TIME A Year In Space

How Astronauts Dock at the Space Station

Need a lift? A Souyz spacecraft after undocking from the space station on June 11, 2015
NASA Need a lift? A Souyz spacecraft after undocking from the space station on June 11, 2015

A wee-hours maneuver of a Soyuz spacecraft is critical for keeping things safe

One of the trickiest questions for a Soyuz spacecraft approaching the International Space Station (ISS) is where to park. The ISS may be larger than a football field, but it’s got only so many ways to get inside, and with crewed spacecraft and uncrewed cargo ships regularly shuttling up and down, docking ports—or at least the right docking port—can be at a premium.

In the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 28, space station astronaut Scott Kelly, along with cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka, will be required to do a bit of delicate flying to sort just that kind of problem out.

The three crewmen arrived at the station on March 29, with Padalka slated to spend six months aloft, and Kelly and Kornienko scheduled for a marathon one year in space. They docked their Soyuz spacecraft at the station’s Poisk module—a 16-ft. (4.8 m) Russian node that was added to the ISS in 2009 as a science lab, observation point and egress compartment for astronauts embarking on spacewalks. It’s remained there ever since, and that’s a concern.

The five-plus months the ship has been hanging off the station in the alternating searing heat and deep freeze of orbital space can take its toll on the hardware, and since the crews rely on the ships as their way back to Earth, NASA and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, instituted a rule: 180 days is the maximum amount of time a Soyuz can remain aloft before detaching and returning to Earth. But Kelly and Kornienko are set to stay for 365 days—which complicates their ride home.

MORE: TIME is producing a series of documentary films about the record-breaking mission to space. Watch them here.

Their Soyuz is not the only one that’s on hand. There’s another one for the other three crewmembers who are currently aboard. (Another NASA-Roscosmos rule: there must always be enough seats for everyone to be able to bail out immediately in the event of an emergency.) And on September 2, a third ship, carrying three more crew members, is set to arrive for a changeover of personnel. Not all docking nodes are equal—the Poisk is a better target since it faces Earth—and that requires a little juggling. Mission rules—to say nothing of basic physics—make the job a delicate one.

At 3:09 AM EDT, the complete Padalka-Kornienko-Kelly team will climb fully suited into their Soyuz. Technically, it does not take all three men to do the job. Padalka, who is one of the most experienced Soyuz pilots extant, has joked that he could fly the thing with two cabbages in the other seats. But in the event of Soyuz emergency requiring an immediate reentry, all three men must be aboard—lest a solitary pilot come home, leaving five people aboard the ISS and only three seats on the remaining Soyuz.

The crew will then undock from the Poisk and re-dock to the nearby Zvezda module, or service module—a straight distance of only a few dozen yards. But these kinds of orbital maneuvers require care, with both the station and the Soyuz orbiting the Earth at 17,133 mph (27,572 k/h) but moving just a few feet or inches at a time relative to each other.

“They’ll undock, then back out 200 meters or so,” says NASA TV commentator and overall space station authority Rob Navias. “Then they’ll fly around to the back end of the service module, do a lateral translation, fly retrograde, then move in for a docking at the aft end of the module.” If that sounds like an awfully complicated way to say, essentially, that they’ll back up, turn around and pull in at another door, it’s less techno-babble than it is a reflection of the complexity of even the most straightforward maneuvers in space.

Two of the newly arriving crew members will be only short-timers, staying on the station for just 10 days. They’ll then fly home with Padalka in the older ship, leaving the fresh one for Kelly, Kornienko and another crew member six months later.

The ISS may be the most complicated job site on—or off—the planet, but it’s one that could proudly display a sign reading “14 years without an accident.” Playing by all the workplace safety rules will help keep that record going.

TIME space

See the Massive Mountain on Dwarf Planet Ceres

Ceres Dawn Mountain
NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA NASA's Dawn spacecraft spotted this tall, conical mountain on Ceres on Aug. 19, 2015.

