TIME A Year In Space

Astronaut Scott Kelly Takes Off for International Space Station

A fiery display marks the start of a remarkable mission

It took Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and Gannady Padalka less than nine minutes to drive to work on Saturday. That’s the easy part. The hard part is that Padalka won’t punch out for six months; for Kornienko and Kelly, it will be a year.

MORE: Watch the Trailer for TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

Their office, of course, is the International Space Station (ISS). And their drive began at 3:42 p.m. ET Friday, or 1:42 a.m. Saturday in Kazakhstan, where their Soyuz rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, en route to space. The 510-second sprint to low-Earth orbit will be followed by a six-hour chase, in which the Soyuz will slowly gain ground on the station, finally docking at about the same time people in Kazakhstan will be arriving at their decidedly more prosaic places of business.

TIME will be covering Kelly’s mission in the new series, A Year In Space. Watch the trailer here.

TIME A Year In Space

How—and Why—Russian Rockets Get Blessed

A Russian orthodox priest blesses the Soyuz Rocket, staff and members of the media two days before its launch.  The Rocket will carry American Astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka to the International Space Station.
Philip Scott Andrews for TIME A Russian orthodox priest blesses the Soyuz Rocket, staff and members of the media two days before its launch. The Rocket will carry American Astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka to the International Space Station.

A ritual unheard of in the Soviet days precedes the launch of a one-year space station mission

God didn’t have much role in rocketry during the days of the old Soviet Union. The officially atheist state was a creature of economics, politics, industry, ideology. But religion? Not so much.

The barricades to faith fell along with the Berlin Wall and religion now thrives in Russia and the cities and nations of the old empire. That includes Baikonur, where cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko and astronaut Scott Kelly will take off in the early hours of March 28 for a long-duration stay aboard the International Space Station—and where less than 37 hours before launch, three Russian Orthodox priests arrived to perform a blessing of the Soyuz rocket that will carry the men.

It was sunny at the launch pad and, at 37° F (2.7° C), far more comfortable than the 18° F (-7.7° C) of the pre-dawn rollout of the Soyuz the day before. The priests arrived along with a large entourage of officials from Energiya, the company that built the rocket. The holy men chanted prayers for the rocket and the lead priest splashed the Energiya group with holy water. Then he did the same to the small crowd of gathered media. He took two questions from the Russian press, and within 20 minutes, the ceremony was over.

The priests looked small next to the 15-story tower of machinery they were blessing, and minds of different faiths—or of no faith at all—can differ about whether the ceremony offers any divine protection. But within sight of the Soyuz pad is the Soviets’ one-time lunar pad, where, on July 3, 1969, the massive N1 rocket that was supposed to take cosmonauts to the moon, erupted in the largest non-nuclear blast in history, spelling the end of Soviet lunar ambitions.

Terrible things can happen when people dare to fly to space. It’s in the nature of human beings to make such presumptuous journeys anyway. And it’s in our nature too to seek a little safety and comfort before we do.

Read next: A Year in Orbit Starts in Kazakhstan

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME A Year In Space

Rocket Bound for Space Station Rolls Out in the Kazakh Steppes

The Russian Soyuz that will carry Scott Kelly to space for a year has its coming-out party in the frigid pre-dawn

All activity stops in the vicinity of a Soyuz rocket after the dog walks. The dog will walk on a lot of occasions, but especially the day the rocket rolls out to the pad. The two kilometer (1.25 mi.) trip takes more than two hours to complete, with the rocket lying on a flat-bed rail car and the train chugging no faster than 5 km/h, (3 mph) making multiple stops along the way.

MORE: Watch the Trailer for TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

At one point en route, the rail line crosses a road, and even on the locked-down, sealed-off grounds of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, that calls for special security—a bomb-sniffing dog to check the crossing when the train is still at least half a kilometer away. If you’re on the wrong side of the track after that, you’re out of luck. Nothing at all moves until the rocket crawls past, making its exceedingly slow way to the pad—preparatory to making its exceedingly fast way to space a couple of days later.

Like everything else in the Russian space program, the rollout proceeds according to ritual—determined by the needs of both the very breakable machines and the very superstitious people who build and fly them. Before dawn on March 25, the Soyuz set to carry astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonauts Gennady Pedalka and Mikhail Kornienko to the International Space Station—with Kelly and Kornienko scheduled to spend a year aloft—emerged slowly from its hangar.

Factoring in the wind chill, it was 18º F (-8º C) in the Kazakh steppe, with the engine pulling the Soyuz the only thing anywhere emitting any heat—and not much at that. The Soyuz emerges business end first, which is to say bottom end first, and that’s a good way to meet it. It takes 20 engines bundled in five clusters to produce the thrust the rocket will need to muscle itself off the ground. The top of the rocket where the crew rides ride is the prettier end—painted white and decorated with a Russian flag and the Roscosmos logo—but the men will never get to space in the first place without the fire the engines provide.

