What does a year in space to your DNA? A conversation with astronaut Scott Kelly. | Miles O'Brien Productions

What does a year in space do to your DNA? A conversation with astronaut Scott Kelly.


In this episode of Miles To Go, Miles catches up with astronaut Scott Kelly and learns about what it’s like to spend a year in space. Kelly talks about the physical and emotional toll of his historic mission, the challenges of CO2, radiation exposure, what scientists are continuing to learn upon his return to Earth, and what’s next.

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Miles O’Brien: Hello and welcome to Miles to Go. I’m Miles O’Brien, your humble correspondent, and in this case loud and proud space cadet.

On this edition we’re going to talk to a man who spent nearly a year in low earth orbit onboard the International Space Station. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly has a twin brother Mark, also an astronaut. While the former was in space the latter was on terra firma and researchers used this as a great opportunity to do a unique twin study. Unique indeed! They were trying to understand how extended students in microgravity affect the human body.

Scott is out with the book about his experiences on the space station and about his life in general. It’s called “Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery”.

And while he was busy writing writing his book, PBS was producing a sequel to its film “A Year in Space” called “Beyond a Year in Space.”

I caught up with Scott in Boston–in the midst of a busy book tour.

Miles O’Brien: One thing that you take away when you look at that film is that the readjustment to One G, as astronauts call it, as we call it just life here on earth with gravity is not easy. It’s been a while now. Do you have any lingering effects?

Scott Kelly: No. Nothing I can feel or point to. Now there are still some structural changes in the physiology of my eyes.

It doesn’t affect the visual acuity and you know, potentially some effects from radiation on my cells that you know, hopefully I will never find out about it.

Miles O’Brien: You write in your book about closing your eyes and seeing the flashes which would indicate you were getting zapped. You do take a healthy dose when you’re up there, don’t you? Do you worry about that kind of thing? I mean you obviously know about it going in.

Scott Kelly: So, you know it’s something you think about especially when you see those flashes and you realize, “Hey that cosmic ray didn’t just go through my eye. It went through my brain.” And you know we’re educated people and we know that radiation is a risk factor for cancer. The radiation will damage our cells, but our cells are good at recovering from that. Our immune system takes care of damaged cells and gets rid of them. So you know, hopefully it’s not going to have an effect.

Miles O’Brien: So, obviously you’ll be watched for the rest of your life. Every astronaut is anyway. At this point, we have a little bit early science in and what might have been different over the course of time in space versus your brother. Tell us sort of a bit about that.

Scott Kelly: Before I tell you about that, I’ll just talk about the science in general and how NASA does research. Typically a space station science experiment, the analysis and publication time frame is like three to five years after the experiment.

So, a lot of the research is not public information and it’s not even information that I have. But there are a few studies that did come out. There’s one was our telomeres which is interesting. Telomere is you know, part of our chromosomes and they’re kind of the end and as they get smaller or more afraid, that’s an indication of our physical age. Once we get older, they get more in shape. There’s an experiment on those comparing my brother’s to mine and the hypothesis being you know, maybe in space the radiation and microgravity environment, the stress perhaps would cause money telomeres to get smaller and older compared to his on earth.
And what we saw was the exact opposite, which is interesting science when you have hypothesis of one thing and you think this is going to happen and something else happens.

Miles O’Brien: That’s pretty counterintuitive, because you get the sense when you think about all the things that happened to you in that course of time in space, that it’s an assault on the body millions of years of evolution have taken us to this point. We’re adapted perfectly to where we are right now and yet this is not a familiar place for a human being. Did you get the sense that you were hurting yourself?

Scott Kelly: At times, yes, especially when I got back and I didn’t feel great and your body is reacting to gravity again, getting readapted to gravity. So, it’s something I was aware of and it’s something I think all astronauts are aware of. There’s risk involved. I mean, there’s the risk of the rocket blowing up or some other bad thing happening, but also risk on our health from being in space for long periods of time.

Miles O’Brien: Let’s talk a little bit about the — is there any other science since we’ve talked that has come out besides telomeres? Is there anything else to talk about? What lies ahead as far as the science of research? What are they looking at between you and your brother now, marching forward?