It's just a bit shorter than Mt. Everest

Very small worlds can do very big things—providing you’re willing to grade on a curve. Take the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt, which is currently being orbited by the Dawn spacecraft. Ceres is just 591 miles (952 km) across—or 73% of the size of Texas—with only 3% of Earth’s gravity. If you weigh 150 lbs. here, you’d weigh 4.5 lbs. there.

But Ceres has a mountain—and it’s a whopper, as evidenced by this latest image sent home by Dawn, orbiting at an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 km). The mountain stands 4 miles (6 km) tall—a bit shorter than Mt. Everest, which tops out at 5.49 miles (8.83 km). But context is everything. A 4-mile-tall mountain on a tiny world like Ceres is the equivalent of a 49.8-mile-tall (80.1 km) mountain on Earth, or nine times taller than a pipsqueak like Everest. The Ceres mountain is not terribly active—at least as evidenced by the absence of debris at its base—but it is scored by a bright streak running down its side, which suggests some kind of dynamic processes at least in the past.

Every pixel of the Dawn image represents 450 ft. (140 m) of Ceres’ surface, which is already an impressively granular resolution. In the future, the spacecraft will approach the surface at just 25% of its current altitude, improving image detail dramatically. Whatever secrets Ceres is keeping Dawn may soon reveal.

[time gallery-id=”4003903″]

TIME A Year In Space

Japanese Rocket Rides to the Rescue

On the way: The white stork takes wing
Kyodo/Reuters On the way: The white stork takes wing

A sturdy cargo ship brings much-needed supplies to the space station

On Aug. 19, a white stork carried 14 doves and 12 mice to low-Earth orbit. Every word in that sentence is entirely true—but it does take some explaining.

The thing that actually flew to space was less lyrically known as an H-II launch vehicle, a 164-ft. (5o m) rocket built by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)—or Japan’s NASA. The H-II is a nifty ship, a liquid fueled booster carrying a cargo vessel that has both pressurized and unpressurized compartments, meaning it can carry both inert and living payloads (animals only, no people).

The craft was launched on a supply run to the International Space Station (ISS), and it comes in the nick of time. It’s been a bad year for ISS supply ships, with both an Antares vessel and a Dragon vessel—built by Orbital Sciences and SpaceX respectively—being destroyed in launch accidents, and a Russian Progress ship reaching orbit but plunging into the atmosphere without ever making it to the station. Space station crews are well supplied with essentials like basic foods, water and breathable oxygen, but relative luxuries like fresh food, changes of clothes and packages from home—to say nothing of new scientific experiments and equipment—require regular resupply trips. And the H-II is carrying plenty.

Included in its 6.5 tons of cargo are 600 liters (159 gallons) of potable water; a processing unit for purifying and recycling urine; an experiment known as the Calorimetric Electron Telescope (CALET), which will be mounted on the exterior of the station to study the nature of cosmic radiation, as well as to look for signs of the elusive dark matter that makes up 87% of the mass in the universe.

MORE: Watch TIME’s remarkable series covering a record-breaking mission to space

Also on the flight manifest are 14 miniature satellites known as cubesats, built by Planet Labs, a San Francisco-based company. They are designed to beam down high-resolution images of Earth to paying customers, and are part of an overall fleet of 101 the company plans to loft. But since “cubesat” lacks a certain lyricism, the company calls the little satellites Doves.

The white stork, similarly, is a poetic liberty. It is the cargo vehicle itself, which is technically known as the HTV, but is called Kuonotori—white stork—in Japanese, as a nod to the delivery function it was built to serve. As for the mice? They’re real, a part of ongoing studies of how organisms adapt to zero-gravity.

The stork still has some work ahead of it before it completes its mission. It will not have finished navigating its way to the ISS until Aug. 24. After it safely docks and is unloaded by the crew, it will detach, plunge through the atmosphere and incinerate. In space, a pretty nickname takes you only so far. After that, alas, hardware is nothing but hardware.

