero-building business, they knew that children needed to believe that someone like them could grow up to be someone like him. Belief is the first of our gaps that needs to be bridged.

A galaxy away in Baikonur, not far from the launchpad, two cottages sit among the desert’s few trees. These are for grown-ups to visit. They are made of white plaster and green wood, with corrugated sheet metal for roofs. In one, Gagarin slept, apparently soundly, before his fateful launch. His small bed, neatly made, sits in the corner of one room, with a table and chairs and a record player. In the other cottage, Sergei Korolev worked more than he slept. He was Russia’s preeminent rocket engineer and designer. He dreamt up Vostok and Soyuz here. In the Energia factory where the Soyuz capsule is assembled, a massive mural of his face is on the wall, with a quote: “The road to the stars is clear.” In his office in his cottage, preserved like Gagarin’s bedroom, there is a plain desk and a single wooden chair and a lamp. These were his instruments to overcome magnitudes.

Now, all these years later, Korolev’s rocket inched its way down the tracks, taking more than two hours to cover the not quite five miles to Gagarin’s pad. Then the locomotive’s engineer reversed it up to the hole in the concrete. The rocket was made vertical by hydraulics and levers, and it became even more titanic upright than it had been on its side. Four weighted support arms were swung into position and placed against its hull. The train soon pulled away, and the rocket was left suspended over the otvod as though by magic. When the American shuttle was on its pad, it was pinned to the ground by a series of explosive bolts, showy and pyrotechnic and one more thing that could go wrong. The Russians rely on Korolev’s more ancient and simple physics. The rocket waits, held in place only by those four delicate arms, which act the way flying buttresses hold up a Gothic cathedral’s soaring ceiling, gravity made to work against itself, weakness turned into strength. Soyuz can float on its pad only because it is so heavy.

Later, two bearded Russian orthodox priests would visit it, their black robes whipping around them like flags. They chanted and sang baritone hymns in Soyuz’s shadow and waved a cross and threw holy water at it. That was after Kelly had dropped down into the getaway to stare up at the bottom of it, six months before he would strap into a cradle at its top. Twice graced, by Russian mysticism and American marvel, that big fucking rocket was deemed ready for launch.

The thundering liftoff of Soyuz TMA-14M on September 26.

Kelly has never thrown up in space, but when he came back to earth last time, he had gravity sickness. The muscles that held up his head hurt. His spine was painfully compressed. He didn’t smash coffee mugs like so many of his colleagues, letting go of them in midair and expecting them to float, but he did try to kick himself to his bathroom one night and couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t flying out of his bed.

For every day they spend in space, astronauts can expect to need a day on the ground to return to some version of their former selves. By that measure, Kelly is about to spend two years away. In the quiet before his departure, he answered a question about whether his time in orbit had changed him in more fundamental ways than the redistribution of his calluses. Whether he and his insides were something they weren’t before.

“No,” he said.

Not everybody who knows him agrees.

Before their six-month mission together, Cady Coleman had been a little leery of being his crewmate for such a long time. They could be stony with each other on the ground. He was sometimes too blunt, she thought, oblivious to the needs and feelings of others. She played the flute and was more finely tuned. “There couldn’t be people who are more different than Scott and me,” she says today. “I know there are things he didn’t see.”

With the soles of his feet stripped, he was forced to take lighter steps. She was taken by how gentle and kind he was in orbit, how measured he was in how he moved and spoke. “Somehow the imperatives are just more clear up there,” Coleman says. Their time in space didn’t align exactly; she came down after him. She was shocked to find him waiting for her when she landed.

Samantha Kelly saw changes in her father, too. In the six months before he went into space, they hadn’t been easy on each other. The breakup of their family had done the damage that all breakups do, and the distance between Texas and Virginia had made it harder for them to repair it. Now they are back under the same roof. They listen to each other. He is more demonstrative in his love.

In their first days back together the last time, father and daughter retreated to a friend’s pool. “You have no idea how good this feels,” he said to her as they sat with the sun warm on their faces. The way he said it struck her.

“I noticed him being more appreciative of everything,” she says. “I don’t know if he ever knew this about himself, but prior to it—I think he was grateful, but he didn’t really express it a lot. He’s more positive. When I make him a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, he looks at me like I made him a four-course meal.”

Amiko Kauderer talks about those six months her new boyfriend was away as though each were a forge that shaped and strengthened their bond. “We already shared so much, but the launch was when we really kicked off,” she says.

They didn’t talk every day at first, but they came to speak most days, and more and more when he began to struggle with the lengths of silence. “We did this together,” she says. They were leveled by his time in space, the astronaut and the small-town Texas girl who works on the ground on behalf of people like him. Now each weighed as much as the other. For the first time in their relationship, there were ebbs and flows in their dependency. Space had made it harder to tell who had needed saving and who had come to the rescue.