Scott Kelly: Man that’s a though one. You know, I’m not engaged with the —

Miles O’Brien: You just show up —

Scott Kelly: — science program. I’m the lab rat, right?

Miles O’Brien: Well you know, I found it very interesting in the book that you know, one of the issues is the visual acuity problem, right? Some astronauts have reported permanent —

Scott Kelly: Correct.

Miles O’Brien: — changes in their vision. You have, had a temporary changes. Right now, what’s your vision like? Is it the way it was, has it gotten worse, what happened?

Scott Kelly: It’s back to where it was before I flew. You know in space my vision is affected because I think of the fluid shift, your eyeball changes a little bit of shape. When your head is more full of fluid, I think the fluid shifts experiment however was to look at kind of long term effects and damage that occurs to the structures in our eyes. Swelling of the optic nerve, choroidal folds, the choroid is part of the back part of our eye that feeds the retina with nourishment and the concern this is — when those folds exist, you could get blind spots where the retina is improperly nourished. I still have those. I even had before this last flight, I had some that remained from my previous long duration flight. But the changes I’ve had don’t affect my visual acuity on earth which is a good thing.

Miles O’Brien: Did you really volunteer to have an implant put in your head to measure this?

Scott Kelly: I actually did. I pushed for it, but I also know how conservative NASA could be. So —

Miles O’Brien: So, you knew they’d say no? It was easy to volunteer on this one.

Scott Kelly: I would have done it. I was a willing participant, but I knew the odds of them actually taking a drill to my skull was pretty unlikely.

Miles O’Brien: I think the drill might have focused your mind in a different way.

Scott Kelly: Hey, I got the voluntary spinal tap afterwards and I could tell you what, I would never do that again.

Miles O’Brien: Yeah. Tell me about that.

Scott Kelly: Yeah. That is not pleasant. You know they removed a few milliliters of fluid and apparently that’s enough to cause your brain to shift and you get a very special kind of headache from that that I’ve never felt before and hope to never feel again and it’s really kind of hard to describe.

Miles O’Brien: Speaking of headaches, you talk in your book about, going back to this congestion thing. It sounds like you’re constantly congested up there. Is it uncomfortable to be up there for a long period of time because of this? There’s not enough Sudafed in the planet, you’ll probably get addicted or it would lose its effect anyway.

Scott Kelly: Yeah.

Miles O’Brien: Anyway, is that kind of a real showstopper you think for long-duration space flight?

Scott Kelly: I don’t think it’s a showstopper. I mean I think I demonstrated that you can go nearly a year and have those symptoms. Although those symptoms aren’t pleasant and I thought in a lot of cases it was due to the high CO2 because I could kind of correlate. I could actually tell what the CO2 was without the actually even looking at the reading on our display where we measure it just based on my symptoms. But I don’t think it’s a showstopper, but I think it’s something we need to be aware of and you know, do a better job at correcting if we can, you know.

One thing about that though is that perhaps I didn’t touch on it as much as I should’ve in the book and that is when you’re the person in the moment, your concerned with how you feel, you’re not thinking about what’s the next person that’s up here? What’s the situation going to be like for them or the people after?
The guys on the ground have to look at this from long-term supply chain. So, you know, on one hand, they might have been able to crank up that other CDRA.

Miles O’Brien: CDRA – C-D-R-A – Is NASA acronym speak for the Carbon Dioxide Removal Assembly… ..it designed to remove carbon dioxide from the interior atmosphere of the space station. It’s crucial stuff.

It’s a bulky complicated machine. Rube Goldberg would appreciate it – it’s a a high maintenance gadget.

Scott Kelly: But they’re thinking about, hey a year from now, a year and half from now, we need those spare parts to be available to keep the CO2 at the same level for the people that follow.

Miles O’Brien: Well back up a little bit and talk about the CDRA and the carbon dioxide issue and it became maybe even a little more than an annoyance for you over the course of your time there, right?

Scott Kelly: Yeah, it was at times frustrating. At times, it was uncomfortable. I would actually, you know, at times get irritated. Amiko, my fiancé she could tell by the tone of my voice and my mood what the CO2 was like at times and she would even say to me. “So, is the CO2 too high today?” And I would say, “Yeah, how’d you know?” And she said, “Well, I could tell it by the way you sound.”