TIME vaccines

Here’s How the Anti-Vaxxers’ Strongest Argument Falls Apart

In session: The vaccine court—like vaccines themselves—stands by to help
Education Images; UIG via Getty Images In session: The vaccine court—like vaccines themselves—stands by to help

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

The anti-vaxxers have been misrepresenting an important, if little-used, law

Scientists have long since learned to roll their eyes at politicians—especially when the topic is vaccines. Chris Christie and Rand Paul have both blundered into trouble with their support of vaccine opt-outs, a position that puts them at odds with virtually every medical authority on the planet. On Aug. 13, Carly Fiorina echoed a similar theme when she questioned “esoteric immunizations” like the HPV vaccine—which is a strange way to describe a shot that can save a woman’s life. All that, however, is just campaign-season noise.

Less noticed but perhaps more damaging was the moment in late July when Florida Republican Bill Posey rose on the floor of the House of Representatives and raised what has long been the anti-vaccine crowd’s biggest argument: the existence of a “Vaccine Injury Court.”

It’s at that point that the conversation often stops. The court—a federal panel that adjudicates payments to what the anti-vaxxers call “vaccine-injured children”—has long been the kryptonite, the dropped mic, the rapped gavel of any rational discussion of vaccine safety.

And no wonder: Since 1988, when the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) began, more than 16,000 claims have been considered and a whopping $3.18 billion have been awarded to families alleging some kind of harm from vaccines. That sounds awfully damning, and in this case, unlike in so many other cases, the anti-vaccine crowd isn’t just making stuff up. The numbers are real and the federal government is the first to admit it.

But the anti-vaxxers are utterly wrong in their interpretation of what the numbers mean. And in fact, the numbers prove that vaccines are as safe as the medical community says they are. Understanding why that’s so means going beyond the tired alarmism and looking at the facts.

The Court, Then and Now

The “vaccine injury court” is more properly known as the Office of Special Masters, which itself is a division of the United States Court of Special Claims. The special masters were created as part of the VICP, an act passed by Congress in 1986 and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. It is a fundamental part of the anti-vax canon that the court is a closely held secret, established by Washington but kept as quiet as possible, lest the public catch wise to the fact that hush money is being paid to injured families.

“It is obvious that the government does not want to publicize the existence of the [court],” reads one website that is typical of the conspiracy wing, “because the more Americans learn that there are vaccine injuries and deaths … the more they may start to question the safety of vaccines.”

That, no surprise, is nonsense. The law was well-publicized at the time of its passage and is even better publicized today, thanks to a website set up by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which not only explains the court in depth, but also provides the names and contact information of lawyers in all 50 states and offers detailed assistance in filing a claim.

The purpose of the court is to reckon with the reality that while vaccines are every bit as safe and life-saving as health authorities say they are, no drug or medical procedure is entirely without risks. Since many millions of children get vaccinated every year, even a few bad outcomes could subject the drug-makers to a storm of liability suits. Some claims might be legitimate, but far more could be frivolous or even fraudulent. Either way, the endless litigation could drive up the costs of vaccines.

In order to ensure that vaccines would be as affordable and available as possible, Congress thus created the VICP, establishing a trust fund for awards financed by an excise tax of 75 cents on every vaccine administered. Under the program, cases are adjudicated on a no-fault basis, with attorneys for the government and attorneys for the families arguing before one of eight special masters. The goal is to settle the matter as quickly and fairly as possible, though petitioners (the no-fault system avoids the word “plaintiffs”) who are unhappy with the special master’s ruling are free to take their case to the traditional civil court system.

The standard the petitioners must meet to recover any award is a comparatively low one—the “preponderance of the evidence” rule of civil law, rather than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” requirement of the criminal court system. In practice, that standard has been even more liberally construed in the vaccine court than it is in ordinary civil court, a fact that generally benefits the petitioners. More frequently still, things don’t go that far. In 80% of all cases brought since 2006, the parties settle, meaning that the petitioner recovers an award with no determination being made about whether the vaccine even caused the claimed harm.

