Astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, aka the One Year Crew, have arrived safely back on Earth after spending 340 days on the International Space Station (ISS). The duo, along with Soyuz commander Sergey Volkov, touched down in Kazakhstan on Wednesday morning local time, where they met with warm welcomes from space enthusiasts around the world.
Footage of the One Year Crew's return to Earth. Video: NASA
Naturally, Kelly is already grabbing a lot more stateside attention than Kornienko, as he represents the American half of this binational mission. Over the coming days, he will be participating in a press blitz of television spots, a Facebook Live broadcast, and a Reddit AMA, plus there should be some interesting news in the pipeline regarding his participation in the Twins Study with his identical twin and fellow astronaut Mark Kelly.
But let's take a pause from the much-deserved Kelly love to give a shoutout to his partner in this ambitious spaceflight endeavor, Kornienko, who has now logged a grand total of 516 days in space.
A military man and mechanical engineer, Kornienko first starting chasing the cosmonaut dream in 1998, when he was selected by Roscosmos, the Russian space program, as a potential candidate for future spaceflight missions.
The turn of the millennium was an interesting transitional period for Roscosmos, when the Mir space station was entering its twilight years, while the ISS was still in construction. As this passing of the orbital baton was maneuvered, Kornienko gradually worked his way up the list of spaceflight candidates, and was selected twice as a backup crew member for ISS missions over the course of the next decade.
Finally, on April 2, 2010, Kornienko was launched to space for the first time as a flight engineer for Expedition 23/24. Interestingly enough, Kelly was on the backup crew for this expedition, so he and Kornienko already had a rapport before their respective space agencies selected them to share the One Year Crew mission.
After Kornienko returned from this first jaunt in space, on September 24, 2010, he reflected on the sheer oddity of experiencing long duration spaceflight.
"The thing you miss there most of all is the Earth itself," Mikhail Kornienko told the audience of onlookers at the time.
"I missed smells. I missed trees, I even dreamt of them. I even hallucinated. I thought I smelled a real fire and something being barbecued on it! I ended up putting pictures of trees on the walls to cheer up. You do miss the Earth there."
It would be intriguing to know if he had similar experiences over the past year, especially since he spent roughly twice as many days in orbit this time around. But for the moment, he is taking a much deserved break to reunite with his family in Star City, near Moscow.
"This is an unforgettable feeling," he said, in an interview conducted by NASA this morning. "I was very happy to see so many friends around—Russian friends, US friends, Kazakh friends—it was very impressive to me. They did everything for our mission to be successful."
And indeed, the One Year Crew has been a smashing success. Kelly and Kornienko have jointly broken the record for longest single spaceflight on the ISS, blowing away the previous 215-day stint set by cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and Spanish-American astronaut Michael López-Alegría.
On top of that, Kelly now holds the record for both the longest single spaceflight for an American, as well as the longest total days in space for an American, having notched up 520 days in orbit over four missions.
Those numbers are pretty good…for an American. Kornienko, in contrast, won't be beating out any of his fellow countrymen, simply because Russians are unfathomably talented at hanging out in space for extended periods of time. Valeri Polyakov is still far-and-away the winner for longest single space flight, logging 437 consecutive days between 1994 and 1995. Fellow Mir veterans take the second and third places with flights of 380 days and a neat 365 days. Kelly and Kornienko, now in fourth, didn't make the podium.
The scoreboard for the longest total time spent in space is also completely dominated by cosmonauts. With the end of this latest mission, Kelly and Kornienko are now in 17 and 18 places on this metric. Every person that is ranked higher either represented the Soviet Union or Russia, with Gennady Padalka holding the top spot of 878 days over five separate flights.
But regardless of the absurd records left by Russians, the successful conclusion of the One Year Crew does represent a landmark victory for the ISS. Over the coming weeks, months, and years, the results of the crew's experiments will be parsed and interpreted, no doubt revealing new insights into the effect of long duration spaceflight on the human body.
This information will be crucial to understanding what kind of preparation is necessary when humans venture on even longer expeditions in space, to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Both Kelly and Kornienko deserve massive props for toughing it out, and bridging the gap to the next great space adventure.