Miles O’Brien: This is one of the things I think that hasn’t been focused on as much as perhaps it should have been in previous space missions, right?

Scott Kelly: True. You know, maybe I’m a little bit more sensitive to it than other people. I do know other crew members are sensitive to it. But the fact that I was going to be up there for a whole year, you know, as soon as I get up there and as soon as I started kind of feeling like I did on my previous flight, I thought I can try to improve things not only for myself but maybe for the space station crew members of the future. But certainly, you know, when we go to Mars or if we decide to live in a habitat on Mars or on the moon, I think this is an issue we need to focus on more.

Miles O’Brien: You know it’s interesting because when we talk about going to Mars, we always talk about radiation exposure or we talk about the problems eventually, of entry descent and landing. We sometimes talk about the visual acuity issue, bone loss. CO2 has not been high on the list up until this point. Is that changing?

Scott Kelly: I think so. I mean NASA made an effort to — while I was up there and after I got back to try to lower the limit, to look at hardware that could do a better job at scrubbing the CO2 from the atmosphere.
You know, it’s unfortunate that that system works most efficiently when the CO2 is high. So it can bring it down from like a high number to something like two millimeters. But then getting it down below two is a real challenge, for some technical reason I don’t understand. But even two doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s ten times higher what it is for us sitting in this room.

Miles O’Brien: When you run into things like that where, you know, you’re kind of on the air to ground saying, “Hey, there’s a problem,” and you get the sense that they aren’t really listening.” This gets into the psychological components of the term duration. Do you think we understand well enough what the appropriate relationship should be between controllers on the ground and the astronauts in space? Or is that still evolving?

Scott Kelly: I think it always is changing. And I think it depends on the personalities involved. You know, the personalities on the space station, the personalities on the ground.

It’s something that we put an effort into making it better, to have a better working relationship. And one of my goals on this flight was when the flight director that I had in the beginning of the mission compared notes with the flight director I had at the end, that they would say, “Hey, the exact same guy was up there.” You know, same energy level, same mood, same working relationship. And, you know, I work hard at that. I think they would, probably if they compare notes, agree. But it is something that we all have to work, relationships in this kind of environment. Whether it’s space flight, doing these types of things, or other things that we do is challenging. It’s a really important thing to develop that kind of teamwork and communication in a working relationship.

Miles O’Brien: So it’s a long way from the days of the Skylab Strike?

Scott Kelly: Absolutely. I mean there was never anything close to that. But you know, I had some experiences that I really didn’t talk about much in the book, but where on other flights, other crew members that had some challenges working with the ground.

And I would try to impress upon them that the control center, at times you might think that they don’t have your best interests in mind, they’re not as you, they don’t care as much. The reality of it is they care just as much as you do. They are working hard to do the best they can for you. But they don’t have the same perspective. They’re not there in the moment. So we as crew members, often have more insight into the situation onboard the space station that the ground doesn’t have. It doesn’t mean they’re not doing their best to do what’s in NASA and our best interest.

Miles O’Brien: Well, and I suppose it’s easy for them sitting in Houston in that room with all those displays to say, “Wait a minute, we have more insight here. It’s just a different kind of insight.

Scott Kelly: Correct, yeah, absolutely, different.

Miles O’Brien: So let’s talk a little bit about — you know, you talked a little bit about — well, you talked a lot about how you don’t get space adaptation sickness, you don’t get seasick either. And —

Scott Kelly: And I don’t throw up ever in space.

Miles O’Brien: You don’t? That’s unusual. What are the numbers?

Scott Kelly: From what I’ve seen, it’s hard to say. I think in my experience, let me count, I’ve been in the space with 40 people, I’ll count the number of pukers I’ve seen. It might take me a minute.

Miles O’Brien: How many casualties?

Scott Kelly: I would say ten. So from what I’ve seen, maybe 25%.

Miles O’Brien: How many of them were nauseous?

Scott Kelly: Probably all of them. Yeah, at some point.

Miles O’Brien: So what that suggests, though, is that there might be you know a space gene or a set of genes which make people more inclined to be able to do this. Do you think that’s the case?