“Settlements are not an admission by the United States or the Secretary of Health and Human Services…that the vaccine caused the petitioner’s alleged injuries,” says the HHS website. Claims may be settled for a lot of reasons, including “a desire by both parties to minimize the time and expense associated with litigating a case to conclusion; and a desire by both parties to resolve a case quickly and efficiently.”

Even without blame being established, the billions the government has handed over in payouts since the VICP was created does seem to suggest that a whole lot of people are being harmed. But that is not the case. From 2006 to 2014, approximately 2.5 billion doses of vaccines were administered in the U.S. In that time, a total of just 2,976 claims were adjudicated by the special masters and only 1,876 of those received compensation. Divide that number by the vaccine dose total and you get less than a one in a million risk of harm. Going all the way back to 1988—before the flu vaccine became part of the recommended schedule of vaccines—a total of 16,038 claims have been adjudicated and 4,150 have been compensated, bringing the total payouts up to the $3.18 billion figure.

To the anti-vaxxers, the low number of claimants spells its own kind of trouble. Divide overall payout by the relatively few injured parties and you get $766,265 per petitioner. The government wouldn’t hand over that kind of cash unless the injuries people do sustain are severe, right? Wrong.

Flooded With Injury Claims

The website of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is very clear about any possible injury or side-effect that could possibly be caused by a vaccine (giving the lie to yet another anti-vaxxer claim that those risks are being covered up). The large majority of the possible problems are minor and transient—a fever, a short-term allergic reaction, soreness at the site of the injection. There is the possibility of autoimmune reaction too, in which the body effectively attacks itself, though the science is still vague on what role, if any, vaccines can play in that. Other possible problems include simple injury to shoulder, when the vaccine needle penetrates the bursa—the sac of cushioning fluid that protects the joint. For many of these problems, the claimants are adults, not kids.

In rare cases, severe neurological reactions have been observed too, but that very rarity makes it impossible to determine if they were caused by the vaccine or were a mere coincidence in timing. Still, the no-fault rule of the VICP doesn’t seek proof of causation, which means that claims like this are covered—and those are the ones that drive up the overall average.

“In cases in which there is a lifetime injury, the award will be the equivalent of many millions of dollars,” says New York-based attorney Robert Krakow, who has represented petitioners in hundreds of vaccine injury claims. “It could be $20 million over a lifetime.” Just three such claims a year—out of the many millions of vaccines administered annually—0ver the course of the 27 years the VICP has been in effect can account for half of the total dollars spent on awards.

No surprise, since the rise of the anti-vax fringe, the VICP has been inundated. In 1998, the year U.K. physician Andrew Wakefield published his fraudulent paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism, just 325 injury claims were filed, 181 were dismissed and 144 were compensated. In 2010, Wakefield’s fraud was exposed, his paper was withdrawn and he was stripped of his license to practice medicine in the U.K. But the anti-vax hysteria had been unleashed, driven in part by anti-vaccine drum-bangers like Jenny McCarthy. The following year, 1,637 claims were filed. In 2012, that figure rose further, to 2,702. The number of awards granted increased as well, but still remained in the low triple digits—266 in 2011 and 263 in 2012.

Certainly, vaccine science is not fixed, and different circumstances lead to different law. The case of Hannah Poling, the 9-year-old Georgia girl who, in 2008, received a $1.5 million award when the court agreed that vaccinations contributed to her later-onset autism, rocked the medical community and only worsened the anti-vax panic. But Poling was a special case; she was suffering from an underlying disorder of the mitochondria, or the energy-processing organelle in the cells. This made her vulnerable to any oxidative stress that could, in theory, be caused by vaccines. Mitochondrial disorders are increasingly being cited in vaccine court claims, but the conditions are not common and are poorly understood. “The belief is that the vaccine triggers a decompensation,” says Krakow, “but this is controversial.”