The route to the launch pad is lined by technicians, security officers and other personnel, including a Russian Orthodox priest, who will bless the rocket and the crew the following day. Amiko Kauderer, Kelly’s significant other, is here as well and while she’s plenty inured to the idea of space flight—this will be Kelly’s fourth time aloft—she is as struck by the sheer physicality of the rocket as anyone else.

“Isn’t it gorgeous?” she says. “My guy’s got a hot ride.”

The most prominent people not in attendance are the crewmen themselves, and that’s not only because they’re in pre-flight medical quarantine. “It’s T-minus 64 hours,” says astronaut Mike Fincke, who has himself launched twice from Baikonur and today is serving the traditional role of astronaut escort to a fellow astronaut’s family—in this case Kauderer and Kelly’s two daughters, Samantha, 20, and Charlotte, 11. “The crew has a lot of other things to do, but it’s also part of the tradition and superstition for them to stay away. It’s like not seeing the bride before the wedding.”

When the Soyuz reaches the pad, it still must be stood upright, a process that was once called its erection, until everyone just got tired of the jokes—especially after the Americans began flying out of the old Soviet space port. Now the term is “verticalizing.”

Whatever it’s called, it’s a slow exercise and even with the sun up, the air is bitter. “Someone text Uncle Mark and tell him to bring some hand warmers,” says Charlotte. Uncle Mark, of course, is Kelly’s twin brother, also an astronaut, also with four missions on his manifest—though all of his were made from the decidedly more temperate Cape Canaveral.

It’s only when the rocket is finally raised, briefly standing alone on the pad before it’s caged in its gantry, that the thrill—and the brazenness—of what it will do in 64 hours seems real. Cosmonauts and astronauts have been flying into space since Yuri Gagarin took off from the very same pad on April 12, 1961, and it has never been less than a hellishly dangerous business—putting human beings inside a massive machine filled with explosive fuel and, effectively, lighting a match. The fact that things have gone right far more often than they’ve gone wrong does not make every new attempt any easier or more certain.

“I have lots of mixed emotions, when you realize he’s going to be on top of that,” says Kauderer. “To quote Scott, ‘It’s about to get real.'”

TIME A Year In Space

TIME Announces A Year in Space Multimedia Documentary Series

For the next year, TIME takes you on an out-of-this-world ride to the ISS

On Friday, astronaut Scott Kelly will embark on a one-year mission aboard the International Space Station. To coincide with the event, TIME launches today the trailer of A Year in Space, a multi-part documentary series produced by TIME’s Red Border Films and directed by Shaul Schwarz and Marco Grob. Presented, from May 2015, across all TIME platforms—both print and digital— A Year in Space will offer exclusive access into the lives of Scott and Mark Kelly, NASA’s twin astronauts—from training sessions at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston, Texas, all the way to the International Space Station (ISS), 250 miles in orbit. Visit time.com/space.

Your mind and your body have very different views on space. Your mind thinks it would be a fine and fun and thrilling place to be. Your body wants no part of it. The human organism was built for a one-g environment—and would just as soon stay there. Put it in zero-g for too long and everything comes unsprung: the heart goes slack, the bones get brittle, blood pressure goes awry, muscles wither, the eyes weaken.

Scott Kelly is about to face all that down. On March 27, the veteran of three previous space flights will take off for the International Space Station (ISS) and, along with cosmonaut Misha Kornienko, remain aloft for a full year. Meantime, Scott’s twin brother Mark, a veteran of four space flights, will remain on the ground. The two men with their matching backgrounds, similar health and identical genomes, will serve as the perfect controlled experiment to learn more about how the human body handles weightlessness—and what can be done to minimize the damage during long-term trips to Mars and elsewhere.

The staff at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab poses for a picture with Scott on Feb. 3.
Marco Grob for TIME
Marco Grob for TIMEFollowing the successful completion of his final training in the pool, the staff at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston presented Scott with a cake wishing him well on the mission.

The Kelly mission is part of what is shaping up to be the most significant year in space in a long time. With the Juno probe on the way to Jupiter, the Dawn probe’s recent arrival at the dwarf planet Ceres, the New Horizons probe set for a first-ever rendezvous with Pluto in July, the Curiosity rover completing its third year on Mars and no fewer than three American manned spacecrafts—two being built by the private sector and one by NASA—moving closer to flight, the U.S. is at last reclaiming its fully preeminent position in space.

But it’s the story of Scott and Mark that will be the truly moving, truly human tale—and TIME will be covering it from all angles. Our A Year in Space project kicked off with our cover story on the Kellys in our Dec. 29, 2014 issue. It will continue on all of our platforms—web, tablet, mobile, magazine—until after Scott’s return in the spring of 2016.