Scott Kelly: Perhaps. I mean because — and also the level of sickness, you know, some people throw up once. But I had a crew member one time that threw up for almost the whole flight. My brother had a mission where they ran out of emesis bags because everyone was throwing up. Not everyone, but most of the crew members, they actually ran out.

Eventually, after they undocked and they realized they didn’t have any puke bags left, my brother was like, “Hey, guys we kind of have to stop throwing up now.

Miles O’Brien: Isn’t the increment the Garn? The Jake Garn?

Scott Kelly: Yeah. That’s how they measure the level of space sickness, apparently.

Miles O’Brien: Tell me about that.

Miles O’Brien: Apparently, this is what I hear, I didn’t experience this firsthand, but the rumor of the story is Senator Garn was unfortunately very sick on his flight. And now there’s a unit of space sickness called the Garn, and that’s one, and everyone else is measured as a percentage of a Garn. It’s like a foot or something.

Miles O’Brien: A Smoot across the bridge. So, a few words, just a little more about the radiation exposure. You close your eyes and it flashes. I forgot what you say, it was several chest x-rays a day. Or something like that.

Scott Kelly: Yeah, ten, sometimes near 20. It varies. I think it varies based on the solar max, solar min, the size of the atmosphere, the magnetic field. But we do get more radiation, and it’s on the order of more than several chest x-rays every single day.

Miles O’Brien: And you said in the film, almost offhandedly, “If I get cancer later, this might not have been worth the risk.” Did you mean that?

Scott Kelly: I think it’s kind of — well, it depends, right? Certainly, if I got some fatal cancer sometime soon and you could attribute that to like — certain cancers are not radiation-affected, but others are. So I think if you got one that was one of those radiation type cancers, that radiation is a risk factor and it was severe, you might think, “Well, maybe this was not a good idea to do this.”

Miles O’Brien: You as a cancer survivor, you know, you’ve got to think about them really long and hard. Tell me how that played in.

Scott Kelly: I don’t think it did. I kind of look at myself as a guy whose prostate had cancer and then the prostate was removed. I don’t of myself as a — it’s not like I had chemo therapy for a year and it was a struggle every single day. It was something that I quickly moved beyond. So I don’t look at myself in that kind of cancer survivor kind of way.

Miles O’Brien: And you’ve been cancer free for how long?

Scott Kelly: Almost ten years now.

Miles O’Brien: Congratulations.

Scott Kelly: Thank you.

Miles O’Brien: I think a lot of people will be surprised that NASA would let someone fly with that medical record.

Scott Kelly: Yeah, it’s interesting. Because we are looked at at a very young age, I became an astronaut at 32, and pretty soon after we were getting our PSA levels measured, which men generally don’t have until they’re at least 50. So we have — not only me, not only did I have cancer, my brother had cancer, one of my classmates had prostate cancer. A guy I was on a crew with one time had prostate cancer. So it’s something that we get diagnosed early because we’re looking for it and then are obligated to do something about it. But it’s not something that, depending on what kind of treatment you have and what kind of surgeon if you are on a surgical route, their skill will affect any kind of side effects and you know also your ability to potentially find space again.

Miles O’Brien: So some of this might be a consequence of looking hard at the problem? Looking harder.

Scott Kelly: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, they call the — my surgeon referred to like the biopsy I had after a high PSA, he referred to it as like kind of a street corner biopsy. In other words, if you like biopsy every men’s prostate walking down the street, 30% or 40% of them would have prostate cancer even at potentially a young age. But that type of cancer so slow growing, unless it’s a certain aggressive form, that many of these men would never even know about it. They would die of something else first.

Miles O’Brien: I remember when I was trying to make my way onto the shuttle. I was actually over in Russia, I was going to go with them if NASA wouldn’t play ball. And I remember this Russian medical doctor said, “There’s no such thing as a healthy man. Just a man who has not been thoroughly checked.” I was like “Oh, boy! This is going to be a good physical!”

Scott Kelly: Yeah, right? And they have a much different relationship with their doctors than we have with ours.

Miles O’Brien: Tell me about that.

