Launch of Expedition 43 / Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
It’s not a five year mission, and it certainly isn’t going anywhere “no-one has gone before,” but NASA’s longest manned space mission got underway on Friday with the liftoff of a Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft carrying veteran American astronaut Scott Kelly, and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka.
Kelly and Kornienko will spend the next year aboard the International Space Station in a study of what longer duration spaceflight (in zero-G) does to the human body. Kelly’s twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly will serve as a sort of scientific control here on Earth, giving NASA medical researchers as base of comparison.
The one year mission is being presented as another step in the agency’s long term plans for the Red Planet. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden commented on the launch saying “Scott Kelly’s mission is critical to advancing the administration’s plan to send humans on a journey to Mars,” leading to “new, detailed insights on the ways long-duration spaceflight affects the human body.”
How much useful information will be gained is debatable. With Mars transfer times averaging roughly six months each way, the standard duration of most ISS visits. The agency actually already has a wealth of knowledge regarding in what conditions astronauts could be expected to arrive at the Red Planet, presuming the presence of exercise equipment similar to that housed aboard the station. Radiation exposure is another matter however, one which cannot be tested in Low Earth Orbit.
For, Russia, including the Soviet era, this will actually mark the fifth year long mission, four such stays were conducted aboard the Mir space station.
What neither NASA, nor Russia knows though, is the effect of a cumulative Mars mission; six months out in zero-G, a lengthy surface stay at 30% Earth gravity followed by another six months at zero-G. Despite numerous proposals and a partially built Centrifuge Accommodations Module (CAM) which is now an outdoor exhibit in Japan, NASA has yet mount a serious effort at bypassing the problem entirely on a human scale by generating artificial gravity through rotation. A commercial centrifuge built by NewSpace company NanoRacks is aboard ISS, having been recently used to house a fruit fly experiment launched aboard the SpaceX CRS-5 mission.
In what may prove a more interesting aspect of the year long stay than any medical insights gained, yesterday’s launch and the open slot it created in the Soyuz manifest, paved the way for a resumption of space tourism with the flight of international soprano superstar Sarah Brightman to ISS later this year.