As we did during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo days, TIME will be going into the lives and living rooms of American astronauts and their families. Our online coverage has begun already, with an exclusive trip into the 40-ft. depths of NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab—essentially a 6.2 million gal. (23.5 million liter) swimming pool—where fully space-suited astronauts train on a mock-up of the ISS.

We will continue with at least nine hours of interviews with Scott, his family, the girlfriend he’s leaving behind and the doctors who will be looking after him while he’s in orbit, and with 80 minutes of conversations with him aboard the ISS. TIME.com will feature regular video and story updates throughout the year and a feature-length, Red Border Films documentary at the end of the year.

The brothers have been there before—in wonderful and terrible ways. They have both known the thrill of being in space and the slight ache of wanting to be the one who’s flying when it’s the other brother’s turn. They’ve known the wonderful sense of connectedness that comes from being in space and being able to call home and discuss the experience with a person uniquely—almost surreally—able to understand it all. And they’ve known the pain of not having that brother close when needed—as when Mark’s wife, former Congresswoman Gabriel Gifford, was nearly assassinated when Scott was in space. “The one person who could have helped me most was off the planet,” Mark has said.

This year, Scott and Mark will, in a sense, be flying the same mission for the first time. Mark, having retired from NASA, may remain at home in Arizona, but the brothers will be working together to advance the far larger mission of helping the human species—moored to a single world in a universe full of them—slowly stretch its reach into the cosmos.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME magazine and TIME.com, overseeing coverage of science and human behavior. He is the author of nine books, including Apollo 13, upon which the 1995 movie was based.

TIME space

Hoping to Meet E.T.? Be Careful What You Wish

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

As a new TIME book shows, human beings have not always reacted well to unfamiliar experiences—and beings

Let’s be honest: if we ever encounter an extraterrestrial, we’ll probably lose our marbles—and not in a good way. We’ve been contemplating the meeting for a long time, and the stories we’ve told ourselves have not been encouraging.

There is H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, in which invading Martians lay waste to much of the Earth until they are defeated by a terrestrial virus. There is Independence Day, the 1996 movie in which invading aliens—who clearly haven’t been paying attention—lay waste to much of Earth until they are defeated by a computer virus. There is the celebrated episode of The Twilight Zone that involved seemingly kindly aliens who arrive on Earth carrying a handbook called To Serve Man, which is a perfectly nice beginning—until it turns out the handbook is a cookbook.

In fairness to us, we do seem to have moved a bit beyond our afraid-of-the-dark ways. We sent the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft aloft in 1977 carrying golden disks encoded with information explicitly designed to introduce ourselves to aliens and even tell them where we live. The one time we thought we had uncovered solid evidence of extraterrestrial biology—in 1996, when NASA announced that a meteorite from Mars appeared to contain a microbial fossil—the reaction was far more celebratory than scared.

“If this discovery is confirmed,” then-President Clinton said at a Rose Garden press conference, “it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered . . . We will continue to listen closely to what it has to say as we continue the search for answers and for knowledge…”

Still, a trace of a dead microbe is hardly the same as hitting cosmic paydirt. Suppose one of our spacecraft or radio antennas did pick up signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. Suppose, more dramatically, E.T. actually landed here. How would we behave then? The odds are, alas, that what happened next wouldn’t be pretty.

Human beings, for better and often much worse, are a tribal species. Give us a way to define and divide ourselves—by color, language, religion, geography, and certainly by planet if it ever comes to that—and we seize on it. Such a worldview once paid survival dividends, and in some ways it still does. Members of your family or clan or community are the ones most likely to protect you and look out for you. Those guys living two valleys away are likelier to see you as a competitor for resources and mates, and given a chance will deal with you accordingly.

School segregators, ethnic cleansers and people who blow up houses of worship don’t think in those terms consciously, but the primitive impulse is at least part of what’s behind the us-versus-them atrocities they commit.

Sometimes the savagery is us-versus-us. The early days of the Cold War are remembered as an entirely bipolar era, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union standing astride competing halves of the world. But once the intercontinental ballistic missiles got armed and aimed, things began to break down within the friendly camps too (at least in the U.S.). No backyard fallout shelter was complete without a shotgun, the better to repel neighbors who couldn’t be bothered to dig their own when they had the chance but, when the bombs started falling, wanted to huddle up in yours.

Similarly, one of the least plausible—if most inspiring—scenes in Independence Day occurs when citizens of the world join hands to repel the aliens and the screen is filled with images of Israeli and Arab militaries, side by side, working together, the dire circumstances turning enemies into brothers. But the fact is, it’s hard to imagine even the nominally confederated nations of the European Union pulling together that way without France crabbing to Belgium that Italy needs to pull its own weight, Germany scolding Greece that a military costs money and they should have thought about that before they ran up such huge deficits, and Great Britain trying to figure out if ETs can swim and if maybe, one more time, the Sceptered Isle could wait out the whole mess on the other side of the Channel.

