TIME A Year In Space

The Great Space Twins Study Begins

Astronaut twins Mark and Scott Kelly
Marco Grob for TIME Astronaut twins Mark and Scott Kelly

Scott and Mark Kelly—one in space, one on Earth—go under the microscope for science

When serendipity hands scientists the perfect experiment, they don’t hesitate to jump on it. That’s surely the case with NASA’s improbable study of Scott Kelly, who has just completed the first month of a one-year stay aboard the International Space Station, and his identical twin brother Mark, who will spend the same year on Earth.

Zero-gravity messes with the human body in all manner of ways but it’s not always easy to determine which problems are actually caused by the weightlessness and which would have happened anyway. The puzzle gets a lot easier if you just happen to have a second subject with exactly the same genes, the same lifestyle and the same level of fitness. Observe any differences in their health over the year, subtract the matching genetics and what’s left over on the other side of the equal sign is likely the work of weightlessness. Much of the research that will investigate these differences in the Kellys is already underway, both in space and on the ground.

One of the most important studies involves what are known as telomeres, the cuffs that protect the tips of chromosomes in much the way a plastic aglet protects the tips of shoelaces. The longer we live, the shorter our telomeres get, and the unraveling of the chromosomes that results drives the infirmities that come with age.

“One of the things that comes up almost all the time in the interviews with Mark and Scott is this idea of the twin paradox,” says Susan Bailey, of Colorado State University, who is coordinating the telomere research. “Is the space twin going to come back younger than the Earth twin?” That kind of time dilation happens in movies like Interstellar, but only when someone is moving at close to light speed. The year Scott will spend orbiting Earth at 17,500 mph (28,000 k/h), may indeed slow his body clock, but by barely a few milliseconds. His telomeres, however, will more than make up for that, and he’ll likely come home physically older than Mark.

“A whole variety of life stresses have been associated with accelerated telomere loss as we age,” says Bailey. “You can imagine strapping yourself to a rocket and living in space for a year is a very stressful event.”

Chromosomal samples from both Kelly twins were taken and banked before Scott left to provide a telomere baseline, and more samples will be collected over the year. Mark’s are easy enough to get ahold of, but Scott will have to draw his own blood in space, spin it down and freeze it, then send it home aboard returning ships carrying cargo or astronauts. Both twins will also be followed for two years after Scott comes back to determine if any space-related telomere loss slows and if the brothers move closer to synchrony again.

The twins’ blood samples will also be used to look for the state of their epigenomes, the chemical on-off switches that sit atop the genome and regulate which genes are expressed and which are silenced. Environment is a huge driver in epigenetic changes, especially in space, as cells adjust to the unfamiliar state of weightlessness. “We can kind of build these molecular maps of what’s happening in the different cells…as they’re challenged by this low gravity condition,” says geneticist Chris Mason of Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City, who is leading this part of the work.

Also due for a good close look are Scott’s and Mark’s microbiomes. The number of cells that make up your body are actually outnumbered 10 to one by the bacteria, viruses, yeasts and molds that live in your body. It’s only the fact that most of them are also much smaller than human cells that prevents them from outweighing you 10 to one as well. Still, if you could extract them all and hold them in your hand they’d make a hot bolus of alien organisms weighing up to 5 pounds.

This is actually a good thing, since we need this interior ecosystem to keep our bodies—especially our digestive tract—running smoothly. Like so much else for Scott, that will change in space. “A significant part of what’s present normally in the gastrointestinal tract doesn’t actually colonize,” says research professor Martha Vitaterna of Northwestern University, co-investigator on the microbiome work. “These are things that are constantly being reintroduced with fresh fruits and vegetables, and that’s missing from Scott’s diet.”

Genes can also make a difference to the microbiome, since any individual’s genetic make-up may determine which microorganisms thrive in the gut and which don’t. Scott’s and Mark’s microbiomes will be compared throughout the year, principally through stool samples—ensuring some unglamorous if scientifically essential shipments coming down from space.

Other studies will involve the way body fluids shift in zero-g, drifting upwards to the head and elsewhere since there is no gravity pulling them down. This can damage vision as a result of pressure on the eyeballs and optic nerve. It can also lead to damage to the cardiovascular system, with astronauts returning to Earth at increased risk of atherosclerosis.

Some of these changes can be tracked by blood studies, which will look for proteins that regulate water excretion. Ultrasound scans can also look for vascular damage. Before leaving Earth, Scott had a few small dots tattooed on his upper body to indicate the exact points at which he has to position the ultrasound probe—easier than taking precise measurements to find the proper spots every time he’s due for a scan.

Multiple other studies will be conducted on the twins as well, looking at their immune systems, sleep cycles, psychological states and more. For years, space planners have been talking a good game about going to Mars one day, but those trips will last more than two years. We know the hardware can survive the trip; what we don’t know is if the human cargo can. A year from now—thanks to the Kellys—we’ll be a lot smarter.

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

TIME technology

This Is How Microsoft’s HoloLens Could Boost the Race to Colonize Mars

Microsoft's Lorraine Bardeen demonstrates the new Microsoft HoloLens headset in Redmond, Wash. on Jan. 21, 2015.
Elaine Thompson—AP Microsoft's Lorraine Bardeen demonstrates the new Microsoft HoloLens headset in Redmond, Wash. on Jan. 21, 2015.