Scott Kelly: Well, it just seems to be like their culture is one of, you know, they’re trying to like weed people out versus get them in. It seems like the medical system at NASA is more like, “Hey, if you have an issue, we’re going to work really, really hard to do whatever we can to keep you now that we’ve invested this money on you.” The Russian culture seems to be more of the opposite. It’s almost like they look for ways to just exclude you from their program. But that’s my opinion, too, and I am not an expert on it. My opinion could be wrong, but that’s how it appears to me.

Miles O’Brien: Well, you’ve got to ask yourself. Is that a U.S. culture or if it was just the Navy flight surgeon. If they were trying to determine whether you were going to stay flying the tomcat, it might be different. I don’t know. Well, they’ve put a huge investment there too, they might push forward. I don’t know. All right, we’re getting deep in the weeds here now. So, there is that scene in the movie, you’re in the old Ficker with Jim Lovell and he talks about that idea that the farther you go out, the farther you explore, the more you’ll ultimately look back and rediscover your home planet. Did you feel the same way?

Scott Kelly: Well, we didn’t go very far. Not as far as Jim Lovell did, which is something I wish I had the opportunity to do. But still, when you look out the window of the space shuttle or the space station and you look at earth and see it from space, even though compared to the moon we’re much closer, you still have that orbital perspective that some people describe it where the earth, the atmosphere looks very fragile. In some places, polluted and it makes it look like we need to take care of it more.

[bctt tweet=” ‘We don’t see any political borders … from space.’ Astronaut Scott Kelly shares his story following a year spent in space.” username=”MilesOBrien”]

And then the planet itself, you realize all seven and a half billion people are down there. We don’t see any political borders generally from space now. At night, the DMZ between North and South Korea stands out very clearly. But you know, it looks like all the people on the planet are just in this together. But then when you hear the news in the evening when we’re done working, it’s generally bad news and it makes you feel like, “I think we can do better working together to solve our collective problems.”

Miles O’Brien: You think if everybody had a chance to do what you did it would be different?

Scott Kelly: I think so. Misha said to me a few times in space, she said, “You know, if our countries would just fly our two presidents up here for an entire year, we would not have any conflict.”

Miles O’Brien: Can we make it one way?

Scott Kelly: Maybe.

Miles O’Brien: Huge. I thought a great line on the book was, “Our atmosphere is like a contact lens.” Was that you or did you just rip that off from somebody?

Scott Kelly: I might have stolen that from my brother.

Miles O’Brien: Oh yeah? Tell me about it. It’s a good one.

Scott Kelly: Because he says it too. I don’t know, he may have gotten it from me. I’ve been saying that a long time. But if I stole it from him, then that’s fine because he’s not going to sue me.

Miles O’Brien: You got the fun, the glamour, the book, the book tour, the movie, and your brother just got — you know he just had to poke himself a lot and be prodded. What was it like for him?

Scott Kelly: Yeah, he had the tougher job, right? Because I got to do some cool stuff and he was just taking samples and putting them in the mailbox down the street. So you really have to hand it to him. I mean he really came up to the plate there and worked really hard at something that for him didn’t have the same type of reward as it did for me.

Miles O’Brien: The book, “Endurance,” you talk about Shackleton, that famous voyage. When you think a lot about what previous generations of explorers endured versus what you had to go through, do you sort of feel that you got it easy in some ways?

Scott Kelly: Absolutely. And especially for the crew of Endurance, which was Shackleton’s vessel that got frozen in the ice in Antarctica.

The next spring when the ice started to move, it crushed the ship and the ship eventually sank. And they lived on an ice flow, and then months and months later, had to abandon the ice flow and get in to life boats and sail hundreds of miles to, first, Elephant Island, and then on to St George’s Island It took over two years basically from the time they left, quickly got stuck, until they got home. And the hardship, when you read the story, was just absolutely incredible.

So that’s one of the reasons I brought that book — or I read it the first time and then had it up there my second time was because I felt like if I ever felt like you know feel sorry for myself and things are bad, “Let me just look through a few pages of this and I’ll feel like I’ve got it pretty good.”

Miles O’Brien: It worked?

Scott Kelly: Oh, absolutely.

Miles O’Brien: How much data did you put in the bank for future missions one day, to send humans to Mars, do you think?