We don’t need an alien landing to show us how we respond to a perceived external threat. Consider the hysterical reaction to the Ebola virus alighting on American shores (ground all flights! quarantine all travelers!). Consider the incessant drumbeat about the need to seal the U.S.-Mexican border against swine flu or ISIS or Al Qaeda or whatever other menace is lighting up cable news that day.

Harder to determine is how proof of extraterrestrial life would affect our religious beliefs. The last half-millennium has been a difficult time for some of the most fundamentally devout. Far from living on a world that sits at the center of the universe, we have come to learn that we’re barely in the cosmic countryside, camping out on a lone planet circling one of 300 billion stars in the Milky Way, which itself is one of perhaps 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Our final claim to uniqueness is that for the moment, we remain the only known planet with life. If that changes—when that changes—we’ll all have to find our own ways to adjust. And on that score, there is hope.

At the Vatican, Jesuit brother Guy Consolmagno, known popularly as the Pope’s astronomer, is promoting a new kind of faith that happily embraces science. The 2014 book he co-authored with a fellow Jesuit is provocatively titled Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? His answer is straightforward: “Only if she asks.” The response is whimsical and wonderful. And it suggests a profound change.

The human species has undeniably made progress over time, from the primordial soup to the state of nature to a global community that can, on its good days, feed its kids and heal its sick and make great discoveries without killing too many of its own. Yet we have a long way to go. It will be a very good thing when we at last shake hands with an extraterrestrial. But it may be a better thing still that the big day remains at least a few years away.

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 A Year In Space

Russia Gives Space Station Crew the Keys to Its Ship

Members of the press and officials from NASA and Roscosmos talk with Russian Cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka, alongside NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly, after a training session at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday, March 23, 2015.
Philip Scott Andrews for TIME Members of the press and officials from NASA and Roscosmos talk with Russian Cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka, alongside NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly, after a training session at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday, March 23, 2015.

The official handover of a brand new Soyuz is a milestone for any space flight from Baikonur

No one kept a secret like the old Soviet space program kept a secret. Back in the early days of the space race, Sergei Korolev, the Soviets’ chief designer, was known only as, well, the Chief Designer, the better to prevent any assassination attempts that officials from Roscosmos—the Russian NASA—convinced themselves the Americans were cooking up. Baikonur, the Russian Cape Canaveral, hidden away in the Kazakh steppes, stole its name from a mining town 200 miles north, the better to confuse enemies who might come looking for it.

MORE: Watch the Trailer for TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

But the secrecy of Baikonur was partly just geography. If you want to get to space you need launch pads that aim away from populated areas and that are located as close to the equator as possible, giving your rockets a boost in speed thanks to the physics of Earth’s rotation. In the U.S. that meant Florida, with millions of people to the west and north but no one at all in the ocean to the east. In Russia, that meant Baikonur.

The Baikonur launch facility—where cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka and astronaut Scott Kelly will lift off for the International Space Station on March 28, with Kelly and Kornienko slated to stay a full year—is a half hour drive into the desert outside of Baikonur proper, which is itself is at least three hours away from pretty much anything at all. The old spaceport, when you finally arrive, looks exactly like you would have expected it to look if you grew up during the cold war when everything Soviet was synonymous with scary.

MORE Meet the Twins Unlocking the Secrets of Space

There are the cement blockhouses and the skeletal gantries and the security fences everywhere, all growing out of the surrounding scrub without so much as a single sapling or tuft of grass to add a little green. You could photograph the place in color, but why bother?

But inside Baikonur, none of that matters. Here, the sense of place—or placelessness, really—falls away, replaced by the same kind of closed-world, finely focused, center-of-the-universe bustle that accompanies any launch facility anywhere on the planet.

On Monday, at T-minus five days, the three members of the prime crew and the three members of the backup crew were scheduled to run their final ingress drills, climbing into their Soyuz spacecraft, for the first time—or at least the first official time. That, according to more than half a century of custom, required an equally official handoff, in which the people who built the spacecraft would, in effect, turn the keys over to the people who would drive it.

The ceremony took place in a large meeting room divided by a glass partition. Representatives from NASA, Roscosmos and the media crowded on one side of the glass and waited until officials from both Roscosmos and Energiya, the state-owned contractor that built the rocket and the spacecraft, entered and sat at a conference table facing the partition. The cosmonauts and astronauts, now in preflight medical quarantine, entered through a door on the other side, and sat at a matching conference table facing the officials.

Cosmonauts and astronauts from both the prime and backup crews greet officials and press before training at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan
Jonathan D. Woods—TIMECosmonauts and astronauts from both the prime and backup crews greet officials and press before training at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday, March 23.

The spacecraft is now ready for you, one of the government men said to the crew in Russian. It is ready or flight.

