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As Astronaut Scott Kelly Returns To Earth, PBS Celebrates Space Explorers Then And Now

PBS pays tribute to manned space missions as Kelly returns to Earth after a year aboard the International Space Station.

As Astronaut Scott Kelly Returns To Earth, PBS Celebrates Space Explorers Then And Now

Astronaut Scott Kelly

[Photo: Marco Grob, courtesy of PBS]

Tonight, astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko will land in Kazakhstan after spending a record-breaking year aboard the International Space Station.

Their 340-day mission, which began on March 27, 2015, enabled tests on how long-term spaceflight affects humans, with an eye toward sending humans to Mars. As a unique control, NASA ran the same tests on Scott’s identical twin brother (i.e., genetic double), Mark, a retired astronaut on Earth. NASA TV is covering the landing live.

Expedition 43 NASA: Astronaut Scott Kelly prepares to have his Russian Sokol suit pressure checked during the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft fit check with cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Sunday, March 15, 2015, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.Photo: Victor Zelentsov, courtesy of NASA

But more than a half century earlier—before Sputnik, the Mercury 7, and NASA—Air Force pioneers ballooned to the edge of space, testing human endurance in the upper atmosphere and paving the way for the space age.

PBS is celebrating both achievements with a documentary and series premiering on successive nights. Tonight, American Experience’s Space Men, written and directed by Amanda Pollak, tells the little-known story of the men whose scientific experiments in the stratosphere laid the groundwork for NASA’s manned space program.

That’s followed tomorrow by A Year in Space, a two-part series adapted from Time magazine's 2015 digital video series, directed by Shaul Schwarz. Part one covers Kelly’s training for and life aboard the ISS. Part two, to air in 2017, will follow his readjustment to life on Earth.

Space Men

Space Men tells the little-known story of the men whose scientific experiments in the stratosphere laid critical groundwork for NASA’s manned space program, helping to make the very idea of space travel a reality.

Since the first balloonists in 1783, altitudinal explorers pushed themselves increasingly higher, and through a 1930s stratospheric race between the U.S. and Russia to heights of 75,000 feet. When fighter pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, it ignited speculation on how far humans could actually go.

One of them was Air Force flight surgeon Col. John Paul Stapp, who tested extreme acceleration and deceleration forces on humans, including himself. One of his rocket sled tests left him with retinal hemorrhaging and temporary blindness after enduring 46 g’s.

High-altitude rocketry was still in its infancy and space travel the stuff of comics books in the mid-1950s, when polyethelene balloons enabled ascents of more than 100,000 feet. (Despite space beginning at 327,000 feet, this topped 99 percent of the atmosphere.) That lead to the 1957-1958 Manhigh project, three manned balloon ascents with Kittinger, David Simons, and Clifton McClure to test radiation, pressure, and other factors.

"It looked like something your crazy uncle made in his garage," says The New Yorker writer Burkhard Bilger in the film. "These guys are really kind of cowboys . . . working on the fringes of the military throwing together spare parts at incredibly smart practical ways. And they accomplished a huge amount in a fairly short amount of time."

It would be the launch of Russia’s Sputnik that prompted America to form NASA in 1958, ousting the Air Force from the space business. But the team managed one more experiment with Kittinger in 1960 with Project Excelsior, a high-altitude jump from 102,800 feet for the highest parachute jump and longest freefall (until Felix Baumgartner broke it during his 2012 Red Bull Stratos jump, for which Kittinger served as capsule communicator.) Less than a year later, in 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin would become the first man in space.

"What we did on Manhigh and Excelsior were small bits of incremental knowledge that were made possible by a team of people that were working and dedicating their lives for the future of the space program," says Kittinger.

A Year In Space

A Year in Space covers astronaut Scott Kelly’s training for and life aboard the ISS during his One Year Mission, and the physiological and psychological toll of extended space travel. When he they return to Earth tonight, Kelly and his Russian cosmonaut counterpart Mikhail Korniyenko will have broken the NASA record for the most consecutive days in space.

The record for the most consecutive days in space belongs to cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, who spent nearly 438 days aboard the Mir space station, from 1994-5. The previous NASA record was 215 days by astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria from 2006-7. Kelly through this and three previous space trips, has incurred a total of 520 days in orbit.

Long-term exposure to microgravity causes muscle atrophy, bone deterioration, and effects on eyesight, balance, and cognition, while space carries increased exposure to radiation. NASA needs a better understanding of these and other unknown health risks over time before committing humans to a 2.5-year round-trip journey to Mars.

Although Korniyenko's physiology is also being studied, what makes Kelly unique is his identical twin brother, Mark, a retired astronaut. Their similar DNA facilitates a comparative study on physiological changes between the two, with an eye toward developing methods of overcoming the challenges of human interplanetary travel.

"DNA changes over time," Mark Kelly says in the program. "Maybe it changes more rapidly in space than on Earth."

The series also addresses the ISS—more than a million pounds comprising 15 different modules and the size of a football field—as both an engineering marvel and unifying environment. Political tensions don’t enter into conversations.

"We leave that to the politicians from our respective countries to do that for us," says Kelly.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly is seen inside a Soyuz simulator at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, Wednesday, March 4, 2015, in Star City, Russia.Photo: Bill Ingalls, courtesy of NASA

Adds Korniyenko, "I think if we could send our two presidents up for two weeks, the problems on Earth would get settled."

A Year in Space's part two next year will follow Kelly’s physiological changes as he readjusts to Earth, and explore the challenges in establishing off-Earth outposts.

"Would I fly to Mars?" says Kelly. "Maybe I like Earth too much. What you miss are the people and the weather. You never feel the sun on your face. This cool breeze. It’s always exactly the same."

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