It’s been four months since we published AWAY, Chris Jones’s ongoing story about Astronaut Scott Kelly’s year-long mission to space. On Friday, March 27th, Kelly will finally blast off. Below, an exclusive update from Jones on Kelly’s final preparations.
Over the following year, we’ll continue to send updates via email as the mission progresses.
AWAY—FIVE DAYS TO LAUNCH
NASA’s most ambitious manned space mission in years—simulating a trip to Mars—is about to depart.
By Chris Jones
A few days before Scott Kelly’s launch into space, a few days before he will start the longest mission in the history of American spaceflight—a few days before he becomes the first astronaut to experience what it might be like to travel to Mars (as detailed in “AWAY” in the December 2014 issue of Esquire)—he practices the art of passing time. He’s locked inside pre-launch quarantine in the low-slung Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, the way he will soon be ensconced inside the International Space Station.
He has been careful to take stock of each one of his lasts. Before he flew from Houston to Star City, outside Moscow, in February, a farewell party was thrown for him at an astronaut hangout called Chelsea’s. He was moved by how many people had come to wish him luck. He also went down to Galveston for a last day spent by the sea. “I thought it might be my last day in the sunshine,” he says from Baikonur, where the last of the snow has just melted. He swam in the hotel pool, felt the sand under the feet that will soon be stripped of every callus.
Now he waits as the days count down. It reminds him of his years as a Navy pilot, grounded while his aircraft carrier repositioned across oceans. “Eat till you’re tired, sleep till you’re hungry,” he says the motto was then, and it’s his motto again now. He will lift off for his one-year mission, with crewmate Mikhail Kornienko, on Friday, March 27 at 3:42 p.m. Eastern—in the middle of the cold Kazakh night.
His long-time girlfriend, Amiko Kauderer; his two daughters; and his twin brother, the former astronaut Mark Kelly, are among his family and friends set to descend on Baikonur before Friday. He thinks his departure will feel more real then, once the goodbyes really begin, along with the long, layered list of Russian pre-launch rituals. As the week progresses, his days will be more full, with press conferences held behind germ-proof glass and final test fittings of the Soyuz seat that will cradle him into space.
In between, he’s been trying to occupy himself with long visits to the sauna and the less glamorous work required by the prospect of a year away. He’s made sure the electric company won’t turn off the power at his Houston home while he’s gone. He’s confirmed with NASA the email address he will be able to use while in orbit. He’s thought about the pack of personal items he’s having NASA ship up in June, what he might be craving a third of the way into his mission.
He was given some time off in Star City, and he and Amiko went into Moscow to splurge on a five-star hotel. After their last night, he lifted out of bed and thought that he had just enjoyed the last of his deep sleeps. It won’t be long before he will be slipping into a sleeping bag hanging from one of the space station’s walls. They went out for sushi and he realized halfway through his meal that something as simple as fresh fish would soon be a thing of his past. In Baikonur, his last shower is approaching. That’s a big one: The last time he will be able to call himself clean.
On Friday, he will wave to his loved ones through the windows of a bus driving him off to the launch pad. He has been working to lessen that moment. He has been to space three times already, twice on the shuttle, when we still had those, once on the Soyuz. He has told himself over and over that he’s doing what he’s always done. He’s just doing it for a lot longer.
“If it’s like the last time, the goodbyes were probably not what you would expect,” he says. “It felt like how you would feel if you were going on an extended business trip, with the exception of the whole getting in the rocket part.”
He hopes the rocket part will receive more attention than it usually does these distracted days. “Not for me, but for NASA,” he says. “The space station is one of the most incredible engineering achievements people have accomplished. Building this, doing it in this international partnership and doing it for so long, I think it’s an even greater achievement than landing on the moon. I hope people recognize it.”
One year in space. Starting in a few days. Who knows where that might lead?
And just like that, sitting in quarantine, waiting for what comes next, Scott Kelly’s mind turns from lasts to firsts.