The astronauts and cosmonauts nodded their thanks.

Are you ready to go to work?

We are, answered Pedalka, the commander.

A few more words of good wishes and congratulations followed, and then the officials rose, which was the cue for the crew to rise. The little ceremony, weeks in the planning and minutes in the execution, was over.

The crews moved to a massive hangar adjacent to the conference room, where multiple spacecraft sit in different stages of flight-readiness. Near the back of the hangar are three unmanned Progress ships, built to carry supplies and cargo to space. Nearby is a Soyuz that will fly later this year, a beautifully ugly, three-pod machine that is nowhere near ready for its launch and still sits with its cables and lines and guts exposed.

And at the front of the room is Kelly’s, Kornienko’s and Padalka’s Soyuz, this one hidden inside its sleek, white, 22-ft. (6.7 m) third-stage shell, looking like a proper rocket should look—though still not mated to the second and third stages which will add 155 additional feet (47 m). Caging the third stage is a yellow scaffolding that rises close to the hangar’s ceiling. On the wall, overlooking it all, is a massive blue on white painting of Korolev—the father of everything that is happening here and everything that has happened since the 1950s.

The back-up crew climbs the scaffold and enters the cockpit first, spending 30 or 40 minutes there, getting the feel for the spacecraft that, should circumstance warrant, one or more of them could be flying at the end of the week. The prime crew follows.

For Kelly, and for his American back-up Jeff Williams, Baikonur is the right place to be spending the last few days on Earth before taking off for a year’s worth of days in space. “It’s very different from home,” Kelly says, “very different from what I’m used to. It’s a good way to separate myself slowly from what’s familiar.”

The separation will get a bit harder before it gets easier. Later in the week, his daughters—ages 20 and 12—his girlfriend and his father will arrive in Baikonur for the launch. For his father especially, the experience will be wearing. This is Kelly’s fourth flight, matching the four his twin brother Mark, a retired astronaut, has already flown.

“No parent of an astronaut has watched eight launches,” says Kelly. “He’ll hold the record.”

This probably, but not definitely, will be the last one the senior Kelly will have to bear. Scott is likely to retire after his year aloft , but space gets deep into an astronaut’s bones. There are few—perhaps none—who’ve flown who haven’t sorely missed the experience when it’s over. Kelly, for all anyone can say, could return. For those who do, Baikonur—ugly and functional and wonderful as the Soyuz itself—will remain the gateway back.

Read next: Maybe We Really Are Alone In the Universe

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME A Year In Space

A Year in Orbit Starts in Kazakhstan

Scott Kelly waters the tree planted in his name in Baikonur, Kazhakstan on Saturday, March 21.
Jonathan D. Woods—TIME Scott Kelly waters the tree planted in his name in Baikonur, Kazhakstan on Saturday, March 21.

The great rituals of space travel play out on the Kazakh steppes

It’s easy to roll your eyes at PR—and easier still when you’re talking about space PR. Space has always been an industry built as much on imagery as engineering.

The Russians tended to go big. Their Yuri Gagarins and Alexei Leonovs became titans of iconography—figures of bronze and steel, their faces cast on coins and their heroic forms raised on pedestals in parks. The Americans went folksy—with reporters and photographers invited into astronauts’ homes while the family ate staged meals or played staged board games, the better to frame the man in the silver pressure suit as just a guy who worked hard and made it big.

MORE: Watch the Trailer for TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

Similar semiotics were on display this weekend at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where reporters were invited for a final series of press availabilities as cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka, and astronaut Scott Kelly prepare for a March 28 launch to the International Space Station—a mission that will include a marathon one-year stay for Kelly and Kornienko. If you came to Baikonur to watch the show—the faux scenes of faux training that played out while cameras fired and reporters tossed puffball questions—it was easy to wonder why the entire kabuki business wasn’t abandoned decades ago. But the kabuki business is a deeply important—even poignant—one, and the job of spacefaring would be much the poorer without it.

MORE: Meet the Twins Unlocking the Secrets of Space

Baikonur looks like what it is, which is to say a company town, albeit it one built for a very particular employer at a very particular time in its history. Much the same is true of the space coast of Florida and the communities around the Johnson Space Center in Houston—but much is different, too. The developers in Houston and Canaveral gave their neighborhoods names like Timber Cove and Cocoa Beach, and built ranch homes and beach houses in a ramble of neighborhoods and along strips of sand. If you worked there and lived there and ever tired of life there, you could always up sticks and move into the private sector.

Baikonur is known as, well, just Baikonur, a development of Soviet-era bleached-cream housing blocks built along paved-over promenades for families working in the service of the space center. Here too, you were always free to walk out of town, but once you did you’d find yourself in the Kazakh steppes, and there was no work to be had anywhere else, so best to stay where you were.