What’s not controversial is the far bigger picture, which is that medicine has never been about eliminating all risks, but about minimizing and balancing and coolly considering them. Childhood diseases are a manifest danger, capable of sickening hundreds of thousands or even millions of kids each year. Vaccines, which offer powerful—if imperfect—protection, all-but eliminate that peril. Yes, they introduce a tiny bit of their own risk, but they still leave children far safer than they otherwise would be. For the literal one in a million who are harmed, the VICP stands by to help. For the rest, it’s the vaccines themselves that do the helping.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME politics

The Truth About Donald Trump’s Narcissism

In an updated extract from his book The Narcissist Next Door, Jeffrey Kluger writes that being Trump is probably less fun than you'd think

Even as the comet that is The Donald continues to streak across the political sky—as babes peer in wonder out their windows, dogs bay in fear in the night and scholars debate the source of the great apparition—it’s worth taking a moment to feel some compassion for the man who’s causing all the mischief.

The fact is, it can’t be easy to wake up every day and discover that you’re still Donald Trump. You were Trump yesterday, you’re Trump today, and barring some extraordinary development, you’ll be Trump tomorrow.

There are, certainly, compensations to being Donald Trump. You’re fabulously wealthy; you have a lifetime pass to help yourself to younger and younger wives, even as you get older and older—a two-way Benjamin Button dynamic that is equal parts enviable and grotesque. You own homes in Manhattan; Palm Beach; upstate New York; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Rancho Palos Verdes, California; and you’re free to bunk down in a grand suite in practically any hotel, apartment building or resort that flies the Trump flag, anywhere on the planet—and there are a lot of them.

But none of that changes the reality of waking up every morning, looking in the bathroom mirror, and seeing Donald Trump staring back at you. And no, it’s not the hair; that, after all, is a choice—one that may be hard for most people to understand, but a choice all the same, and there’s a certain who-asked-you confidence in continuing to make it. The problem with being Trump is the same thing that explains the enormous fame and success of Trump: a naked neediness, a certain shamelessness, an insatiable hunger to be the largest, loudest, most honkingly conspicuous presence in any room—the great, braying Trumpness of Trump—and that’s probably far less of a revel than it seems.

Contented people, well-grounded people, people at ease inside their skin, just don’t behave the way Trump does. The shorthand—and increasingly lazy—description for Trump in recent weeks is that he is the id of the Republican party, and there’s some truth in that. Trump indeed appears to be emotionally incontinent, a man wholly without—you should pardon the expression—any psychic sphincter. The boundary most people draw between thought and speech, between emotion and action, does not appear to exist for Trump. He says what he wants to say, insults whom he wants to insult, and never, ever considers apology or retreat.

But that’s not someone driven by the pleasures of the id—which, whatever else you can say about it, is a thing of happy appetites and uncaring impulses. It’s far more someone driven by the rage and pain and emotional brittleness of narcissism, and everywhere in Trump’s life are the signs of what a fraught state of mind that can be.

There is Trump’s compulsive use of superlatives—especially when he’s talking about his own accomplishments. Maybe what he’s building or selling really is the greatest, the grandest, the biggest, the best, but if that’s so, let the product do the talking. If it can’t, maybe it ain’t so great.

There’s the compulsive promotion of the Trump name. Other giants of commerce and industry use their own names sparingly—even when they’re businesspeople who have the opportunity to turn themselves from a person into a brand. There is no GatesWare software, no BezosBooks.com; it’s not Zuckerbook you log onto a dozen times a day.

But the Trump name is everywhere in the Trump world, and there’s a reason for that. You can look at something you’ve built with quiet pride and know it’s yours, or you can look at it worriedly, insecurely, fretting that someone, somewhere may not know that you created it—diminishing you in the process. And so you stamp what you build with two-story letters identifying who you are— like a child writing his name on a baseball glove—just to make sure there’s no misunderstanding.

