As a kid, I flew on the space shuttle with astronaut Sally Ride many times. That’s because every night, my dad would pull out a book to read to my sister and me, and among our favorites was To Space and Back. In it, Sally describes her life aboard the space shuttle Challenger, and how living and working in microgravity is a bit trickier than you might expect.
Over and over and over again, we asked Dad to read us Sally’s book, and I would drift to sleep dreaming about riding a rocket into Earth orbit, visiting the moon and Mars, and living among the stars.
When Ride died in 2012, I revisited To Space and Back and found a poignant surprise: She had signed the first page. “Reach for the stars!” she told my sister and me.
Watching Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko return to Earth yesterday took me back to those years when the allure of space travel, of shedding the ties that bind us to Earth and hurtling toward the stars captured my imagination before I knew just how vast and captivating space really was.
I still want to go to space, and can only imagine what returning to Earth is like after being in orbit for nearly a year. Each Earthly sensation must slam into your consciousness: The smell of the grasses on the Kazakh steppe, the rush of that fresh, freezing air, the glare of the suddenly starless sky, and above all, the relentless tug of gravity that transforms your limbs into anchors and glues you to your chair.
It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that even if we manage to briefly slip those Earthly chains, we still belong to this planet. No matter how far we may go, or how long we may stay away, Earth is still home. At least for now.
“The air feels great out here—I have no idea why you guys are all bundled up,” Kelly said to the teams that met him in wintry Kazakhstan when he and Kornienko fell back to Earth after 340 days in space.
The pair’s sojourn isn’t the longest anyone has ever stayed in space; that record belongs to cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, who logged nearly 438 days on the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s. But the feat does represent an important step in preparing for longer duration space missions—the kind that could one day make us an interplanetary species and put humans on Mars.
As Kelly and Kornienko swung around Earth 5,440 times, scientists were (and still are) tracking what happens when bodies that have evolved under the pull of gravity are suddenly freed from its prison. They’re looking at how eyesight, muscle mass, circulation, DNA, and mental acuity change in microgravity, and how the body then re-adapts to being on Earth. The observations will continue over the next several years, and Kelly’s data will be compared to measurements from his twin brother, Mark, who stayed on this planet. Sometime soon, we’ll have a better understanding of how being in space for a long time changes the human body in ways we can’t control—but which we could prepare remedies for.
At first, it seemed a bit odd for Kelly and Kornienko to willingly become the equivalents of pin-pricked, astronautical guinea pigs. But as I followed the mission and watched the pair return to Earth, I found myself wishing more than anything that I could be next. “Pick me!” I wanted to yell, while jumping up and down and frantically waving my hands over my head.
Three weeks ago, I submitted my application to NASA’s astronaut candidate program. I’m one of more than 18,000 applicants competing for very few spots—yes, my chances are slim, but it’s great to see how many of us share the dream.
Just as Ride, Kelly and Kornienko have done, I want to watch those thousands of sunrises and sunsets, experience the overwhelming sensations of returning home, and in some way, help humanity to reach for the stars—and then build a new home among them.