Today, Baikonur is the same—only older. The bleak Soviet housing is now bleak and flaking Soviet housing, and while there is a new hotel near the space center that, graded on a Kazakh curve, has a certain glitter to it, the space program as a whole is a much-reduced thing. Gone are the Mir and Salyut space stations. Gone are the unmanned missions to the moon and the planets. All that survives are the Soyuz rockets launching three-person crews to the space station, with seats going for north of $70 million each—a fat revenue stream for the modern Russian state, but one which will be choked off in 2017, when new manned spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing start flying.

But Baikonur is more than a space-age theme park. Much like the rest of the old Soviet Union, it’s a city where space has always been something of a secular faith. There are sacred spaces—the massive replica of a Soyuz rocket in the center of town, where, on an overcast day this weekend, a bride and groom danced at the center of a circle of twirling children. There is the alley of cosmonauts on the space center grounds, where every man or woman who has launched from here has planted a poplar tree before leaving Earth, beginning with Gagarin’s—the tallest and, at 54 years old, the oldest.

And into all this history this week, stepped Kelly and Kornienko and Padalka, still on the Earth but already disengaging from it. The press crowded in as the men were put on display, but they approached no closer than three meters, and no one could come even that close without clearing a medical screening and donning a surgical gown and mask, lest they pass on a cold or flu.

The three crewmen and three backup crewmen posed with a flight director and pretended to review procedural manuals, then worked at computer screens and pretended to run a docking drill, while the cameras flashed and flashed. They played at playing, too—10 minutes of ping pong and pool and badminton staged for the cameras. They’re boys, after all, and they work hard and play hard and the rough camaraderie and competitiveness that comes from that is just what they’ll need in space.

Kelly, who’s making his fourth flight, knows the drill well. “Misha, rematch!” he said to Kornienko as they approached the pool table, as if they do this every day. He knows too to poke gentle fun at the drill. “I wonder if they’ll notice if I pedal backwards,” he said to nobody in particular as he worked a stationary bike for a gym photo op.

And it all could have seemed too much, it all could have seemed too silly. But then, at the end of the day, the six crewmen came to visit cosmonaut alley. They walked past Gagarin’s tree first, and they walked past many others too—like the one planted by Leonov, the first man to walk in space, or Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. But they also walked past those of the three men of Soyuz 11, who planted their poplars in 1971 and then flew off to space and never touched ground again—or at least never touched it alive because their spacecraft depressurized during reentry and they thumped down on the same Kazakh steppe dead from asphyxiation, cold and silent when the rescue team opened the hatch.

All three prime crewmen for the upcoming mission have flown from Baikonur before, and all three thus already have trees, so they simply watered them for the photo op. Kelly’s is still little more than a twig, and he gave it only about half of the bucket of water he’d been provided. “I don’t want to drown him,” he said.

The pronoun, the him, was playful, but it was something more too. Kelly has two daughters—very much a pair of hers—and he’s spending a year in a place from which some people do not return. He knows that he’s leaving his girls and his friends and his family and his tree, that he’ll be gone till this time next year and would very much like to come home and see them all again.

The magical rituals—the wedding dance and the tree planting and yes, the staged press op where reporters are told to stand at a respectful distance and take the pictures they’re offered because the men and women who are the subjects of your shots are going into space and, let’s be honest, you’re not—have been part of the space fabric for a long time. Baikonur is a place built on such things, and the fact is, after half a century, far more cosmonauts have come home to see their trees than haven’t. The old ways, for better or worse, seem to work.

TIME space

Maybe We Really Are Alone In the Universe

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

As a new TIME book explains, a cosmos with trillions of planets does not guarantee more than one with life

You may as well get a lot friendlier with life on Earth—every microbe and mammal, every bird and bug, and especially every human being. Because when it comes to biology, our planet may be the whole show.

Forget the overwhelming math—those trillions upon trillions of planets that are likely out there, at least some of which should be inhabited. Snuff out the one match head that is life on Earth, and the whole universe goes biologically black. We can search for biology all we want, send up all the here-we-are signal flares we can invent, but the fact is, no one will answer—ever—because no one is there.

That, like it or not, may be the truth, and it’s not just the picnic skunks who say so. Some very credible researchers have crunched the numbers and run the odds and taken a good hard look at them without the little frisson of hope even many of the most serious scientists bring to their work—and they come up empty. That’s not easy to accept because for a long time other, equally credible scientists have made a strong case for alien life.

Perhaps the most influential of the life-is-out-there advocates, astronomer and SETI Institute founder Frank Drake, made his bones in the extraterrestrial game with his eponymous equation, a satisfying—if coldly arithmetical—case for the likelihood not only of life in space but of intelligent life. According to Drake, the n in his equation—the number of civilizations in the Milky Way alone capable of producing detectable radio signals—equals the rate of the formation of sunlike stars in our galaxy, times the proportion of stars that are orbited by planets, times the proportion of those planets that would offer life-supporting conditions, times the fraction of those on which life does exist, times the fraction of life-forms that are intelligent, times the fraction of intelligent life-forms capable of transmitting signals, times the length of time such a civilization actually sends those signals before either perishing or going silent for any other reason.