On occasion, there is an almost—almost—endearing cluelessness to the primal way Trump signals his pride in himself. He poses for pictures with his suit jacket flaring open, his hands on his hips, index and ring fingers pointing inevitably groinward—a great-ape fitness and genital display if ever there was one. After he bought the moribund Gulf+Western Building in New York City’s Columbus Circle, covered it in gold-colored glass, converted it into a luxury hotel and residence, and reinforced it with steel and concrete to make it less subject to swaying in the wind, Trump boasted to The New York Times that it was going to be “the stiffest building in the city.” If he was aware of his own psychic subtext, he gave no indication.

It’s not just real estate Trump seeks to own or at least control. There was his attempt to trademark the words “You’re fired,” after they became a catchphrase on his reality show, The Apprentice. There was his offer to donate $5 million to a charity of President Obama’s choosing if Obama would release his college transcripts to him, Donald Trump. In both cases, Trump wants something—possession, attention, the obeisance of no less than the President—and so he demands it. The behavior is less id than infant—the most narcissistic stage of the human life cycle.

The petulance of Trump’s public feuds—with Rosie ODonnell (“a total loser”), Seth Meyers (“He’s a stutterer”), Robert De Niro (“We’re not dealing with Albert Einstein”) and Arianna Huffington, (“Unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man . . .”)—is wholly of a piece with the fragility of the narcissistic ego. In Trump’s imaginings, it is Fox News’s Megyn Kelly who owes him an apology for asking pointed questions during the Republican debate, not Trump who owes Kelly an apology for his boorish behavior and school-yard Tweets (“Wow, @megynkelly really bombed tonight. People are going wild on twitter! Funny to watch”). As for his sneering misogyny—his reference to blood coming out of Kelly’s “wherever”? Nothing to see here. It’s Jeb Bush who really should apologize to women for his comments about defunding Planned Parenthood.

Trump was right on that score; Bush was indeed clueless to suggest that the annual cost of protecting women’s health should not be as high as $500 million—or just over $3.14 per American woman per year. So Bush did what people with at least some humility do: He acknowledged his mistake and at least tried to qualify the statement. That option, however, is closed for the narcissist. The overweening ego that defines the condition is often just a bit of misdirection intended to conceal the exact opposite—a deep well of insecurity and even self-loathing. Any admission of wrong shatters that masquerade.

To call Donald Trump a narcissist is, of course, to state the clinically obvious. There is the egotism of narcissism, the grandiosity of narcissism, the social obtuseness of narcissism. But if Trump is an easy target, he is also a pitiable one. Narcissism isn’t easy, it isn’t fun, it isn’t something to be waved off as a personal shortcoming that hurts only the narcissists themselves, any more than you can look at the drunk or philanderer or compulsive gambler and not see grief and regret in his future.

For now, yes, the Trump show is fun to watch. It will be less so if the carnival barker with his look-at-me antics continues to distract people from a serious discussion of important issues. It will be less still if Trump actually does wind up as the nominee of a major political party or mounts an independent campaign and succeeds in tipping the vote one way or the other.

But that kind of triumph is not the fate that awaits most narcissists. Their act becomes old, their opponents become bold, and the audience—inevitably—moves onto something else. Trump the phenomenon will surely become Trump the afterthought. He is a man who desperately hungers for respect and attention and who, by dint of that very desperation, will likely wind up with neither. The pain will be his; the relief will be ours.

Adapted from The Narcissist Next Door: Understanding the Monster in Your Family, in Your Office, in Your Bed—in Your World by Jeffrey Kluger by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey Kluger.

TIME A Year In Space

Why Salad in Space Matters

A portable garden aboard the space station can be critical to astronauts' physical and mental health

Yes, yes, there was a daring spacewalk outside the International Space Station on August 10, as cosmonauts Misha Kornienko and Gennady Padalka spent six hours performing a range of maintenance and inspection tasks.

