At one point in his life, astronaut Scott Kelly held the world record for the most consecutive days aboard the International Space Station. He spent an entire year in space, making him one unique human being. However, spending that much time in space has left the astronaut devastatingly ill. Some of the effects are truly haunting.
Scientists are intrigued and ready to study Kelly’s readjustment back on earth as it gives them insight into how the human body reacts living without gravity. Kelly is not only a perfect candidate to study space-related health issues because he spent nearly a year in space, 340 days to be exact, but because he also has an identical twin brother who is an astronaut as well.
However, what they witnessed was more gruesome than they ever thought possible.
Kelly, after recovering for a year back on Earth, has recently opened up about his health struggles since his return in a book titled Endurance. What he went through, and what he is still suffering from, is so devastating, that it has caused much doubt surrounding the likelihood humans will travel to Mars anytime soon. His condition has sparked much debate over what NASA is planning.
As if space isn’t terrifying enough, the realization of just how hard the conditions of zero-gravity are even more ghastly. Kelly opened up about what he refers to as his alien stumps,”I can feel the tissue in my legs swelling. I shuffle my way to the bathroom, moving my weight from one foot to the other with deliberate effort. Left. Right. Left. Right. I make it to the bathroom, flip on the light, and look down at my legs. They are swollen and alien stumps, not legs at all.”
This real-life account of the intense swelling is hard to read, and it’s just the beginning of what he had to go through.
Within 48 hours of being back on Earth Kelly was weak and trembling like an elderly man. Not only had his legs swollen to the point of bursting, he felt like he was on fire,”‘My skin is burning, too,’ I tell her. Amiko frantically examines me. I have a strange rash all over my back, the backs of my legs, the back of my head and neck – everywhere I was in contact with the bed. I can feel her cool hands moving over my inflamed skin. ‘It looks like an allergic rash,’ she says. ‘Like hives.'”
All the comfort he has is his long-time love, Amiko, who desperately tries to comfort him as his symptoms get worse.
Kelly will suffer life-long health effects from his mission into space, as he will always be at an elevated risk for cancer,”I had been exposed to more than 30 times the radiation of a person on Earth, equivalent to about 10 chest X-rays every day. This exposure would increase my risk of fatal cancer for the rest of my life.”
This was Kelly’s fourth time in space and he had known about the side effects but he said they were nothing like what he was enduring this time around.
He was experiencing intense chills due to a constant high fever which rippled over his body giving his body the sensation of being freezing and dangerously hot at the same time,”‘Amiko,'” I finally manage to say. She is alarmed by the sound of my voice.’What is it?’ Her hand is on my arm, then on my forehead. Her skin feels chilled, but it’s just that I’m so hot. ‘I don’t feel good,’ I say.”
All of his joints were feeling the intense crushing pressure of our gravitational pull, giving him the sensation of being tortured. Not only that, but anytime he stood up his legs felt like they were going to explode,”I struggle to get up… At every stage I feel like I’m fighting through quicksand. When I’m finally vertical, the pain in my legs is awful, and on top of that pain I feel a sensation that’s even more alarming: it feels as though all the blood in my body is rushing to my legs, like the sensation of the blood rushing to your head when you do a handstand, but in reverse.”
The intense nature of gravity on Earth caused Kelly to constantly fell nauseous anytime he was conscious, yet he couldn’t find relief, “I’m also nauseated, though I haven’t thrown up. I strip off my clothes and get into bed, relishing the feeling of sheets, the light pressure of the blanket over me, the fluff of the pillow under my head.”
He admitted that if this was a normal circumstance, he would have rushed himself to the ER but the reality was, no one there had ever seen symptoms from a year in space, no one on Earth ever had.
Knowing that there was no relief in sight was a mental hell for both Kelly and his love Amiko, “I can hear Amiko rummaging in the medicine cabinet. She returns with two ibuprofen and a glass of water. As she settles down, I can tell from her every movement, every breath, that she is worried about me. We both knew the risks of the mission I signed on for. After six years together, I can understand her perfectly, even in the wordless dark.”
Kelly wasn’t alone in his mission to test the effects of space on the human body, either.
Not A Solo Mission
Kelly explained that every time he has been into space, he was with another astronaut and was now wondering how he was doing, “Over the past year, I’ve spent 340 days alongside Russian astronaut Mikhail “Misha” Kornienko…As I try to will myself to sleep, I wonder whether my friend Misha, by now back in Moscow, is also suffering from swollen legs and painful rashes. I suspect so.”
Although he was in extreme pain, he knew why he did it in the first place and he stood by his decision.
Changing Our Future
Kelly explained that both of them knew why they agreed to the mission as it was vitally important if humans will ever become an interplanetary species. But what he learned there taught him more than he ever anticipated, “Scientists will study the data on Misha and my 53-year-old self for the rest of our lives and beyond. Our space agencies won’t be able to push out farther into space, to a destination like Mars, until we can learn more about how to strengthen the weakest links in the chain that make space flight possible: the human body and mind.”
Kelly says what happens after month six in space is quite troubling, “On my previous flight to the space station, a mission of 159 days, I lost bone mass, my muscles atrophied, and my blood redistributed itself in my body, which strained and shrank the walls of my heart. More troubling, I experienced problems with my vision, as many other astronauts had.”
What’s more concerning, is the symptoms increase dramatically after the six-month mark.
Why He Did It
When Kelly is asked why he agreed to the mission, surprisingly, he said many of his reasons just don’t answer the question,”People often ask me why I volunteered for this mission, knowing the risks: the risk of launch, the risk inherent in space walks, the risk of returning to Earth, the risks I would be exposed to every moment I lived in a metal container orbiting the Earth at 28,100 kilometres an hour. I have a few answers I give to this question, but none of them feels fully satisfying to me. None of them quite answers it.”
However, he did say what he feared most.
One Way Ticket
“None of this compared, though, to the most troubling risk: that something bad could happen to someone I love while I was in space with no way for me to come home,” he shared in his book. He also said that he took things with him to keep him comfort, although space was tight, “The space was just barely big enough for me and my sleeping bag, two laptops, some clothes, toiletries, photos of Amiko and my daughters, a few paperback books.”