The space capsule descended gently through the stratosphere, like a falling feather. As it slipped through the clouds, a strange land loomed below.
Just as the craft was about to hit the ground, six engines suddenly fired simultaneously, bringing the Soyuz descent module to a cushioned stop.
Scott Kelly looked out the spherical window at the flat, barren terrain around him.
It wasn’t Mars. It wasn’t even the moon. It was Kazakhstan.
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But after 340 days in space, anywhere on planet Earth felt like home.
“The air feels great out here,” Kelly quipped, according to a NASA spokesman, as burly Kazakhs in heavy coats and furry hats hoisted him from the scorched capsule. “I have no idea why you guys are all bundled up.”
Then he pumped his fist in celebration, zero-gravity-weakened muscles be damned.
Over the past 11 months, Kelly and Russian colleague Mikhail Kornienko have traveled 144 million miles through space, orbited the globe 5,440 times and experienced 10,880 sunrises and sunsets. Kelly’s 340-day stint in space is a record for an American astronaut, as is his total of 520 days spread over four missions.
Even more than his records, however, it’s Kelly’s attitude that has made him a crowd favorite back on the Big Blue Marble. He has performed death-defying spacewalks, successfully grown (and eaten) lettuce in outer space and chased a colleague around the International Space Station in a gorilla suit. He has chatted with everyone from President Barack Obama to Stephen Colbert to school kids.
Perhaps most memorable of all, he has snapped more than 1,000 stunning photos of the planet, sharing them with his nearly 1 million Twitter followers with the hashtag “yearinspace.”
And that’s what it felt like — for all of us.
“Talking to someone who’s in orbit … It’s like I’m an astronaut right now,” gushed Colbert.
Kelly’s safe return Tuesday night is, therefore, a bit of a mixed blessing. We have regained an Earthling, but lost a colorful and quirky view of our planet from 250 miles up. He tweeted, “Huge thanks to all that made this beautiful launch possible.”
His adventure began with a March 28, 2015, blastoff. But even before the rocket engines roared to life, Kelly was already broadcasting his extraterrestrial experience as no American astronaut had ever done before.
On Feb. 15, 2015, he posted a photo of himself sitting in a nearly empty NASA office with a sign reading: “BE BACK IN 365 DAYS.” The day before liftoff, he added: “Just awoke from pre-launch nap. Last time in bed for a year.”
Kelly made it feel like we were in the cockpit with him. He was our ambassador to outer space.
The experience continued aboard the ISS. In his first tweet from outer space, he thanked first lady Michelle Obama for wishing him good luck.
“Thank you. Made it!” he wrote. “Moving into crew quarters on @space—station to begin my #yearinspace.”
More than a thousand tweets followed, almost every one of them featuring a jarringly vivid photograph of the planet. From the space station, sheets of icebergs appeared to be shattered glass, deserts resembled beautiful tapestries, and the Himalayas — the tallest mountains on Earth — looked like a weary world’s wrinkles.
He tweeted, “Will be missing these sands too, but looking forward to sandy beaches up close.”
Many of Kelly’s photos were unbelievable. Swirling red and green auroras seemed like scenes from Star Trek. The Milky Way was a sparkling sea of stars surrounding Kelly. And every 90 minutes, he was treated to the most spectacular sunrise or sunset a human had ever seen.
He witnessed a historic snowstorm burying the East Coast and saw smoke rise from wildfires moving across a drought-stricken California.
He tweeted. “Massive #snowstorm blanketing #EastCoast clearly visible from @Space—Station! Stay safe!”
But he could also see the effects of humankind.
“Today we had this incredible pass over the Himalayas and to see all that pollution that is just riding up against the mountains from the south is just really, really … heartbreaking,” he told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta.
“Shocked & saddened by terrorist attacks on #Paris,” he tweeted as he soared above the stricken City of Light hours after the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks. “Standing with #France from @space—station. Our thoughts are [with] you.”
Even as his photos captured hearts and minds on Earth, Kelly still had a day job to do in outer space. Much of it involved helping NASA prepare to send astronauts to Mars in about 15 years.
In perhaps the most important experiment, Kelly served as a test subject for the long-term effects of living in outer space, where zero gravity slowly saps muscle strength and bone density. Kelly took his own blood, performed ultrasounds on himself and got fellow ISS crew members to examine his eyes to see how he was coping with his yearlong space sojourn. The results will be compared to those from his twin, Mark, a retired astronaut back on Earth.
“Scott’s the guinea pig in space and I’m the guinea pig on Earth,” Mark Kelly said on The Today Show. “We have a good sense of what it takes to fly in space for six months. But if one day we decide we want to go to Mars or some other destination in the solar system, we know what the engineering is to do that, we don’t know a lot about the human body. So Scott spending a year in space and NASA studying both of us, because we are genetically the same, that’s going to give NASA a lot of information to reach out into the solar system.”