But news of a different kind was made inside the ISS when the station’s other three crewmembers did something historic: they ate lettuce. Specifically red romaine lettuce. More specifically, red romaine lettuce that was grown onboard—and that matters.

Space has never been a place known for good eating. Certainly, the food now is better than it was in the pureed, shrink-wrapped, sucked-from-packets days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, and that says something. The ISS has hot water, a food heater and even a cappuccino maker, for instance. Scott Kelly, who is in the fifth month of a year in space, even tweeted down a picture of zero-g tacos he made for Cinco de Mayo.

But fresh fruits and vegetables, which take up room and spoil fast, are another matter. While apples and carrots are sometimes sent up on cargo ships (another occasion for a Kelly photo), those supply runs are infrequent, and when a ship fails to arrive—something that’s happened three times in the past year—the veggie fast can go on and on.

During longer trips into deep space—particularly to Mars—NASA knows that fresh produce is not only good for the crew’s physical health, but also for their mental well-being, giving them a comforting taste of home. That means growing the crops onboard.

To investigate how this could be done, NASA partnered with ORBITEC, a Madison, Wisconsin-based technology company, to develop a unit known straightforwardly as Veggie, which consists of both a growth chamber and so-called plant pillows containing pre-packaged seeds. The unit is collapsible, and includes a flat panel of red, blue and green LEDs. Technically, the first two colors are the only ones needed if your sole goal is to grow plants.

“Blue and red wavelengths are the minimum needed to get good plan growth,” said Ray Wheeler, lead scientist for Advanced Life Support at the Kennedy Space Center, in a NASA statement. “They are probably the most efficient in terms of electrical power conversion.”

But plants aren’t the only living things that factor into this equation. There are the human beings too, and the red-blue lights bathe the plants in a sickly purplish glow, making them altogether unappetizing until they’re harvested. So the green lights are added to, as Wheeler puts it, “enhance the human visual perception of the plants.”

Nothing, however, goes onto the astronauts’ menu—or into their bodies—without being rigorously tested first. So in May of 2014, an earlier crew germinated the first plant pillows, grew them for 33 days, then plucked and froze them and shipped them home on a returning spacecraft in October. Scientists on the ground certified them fit to eat, so Kelly germinated a new batch on July 7th and he and crewmates Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui sampled them on August 10. They pronounced them fine.

There is one more reason to keep a garden running in space—and that explains why there are other pillows containing zinnia seeds aboard. The flowers are edible, yes, but they’re also beautiful and colorful and fun to tend. Gardening is a very earthly grace note and has long been thought of as a relaxing and satisfying way for astronauts to keep themselves busy on long-duration missions that can quickly settle into repetitiveness and drudgery.

“The farther and longer humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits,” said Gioia Massa, Veggie’s payload scientist. “I think that plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario.”

That’s a whole lot of expectation riding on what is, today, just a few leaves of red romaine. But early homesteaders got their start with just small garden plots too. There’s no reason their 21st century heirs can’t do the same.

TIME is producing a series of films about the yearlong mission of Kornienko and American astronaut Scott Kelly. Watch the series here.

TIME A Year In Space

Meet the Woman Who Has Spent 200 Days in Space

Homeward bound: Cristoforetti prepares for her departure from the space station in June
WSA/NASA Homeward bound: Cristoforetti prepares for her departure from the space station in June

A record-smashing stay aboard the International Space Station can leave you forever changed

There’s no such thing as a women’s league in space. The U.S. may just have won the Women’s World Cup, and basketball may have the WNBA, but there’s never been a WNASA or a women’s space station. The boys’ club that was space travel has long since become a co-ed enterprise. But that doesn’t mean female astronauts and cosmonauts don’t deserve to be recognized. With crews still predominantly male, there remains a glass ceiling between Earth and orbit, and it is the women, not the men, who must smash it.