In Kazakhstan, Kelly helped Butch Wilmore navigate his farewell to earth. Kelly knew that his last pillow would be one in the Cosmonaut Hotel, where they spend their quarantine; he knew that his last meal with knives and forks would be plates of cured meat and pies with fruit for dessert; he knew that his last goodbyes to the people he loved would be made through glass.

There is always a final press conference at which the three members of the prime crew and their three reserves sit in a row, speaking with microphones to a crowd of family and friends and reporters from behind germproof windows. This time, once it was over and the crowd had moved outside, Kelly suddenly appeared in the sunshine. He told Mike Fossum, in Baikonur as an extra set of astronaut shoulders, to find Wilmore’s shy blond wife, Deanna. Fossum, who had completed a long-duration flight in 2011, understood. Kelly had smuggled Wilmore outside, in the cover of a distant stand of trees. Fossum soon brought over Deanna. Kelly and Fossum went on lookout, turning their backs on the moment they had created. For a free minute or two, husband and wife, though careful not to touch, shared the air and each other, the last time they would be alone together for six months.

Two nights later, in the early-morning blackness, Wilmore and his Russian crewmates waved through bus windows one last time, their alien Sokol suits made phosphorescent by the flashes of cameras. The way it always is, an old Russian rock song by a band named Zemlyane—Earthlings—about going into space and missing grass had been played for them over speakers. They went to their rocket. Their families headed for a stretch of desert just a mile from the pad; the Russians believe in proximity. The Wilmores did their best to hide their tension with their smiles. They didn’t succeed.

So much effort and hope had come down to these last tugs of gravity, the rocket turned white with a thick blanket of frost, clouds of steam belching out of and up its groaning sides. Once it was pumped full with liquid oxygen and kerosene, it had become a living thing with impulses and desires of its own. Shuttle launches had felt less predetermined and inevitable; they were so often scrubbed late because of a rainstorm at one of the emergency-landing sites in Spain or some small mechanical failure. The shuttle was built with so many outs, liftoff never felt certain until it was. Soyuz leaves no room for alternatives. It is never late, and it is never scrubbed. If you are strapped into one of its seats, you are about to be launched out the other side of the sky.

And then the fire was lit, and it filled the getaway and spilled over its banks like a river in flood, those four arms capitulating to the surge and swinging clear. The fire pushed down in a thickening stream, and the rocket lifted off, the sound of its engines taking longer to reach Deanna and her girls than the light, but now it rolled across the sand in a wave, not a rumble but a crack, a thunderclap in their chests. Soyuz somehow found in itself more speed, and within seconds it was truer to say that it had left than it was leaving. It reached into the night like a flare, the desert illuminated in its wake, and when it neared the clouds, the fire lit its way forward, too. Korolev was right, and then he was right again: The road really is clear. Now the earth had a ceiling as well as a floor, and the rocket burst through it, leaving concentric circles of eerie light. On and up it went, disappearing except for the last of its noise, until it faded out, leaving the early morning dark and quiet again. The Wilmores, exhausted and tearful and joyous, cheered and hugged and turned to make their way to the bus that would start them on their way home. Before they had collapsed into their seats, their husband and father was weightless. Only eight minutes and counting, and he was long gone.

After, Kelly resumed his own countdown, T minus one hundred and eighty-three days. There are American astronauts for whom a year in space would pass as quickly as a dream. They are more curious than him, more inventive, less tied to earth and their girlfriends and their daughters. But he’s the right astronaut for this trial expedition because the right astronaut for the real one will be someone just like him. Kelly is the analogue for the beautiful boy out there who has the notion but not yet the evidence that he will be our first Martian. He will likely be a man and by then middle-aged, because he will need to be cancer resistant, and he will have armored eyes, because he will need to be able to see, and he will be a pilot, because he will need to know how to fly, and he will be military, because he will need to give and follow orders.

“If someone asks you to do something, especially if it’s hard, you shouldn’t say no,” Kelly says.

But going to Mars will be so much more than a function of obedience and strength. It will take more than making an engine powerful enough or a descent module responsive enough or the rest of the machine and its crew durable enough. None of us has ever looked out a window and seen the earth as just another light in the sky. We can’t know what that will do to us until one of us does it. So our beautiful boy will also be doubtful, because he will need to be subject to change, and he will be reticent, because he will need to be incapable of lies, and he will be in love, because we will need him to come back home.

Published in the December 2014 issue of Esquire. Check back for updates on this story as Kelly’s mission to space progresses.


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