Simple, right? Honestly, it kind of is. Filling in all of the x’s in the Drake equation—which, admittedly, is itself an act of conjecture, albeit highly informed conjecture—typically yields an estimate of thousands of civilizations. Drake himself put it at 10,000. The late cosmological popularizer Carl Sagan estimated the figure at an astounding 1 million. Even if they were off by a factor of 10 or 100 or 1,000, it is clear we are not remotely alone.

Unless we are.

Paul Davies, a cosmologist at Arizona State University and the author of the book Eerie Silence—which takes exactly the dim view of our ever encountering an alien intelligence that its title suggests—finds almost no part of the intelligent-life argument persuasive. The biggest hole he finds in the Drake equation is the one involving the subset of planets that could support life that actually do. The fact is, we have absolutely no empirical data that allows us to put a value on that variable in a responsible way. We know of precisely one world on which life has existed, and the rest is largely guesswork. Fill in that one Drake blank with a zero, and the entire equation collapses to zero too.

Davies, though, goes well beyond the flaws of the equation, arguing that there is a perfectly credible case to be made for the presence of life on Earth as a result of a succession of flukes, each more improbable than the one before it, which, together, could occur only a single time in a trillion trillion tries. A chimp randomly pounding a typewriter might indeed come up with Hamlet. Once. It wouldn’t matter if there were 40 billion other chimps hammering away, just as, as Davies has written, it doesn’t matter if there are 40 billion planets in the Milky Way capable of sustaining life. Only a single one will.

Furthermore, he believes that in the improbable event an intelligent civilization exists, it is surpassingly unlikely it would send any messages our way. The popular notion is that because we’ve been transmitting radio and TV signals for more than a century—and because those signals are spreading into space at the speed of light—surely a sophisticated species would have gotten wind of us. Problem is, in a universe that stretches for 13.8 billion light-years in all directions, the 100 light-years our signals have traveled so far make them a decidedly local broadcast.

Most discouraging is that in all the years we’ve been looking for an extraterrestrial sign (and no, crop circles don’t count), there has been, well, only an eerie silence. SETI’s antennas have been pointed skyward for half a century, listening for a repeating signal that would suggest an intelligent sender; so far, nothing. There was one thrilling moment—on Aug. 15, 1977—when SETI scientist Jerry Ehman, working with Ohio State University’s radio telescope, picked up a signal a full 30 times as strong as the background noise of deep space. It was tracked for 72 seconds and had a frequency similar to that of the spectral line for hydrogen. (That’s relevant because SETI scientists have long believed that since hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, it might be chosen as a sort of universal sending frequency.)

On the printout that the radio telescope produced of the signal, Ehman wrote one word: “Wow!” Forevermore, what he heard that night has been known as the Wow! signal. It was never heard again, though, and today it is assumed to have been an atmospheric anomaly, a reflection from space debris or of earthly origin. What it almost certainly was not was an alien semaphore.

Of course, it’s much too early to consider any of this proof of a negative. The universe is huge and ancient, and a 50-year exploration isn’t even a single pixel in the sweeping mural of time. Science does make hard, sudden turns: one day there was no Copernicus saying the Earth isn’t the center of the universe, and then there was—and nothing was ever the same again. Ditto Einstein and his relativistic universe; ditto Leeuwenhoek and the previously unseen biosphere revealed by his microscope. And so it could still be with the discovery of alien life.

Until then, there may be something to be gained from thinking of the Earth as the universe’s only wilderness preserve. If life is indeed a cosmic one-off, it makes it all the more important that we act as this planet’s responsible caretakers. Snuff this biological light, and the descending darkness won’t just be our fault. It will be our crime.

Read next: Watch the Total Solar Eclipse in 5 Seconds

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

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 space

The Other Giant Leap: What Happened to the First Man to Walk in Space

The spacesuit worn by Alexei Leonov on the first-ever spacewalk on March 18, 1965.
Marco Grob for TIME The spacesuit worn by Alexei Leonov on the first-ever spacewalk on March 18, 1965. The suit was photographed at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow on March 16, 2015.

Half a century ago, Russian legend Alexei Leonov took a perilous step into the void

No one knows what the first words of the almost-first man on the moon would have been. They surely would have been contemplated well in advance. No such landmark moment was left to chance back in the days of the great lunar steeplechase. And they would surely have been in Russian.