One of the most noteworthy of the current corps of female fliers is Italian fighter pilot Samantha Cristoforetti, who recently returned from 200 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS), setting the women’s duration record for time in space. Cristoforetti recently spoke to TIME to discuss her experiences in orbit, the challenges she faced, and the insights about life on Earth that come from being off it for so long. The interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity:

TIME: Your recent stay on the ISS was your first trip to space. What surprised you most about your time there?

Cristoforetti: I don’t think that I had very set expectations. I was very open, like a blank page. So I discovered many things, like how it feels to float—just that sensation of being so light to the point of having no weight whatsoever, of being able to move in three dimensions. Everything is just effortless. You’re like Superman all day long for 200 days. But then of course are the challenges. You’re used to setting things down and they’re going to still be there when you go and get them. While in space, if you just let something go, it’s going to be gone. I got to the point, to the very advanced stage at the end of the mission, where I actually could let something just go, and I had just a subconscious awareness of what it was, and if it started to float away, I would just go and grab it.

With all the various ways of communicating with Earth when you’re on the station, did you still feel any isolation?

In many ways, you still feel very connected because we are able to make phone calls to people on Earth. We have videoconferences scheduled on the weekends with our families. A selected number of people can send you emails and we can email back and forth. We have kind of slow access to the Internet, and so we can do a little bit of social media and we can use the Internet if we are very patient. On the other hand, you also kind of live in a bubble because there’s only so many people who actually have access to you. And then of course when you look at Earth there’s an ambivalent feeling because you know that you’re not that far but at the same time, it’s such an alien view that you really feel like you’re disconnected from the world. Everything flies by so fast that you almost don’t have the time to make a virtual connection with whatever country or continent or feature is passing beneath you.

Did you feel you had any privacy while you were on-board?

The space station, first of all, is huge. Sometimes people think that we are like 6 people enclosed in very close quarters, in a very small environment. I attended a military academy when I was 24, and believe me, we were a lot more in closed quarters back then than I was in the space station. We also have a little bit of a personal space. It’s about the size of an old phone booth for people who are old enough to remember phone booths. You can close the doors. You sleep in there. It gets pretty dark. I had some pictures and other little personal items. And so definitely that’s your private space, and most of us choose to go in there to make phone calls for example, so that you don’t disturb other people but also so that your phone call is private.

Now that you’re the female who holds the record for being in space the longest, how does that feel?

(Laughs) Well, I think records are more something for media to write about because it’s potentially a piece of news. But of course for me, it really doesn’t make a huge difference having been in space 200 days as opposed to 190, which would not have been the record. I mean I was happy to stay, but the opportunity to stay longer, which is what led to the record, depended on an accident that we had with [a Progress] cargo vehicle [which failed to reach orbit and delayed operations]. So really I didn’t really do anything to earn that record.

You spent a couple of months with astronauts Scott Kelly and Misha Kornienko, who will be aboard the station for a full year. What do you think is the hardest challenge they will face?

Well, you know, every person is different, so it’s really hard to say what would be challenging for them. But I would imagine staying healthy. I felt over the course of six months of my physical well-being somewhat degrading as time passed. It was nothing that I could really pinpoint, but just the general sensation that my body over time was getting a little bit tired of this environment. I felt like my body probably at some point needed to get back to Earth, to breathing normal air, to be back in normal gravity.

Did your 200 days in space change your perspective about life on Earth?

When you look at the Earth from space, it looks like a big space ship that is flying through space, and oh, by the way, carrying all of humanity on it. And so you start to get this feeling that, just as on the space station, we can only function if we all work together as a crew and we’re all crew members. None of us is a passenger. Nobody is up there because they bought a ticket and they’re just going to enjoy the ride. You have to take care of each other. Now it’s a lot easier when it’s six people, but we have to somehow progressively work towards having the same attitude on planet Earth. There’s another crew coming afterwards, the next generation, and we have to make sure that we’ll leave them a spaceship which is in good shape.

TIME is producing a series of films about the yearlong mission of Kornienko and American astronaut Scott Kelly. Watch the series here.

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