An American and two Russians rode a Russian Soyuz capsule to the International Space Station on Friday to begin a yearlong orbital stay that will set two records.
Launch from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan came at 3:42 p.m. ET (1:42 a.m. local time Saturday), with live video coverage from NASA. "The year in space starts now," NASA commentator Dan Huot declared.
Over the eight hours that followed, the crew caught up with the space station in their Soyuz craft, executed a docking and then came aboard to join three other spacefliers on the orbital outpost.
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will spend almost a year on the station, which in Kelly's case will best the U.S. record for longest-duration spaceflight by more than 100 days. Kelly and Kornienko (aged 51 and 54, respectively) will undergo intense medical monitoring for studies aimed at determining how ultra-long-term spaceflight affects the human body.
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Russian cosmonauts have been in space continuously for as long as 437 days, so Kelly and Kornienko won't set a world record. But the third Soyuz crew member, Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, has his own record to set. If he stays in orbit until his scheduled return in October, he'll chalk up an unprecedented cumulative total of nearly 900 days in space.
The traditional tours of duty on the space station last four to six months. NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency shuffled the schedule for Soyuz launches and landings to accommodate a longer stay, to get a better sense of how crews might fare during longer trips.
Researchers already know that long-term spaceflights cause bone loss, muscle loss and vision problems — but they're hoping that the yearlong mission will help them figure out how to cope with the health issues, as well as the psychological stresses associated with isolation in space.
"Scott Kelly's mission is critical to advancing the administration's plan to send humans on a journey to Mars," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement after the launch. "We'll gain new, detailed insights on the ways long-duration spaceflight affects the human body."
Kelly's identical twin, former astronaut Mark Kelly, will be monitored on Earth as a control subject for the unusual yearlong experiment. "I get the easy job, and Scott gets the fun job," Mark Kelly, a space and aviation analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, joked in an exclusive post-launch essay.
The biomedical experiments aren't the only things on the crew's agenda. In fact, Northwestern University biologist Fred Turek said Scott Kelly's schedule for the next year has been laid out in detail, right down to the time required to collect the fecal samples for Turek's study of gut bacteria.
During the next year, the space station is due to host the first professional singer to go into orbit — British soprano Sarah Brightman, who reportedly is paying a fare of more than $50 million and plans to turn a simple song into a complex space production. The professional spacefliers also will conduct a series of spacewalks to reconfigure the station for the arrival of U.S.-built commercial spaceships, and deal with almost a dozen cargo deliveries.
The newly arrived trio of crew members will be welcomed aboard the station by NASA's Terry Virts, Italy's Samantha Cristoforetti and Russia's Anton Shkaplerov — but by the time Kelly and Kornienko leave the station in March 2016, they'll have seen three crew changeovers.