Half a century ago, when the space race was raging, no truly objective, truly honest observer gave the Americans much of a shot. The Soviet Union simply had too big a lead, having launched the first satellite (Sputnik), the first space dog (Laika), the first human being (Yuri Gagarin), the first woman (Valentina Tereshkova) and the first two- and three-person spacecraft. And 50 years ago this week, on March 18, 1965, they seemed to have sealed the deal, when Alexei Leonov, then just 30 years old, became the first human being to walk in space. Had things gone as planned, he would have been first on the moon too.

Marco Grob for TIMEAlexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, photographed at the age of 80 in his office in Moscow on March 12, 2015.

Leonov, whom TIME photographer Marco Grob visited for a portrait session earlier this month, was the stuff of Soviet legend from the very beginning. Born in a coal-mining region in Siberia, he was the son of a woman who earned the country’s coveted Order of Maternal Glory, in recognition of what was seen as the greatest service a Soviet woman could perform for the Soviet state: having a great many babies—in her case nine. Leonov joined the Young Communist League, went on to flying school—where he made 115 parachute jumps—and was selected in the very first astronaut class.

There was little way to overstate the risks Leonov faced on his first mission, when he ventured outside his Voskhod spacecraft—a sturdy, tank-like vehicle that was the Soviet designers’ specialty—and drifted into space protected only by what amounted to a far-frailer fabric and rubber spacecraft. But TIME, in its March 26, 1965 cover story about the mission, tried. “As air escaped from the [spacecraft’s air lock], the vacuum of space reached into it like a monster’s claw,” TIME wrote. “Though it must have been rehearsed on earth over and over again, this was surely a moment of hideous crisis.”

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty ImagesThe astonaut Alexei Leonov floating in space during his first spacewalk on March 18, 1965.

Leonov, however, felt no such apprehension. Like so many astronauts and cosmonauts, he describes the spacewalk experience as one of great peace. “I don’t remember anything as well as I remember the sound—this remarkable silence,” he told Grob. “You can hear your heart beat and you can hear yourself breathe. Nothing else can accurately represent what it sounds like when a human being is in the middle of this abyss.”

Like other spacewalkers too, he powerfully recalls the view. “I close my eyes and I see the entire Black Sea, the Crimean Peninsula. This is not a map, it’s what I saw. I can take a pencil now and draw it, because I remembered it for the rest of my life. I looked up and there was the Baltic Sea, Gulf of Kaliningrad. I spent my adolescence at the Gulf of Kaliningrad. It was so unusual.”

Keystone-France/Getty ImagesAlexei Leonov, c. 1960s.

TIME’s coverage of the mission gave Leonov and the Soviets their deserved applause—acknowledging the triumph of the spacewalk, as well their program’s commanding advantage in booster power and technology, especially compared to NASA’s puny, two-man Gemini ship, which was set for its first launch just a few days after Leonov’s flight. The historic spacewalk and the bruising Voskhod, TIME conceded, hung over the Gemini hoopla like an “embarrassing shadow.”

But TIME’s story was grudging too—sniffing at the images the Soviets released of Leonov’s walk as “dim and probably purposely fuzzy,” while selecting perhaps the dimmest and fuzziest of all for the cover and passing over the far crisper ones. Soviet party chief Leonid Brezhnev “did his leaden best” in congratulating the crew, TIME wrote, and the country’s official announcement of the spacewalk was “as formal as if carved in stone.”

But never mind. There was no denying the huge step that a human being—even if it wasn’t an American human being—had just taken in space, and its impact has endured. “Now all astronauts who are preparing for [a mission] undergo full training in order to be able to work in open space,” says Leonov. “This isn’t even up for debate. If you can’t work, you don’t belong in the program.”

Leonov himself would get only one more flight. He was tapped by the Soviets to command the first circumlunar mission in 1969 and all but certainly would have been chosen for the first moon-landing mission that would follow. History notes that those flights never happened, that the U.S. overcame the huge Soviet lead and eventually won the race to the moon. Leonov did not take to space again until 1975, when he commanded the Soviet half of the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission, a flight that marked the formal end of the space race, celebrated the age of détente and led, decades later, to the multinational cooperation of the International Space Station.

Keystone-France/Getty ImagesPeople celebrating the success of the mission Voskhod II in Moscow in 1965.

As Grob’s elegant photos show, Leonov still wears his medals and his dignity well. He has outlived legends—Ed White, who became America’s first spacewalker, in June of 1965; Neil Armstrong, who kicked up the lunar dust Leonov was supposed to be first to stir; Gagarin, who was considered too great a national prize ever to endanger by sending to space again and who died instead in a routine training run of a MiG-15 jet in 1968. It was Leonov who identified his friend’s remains by a birthmark on his neck.

The half a century since Leonov’s walk is a lot of time in human history, nothing at all in cosmic history. That dual kind of timekeeping is something the species only truly began practicing after men like Leonov went aloft—changing our terrestrial perspective forever.

Read next: Mars Probably Had More Water Than the Arctic Ocean, Study Says

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com