Scott Kelly: Well, you know, I’m not privy to a lot of the science data. But I do think we know a lot of what we need to know to go to Mars, propulsion, technology, the life support systems we have. I think in some cases, they need to be improved. If we’re going to Mars and the toilet breaks and you can’t fix it, or the water processing systems specifically, you couldn’t fix it, you’re not going to survive. I mean we need that stuff to be very reliable. You’re not going to be able to send spare parts to catch up to the spaceship going to Mars. Of course, you could maybe pre-position some, but it’s going to be a much more challenging mission than flying in low earth orbit where you can come home if you have to or your re-supply ship is potentially weeks or months away if you really need something critical versus half a year or a year.

There are challenges. Radiation is a challenge. Protecting the crew as we get away from the earth, there’s much more radiation and we don’t have the earth’s magnetic field. So I think those things, those kind of things, we need to learn a little more about. The physiology stuff, a little bit more. But I think those are easily solvable. And I’ll use a quote that my brother uses. I think he probably came up with it. He says that, “Going to Mars is not about rocket science. It’s about political science.” It’s about having the support from our elected officials, even from our taxpayers that elect them, and then them appropriating the funding and coming up with a plan that is consistent over a long period of time, it doesn’t change. You know, every administration must do this a different way. That’s what it’s really going to take to go to Mars.

Miles O’Brien: With that in mind, are you optimistic that that next generation, that crew of astronauts featured in the film, will in fact at the Mars?

Scott Kelly: I think we can. You know, I’m an optimist, I hope that we will in my lifetime. Do I think the class members or the astronaut class that was featured in the PBS Special, “Beyond a Year in Space, were going to go to Mars? I wouldn’t bet much money on that. But it’s possible. And I’m hopeful that it happens. But it’s not like I would make a big bet in Vegas on it.

Miles O’Brien: Does that concern you? I mean, reading your essay, as you made your way into the Astronaut Corps, it was a lot about how important it is for human beings to continue exploration and how the exploration ultimately feeds technology.

And now, going back to the old explorers, Cook’s mission was about exploration, but science piggy-backed the whole way. So, with all that in mind, do you think it’s important we pursue this goal?

Scott Kelly: I think it is very important, and I think we will continue to pursue this goal. But, the question I was answering more is do I think those specific people will be the people that get there? I am not optimistic about that. You know, perhaps the brand new astronaut class or some like kid that’s in school right now that might be an astronaut. I hope I am wrong. I hope we make a plan and decide to do this right away. But you know, our country has challenges, you know, it has limited funding but it’s something I truly believe in. I think as a society, civilizations that have stopped exploring have stopped growing, have stopped developing, have ceased to exist.

I’m not one of these guys that believe we’re going to destroy Earth and we need to find another Earth. But I think at some point, we need to continue to venture out forward if we’re going to keep learning things and growing our economy, growing our society.

Miles O’Brien: So you’re kind of literally and figuratively closing the chapter here about coming out. What’s next for you?

Scott Kelly: Well, I have the — the book is written, but now there’s even maybe you might argue the harder part of promoting it. I’ve been doing some public speaking. I have a few board positions that I’m involved with. But at some point, probably sometime in the next year, I’m going to have to start looking for other more challenging goals.

Miles O’Brien: It’s hard to find a next act when you’ve done what you’ve done.

Scott Kelly: Yeah, it is, and I think it will be hard, but I think having a job that makes you feel that enhances your self-worth, that you’re contributing to society is important.
And I think having really challenging goals is important, so I need to find something.

Miles O’Brien: No regrets.

Scott Kelly: Absolutely.

Miles O’Brien: You’d do it again?

Scott Kelly: You know, when I got back, I said I would do it again but I wouldn’t do it a second time. Being 18 months removed now, I think I’d do it a second time.

Miles O’Brien: Would you go to Mars if you had the chance?

Scott Kelly: As long as I have the return ticket. I wouldn’t be one of these Mars One guys. One way is not for me.

Miles O’Brien: I’m with you on that. Scott Kelly. Thank you. Thanks so much.

Miles O’Brien: That was fun, even if you’re not a space cadet. Thank you for listening. I’m Miles O’Brien and this is Miles to Go.

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