Working a dozen hours a day, Kelly juggled other experiments.
“It’s a remote place and it’s a tough environment because you can never leave, there is no running water, there is a lot of work to do, you’re always at work,” he told The Today Show.
He grew lettuce in zero gravity and ultraviolet light, then recorded himself eating his bizarre crop, tweeting: “It was one small bite for man, one giant leap for #NASAVEGGIE and our #JourneytoMars.”
His effort to grow zinnia flowers was not so successful, at least at first. The plants were overtaken by mold, forcing Kelly to cut off parts and improvise techniques to restore them back to health.
“Our plants aren’t looking too good. Would be a problem on Mars. I’m going to have to channel my inner Mark Watney,” he tweeted in reference to the blockbuster movie “The Martian.” In the movie, Watney, an astronaut played by Matt Damon, is stranded on Mars, where he devises an ingenious and disgusting way to grow potatoes.
When Kelly’s zinnias finally bloomed in mid January, the blossoms made headlines around the world.
“There are a lot of parallels with that movie to living in space for a long period of time, including growing things in an extreme environment,” Kelly told CNN.
In fact, Kelly’s year in space didn’t just coincide with the movie’s release, it also coincided with a surge in American interest in space exploration. Photos of Mars taken by the Curiosity rover helped reignite interest in visiting the fourth planet from the sun. Meanwhile, the New Horizons probe snapped such amazing photos of Pluto that people became nostalgic for the days when it was a planet.
Nothing humanized the cold, silent environs of outer space like Kelly and his social media posts, however. He documented the strange space food he mixed into seemingly nauseating combinations. He slurped espresso from an experimental machine on National Coffee Day. He wore a creepy mask on Halloween. And he chased a colleague around the ISS in a gorilla suit … just because.
He also exchanged hilarious tweets with famous admirers, none bigger than the commander in chief, who tweeted, “Hey @StationCDRKelly, loving the photos. Do you ever look out the window and just freak out?
Kelly tweeted, “I don’t freak out about anything, Mr. President. Except getting a Twitter question from you.”
In nearly every tweet, Instagram, interview or Facebook post, Kelly appeared to be having fun. He celebrated his 52nd birthday and the station’s 15th anniversary in space. He did countless flips and donned virtual reality glasses. He even joked with redditors about playing pranks on his fellow astronauts.
By the time the 340-day mark drew near, Kelly appeared to be getting nostalgic.
“Leaving this amazing facility is going to be tough because I’ll probably never see it again,” he told CNN. “I don’t expect I will. I’ve flown in space four times now. So it’s going to be hard in that respect. I certainly look forward to going back to Earth. I’ve been up here for a long time. Sometimes, I think about it and I feel like I’ve lived my whole life up here.”
In his last couple of days, Kelly reposted his favorite photos and took some final ones, too.
“Likely my last pic of the #moon from space,” he tweeted before going to bed for the final time in outer space. The next morning, he snapped five photos of his last sunrise.
“Thanks for following our #YearInSpace,” he wrote in his last tweet from the ISS. “The journey isn’t over. Follow me as I rediscover #Earth! See you down below!”
Then he, Kornienko and another, more recently arrived Russian cosmonaut named Sergey Volkov climbed into the Soyuz descent module and began the journey back to Earth.
Video cameras aboard the space station captured the capsule slowly drifting away into the inky darkness.
After about three hours, the capsule began to jettison unneeded parts. First, orbital and propulsion modules. Then, the spacecraft’s two solar sail-like arrays.
The Soyuz plunged faster and faster towards Earth. By the time it reached the atmosphere, it had reached a speed of 17,500 miles per hour. At around 400,000 feet, the thickening atmosphere caused the Soyuz’s outer heat shield to glow red hot.
Fifteen minutes before landing, the first of a series of increasingly large parachutes popped out to slow its fall.
A small crowd had gathered in the bleak emptiness of Kazakhstan’s southern steppe to greet the returning astronauts. They watched the Soyuz glide down towards the ground.
Then, in a last-second burst of rocket fuel, the module’s landing engines flared and the Soyuz came to Earth with a thud.
“Touchdown!” tweeted NASA.
“They did it,” said NASA spokesman Rob Navias. “They are home after a year in space and they stuck the landing.”
Kelly squinted in the morning light as he climbed out of the cramped capsule. He had flown over Kazakhstan — like everywhere else on Earth — 5,440 times at an altitude of 250 miles. Now a ground crew swaddled him like a child in a giant blanket and set him on the snow-dusted ground.
His twin brother welcomed him back to planet Earth by playfully calling him an “alien” on Twitter. His sister-in-law, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, added that she was “excited to welcome him back in Houston,” where Kelly’s girlfriend and two daughters were waiting for him.
A battery of tests also awaits the record-breaking returned astronaut.
In an interview last week, however, Kelly revealed he has another, more personal priority.
“I’m going to go home and jump in my pool,” he said.