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HOUSTON,Texas — He’s home — back on our planet.
Late last night here in Houston, I helped welcome my brother Scott Kelly home from his year aboard the International Space Station.
Along with my wife Gabby, Scott’s daughters, his girlfriend, our dad, and so many other loved ones and colleagues, we greeted Scott at Ellington Joint Base Reserve as he stepped off a NASA aircraft and — finally — onto American soil.
After 5,440 orbits around our planet, after the sun went up and down 10,944 times (the sun rises or sets every 45 minutes in space), and after flying over 100 million miles, Scott’s year in space is now over.
And he’s safe. All things considered, he’s feeling great. He said the first thing he wanted to do when he gets to his house in Houston is jump in his swimming pool.
So how do you get from the Space Station to an airfield in Houston? It’s a bit of a journey. Talk about jet lag.
Late Tuesday, Scott and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov boarded the descent module of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that was docked with the Space Station. The hatch was closed and a few hours later, the Soyuz module undocked and began its deorbit burn. And then it re-entered our atmosphere surrounded by a fireball, traveling at25 times the speed of sound.
Once safely in our atmosphere, the Soyuz’s main parachute deployed, and it continued its fall towards the grassy steppe of Kazakhstan. After the capsule touched down, officials from the Russian military, Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, and NASA came to let Scott, Mikhail, and Sergey out. For the first time in nearly a year, Scott and fellow one-year voyager Mikhail breathed fresh air and felt the effects of gravity.
Then, after his first shower in a year and some real food, Scott boarded a NASA aircraft bound for Houston.
After he landed here, Scott walked off the plane — no small feat — and said a few words to those of us gathered that I’ll never forget:
This was not “his” mission. Its safe and successful end is not his achievement.
This was America’s mission, Scott said.
This is our country’s achievement.
Like Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, the space shuttle program, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mars rovers, this mission has pushed the limits of what we understand about space flight. We are now demonstrably closer to sending American astronauts beyond low earth orbit. There are a lot of exciting destinations in the universe; some of them aren’t too far away. This mission brings us closer to reaching them.
It is no exaggeration to call it a massive milestone in the history of our nation’s space program — one we should all celebrate.
It was a team effort. A huge number of committed and passionate people — engineers, flight controllers, support personnel, scientists and flight surgeons and many, many others — had to work together to support some tough tasks: accelerating people off the planet, keeping them alive and happy in space, and then safely bring them back. It is an amazing thing.
While Scott’s been in space and I’ve been here on Earth, NASA has been studying us to better understand the impacts of long-term spaceflight on humans. Because we are identical twins, they have had a unique opportunity to study how the human body changes in space. Scott and I are excited to see what the researchers learn and what it means for the future of American space exploration.
During NASA’s study of us, I have had the easy job. Scott had the fun job.
It was a risky job, too. While launch and re-entry may seem like the most dangerous parts of spaceflight, NASA’s analysis of the data shows that simply being in space is the most dangerous part of any space mission — and that risk accumulates. The more time you’re in space, the more likely you are to die.
During his year in space, Scott faced a lot of potentially lethal risks: He was likely exposed to large dosages of cancer-causing radiation you take on without the protection of the atmosphere; he lived with the constant threat of poisonous leaks of ammonia, a fluid used to cool the Space Station; the potential for a catastrophic, fast-moving fire; and the danger of a rapid, almost instantly lethal depressurization that results from being impacted by a piece of space debris as a small as a pencil eraser.
Scott knew the risks — and he took them on in the name of exploration, science, and our country’s leadership. He chose to fly anyway. And now we have the latest achievement in our country’s space program.
There will be others. There must be.
As I said from the launchpad before we lifted off for the final flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2011, it is in the DNA of our great country to explore.
We must never stop.
We must lead.
We must discover.
The final thing I want to say is to my brother:
Scott, thank you for your service to our nation. Thank you for helping us lead and discover. We’re really proud of you. And it’s really good to have you back on this incredible planet we all call home.