The HoloLens display could allow scientists to 'work virtually' on Mars

Ever wonder what it’s like to walk on Mars? You’re not the only one.

Take billionaire futurist Elon Musk, for example. Like so many other earthlings, he wants to die on Mars, “just not on impact.” He thinks colonizing the Red Planet is humanity’s best shot at survival, which is precisely why he founded SpaceX.

Now you, and Musk, can have a better sense of what it’s like to physically walk on Mars’ surface. Enter virtual reality and high-tech holograms. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced that it is teaming up with Microsoft to bring both nascent technologies and Mars exploration together to simulate what it would be like to actually walk on the planet, perhaps our future home.

Together, the two entities are developing software called OnSight that will allow scientists to “work virtually” on Mars using Microsoft’s head-mounted HoloLens display.

The HoloLens virtual reality headset is a goggles-style gizmo that makes 3-D holograms and other digitally simulated stuff appear to float in mid-air in the real-life space around you. Sounds otherworldly enough for a virtually manned mission to Mars, right? Not to mention a marked improvement over eyeballing 3-D stereo views of Martian terrain on a boring, flat computer screen, which is mainly what scientists have had to make do with up to this point.

The big idea is to provide scientists with a better means to plan and conduct Mars Curiosity-aided operations on Mars. Well, virtually. For example, instead of merely inspecting images of Martian rock from a distance via the rover, the HoloLens will enable them to crouch down and take a closer look at land formations, etc.

“OnSight gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices,” Dave Lavery, of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, said. “It fundamentally changes our perception of Mars, and how we understand the Mars environment surrounding the rover.”

Will this NASA-Microsoft cutting-edge tech collaboration help Musk and other wanna-be Martians eventually arrive and survive on Mars? While not a giant leap for mankind, it could be a small step in the right direction.

This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com.

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TIME A Year In Space

A Month Spent in Space—and 11 More to Go

.@FLOTUS Thank you. Made it! Moving into crew quarters on @space_station to begin my #yearinspace.
Scott Kelly—NASA Scott Kelly posted this selfie on March 30, shortly after his arrival to the space station, while moving into his living quarters, where he will sleep during his year in space.

The first 30 days of Scott Kelly's mission aboard the ISS are in the books

A year in space is marked in part by the holidays that will pass while you’re away. Christmas? Sorry, out of town. Easter? Ditto. Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, Halloween? Catch you next year.

It’s fitting then, that the first holiday astronaut Scott Kelly spent in the just-completed first month of his planned one-year stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS)—which began with his launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in the early morning hours of March 29—was Cosmonautics Day. Never heard of it? You would have if you were Russian.

Cosmonautics Day celebrates April 12, 1961, when Yuri Gagarin lifted off from the same launch pad from which Kelly’s mission began, becoming the first human being in space. Kelly and his five crewmates—including fellow one-year marathoner Mikhail Kornienko—got the morning off on this year’s special day, taking the opportunity to enjoy the relative comforts of a spacecraft with more habitable space than a four-bedroom home. But in the afternoon it was back to work—following a moment-by-moment schedule that is scripted on the ground, followed in space and that, while often grueling, is the best way for astronauts and cosmonauts who have signed on for a long hitch to keep their minds on their work and keep the time from crawling.

Kelly’s first month was, in some ways, typical of the 11 that lie ahead. There was the arrival of a SpaceX cargo ship—a vessel carrying 4,300 lbs (1,950 kg) of equipment and supplies, including a subzero freezer that can preserve experiments at -112º F (-80º C)—that needed to be unloaded; new gear to aid studies of the effects of microgravity on mice; and a sample of so-called synthetic muscle, a strong but pliant material modeled after human muscle, to be used for robotic limbs and joints. Also tucked into the load was a less practical but infinitely more anticipated item—a zero-gravity espresso machine, dubbed the ISSpresso.

There are 250 experiments that must be tended at any one time aboard the ISS, but the most important of them will be Kelly and Kornienko themselves. The human body was built for the one-g environment of Earth, but if we ever hope to achieve our grand dreams of traveling to Mars and beyond, we’d better figure out if we can survive the rigors of zero-g. And that’s no sure thing. Almost every system in the body—circulatory, skeletal, cellular, visual—breaks down in some ways in weightlessness.

In their first month in space alone, the two long-termers submitted to a whole range of preliminary experiments that will track their health throughout their stay: their eyes are being studied to determine the kind of effect the upward shift in fluids caused by zero-g has on the optic nerve and the shape of the eyeball. Space physicians already know the basic answer: not a good one. But the hope is that Kelly and Kornienko will help provide ways to mitigate the damage.

Other biomedical studies in the first month include sampling saliva and sweat to test for bacterial levels and chemical balance; leg scans to determine blood flow; studies of blood pressure—which can fluctuate wildly when the heart no longer has to pump against gravity; analyses of throat and skin samples; bone density tests and studies of the cells to determine why they change shape in zero-g. As exquisite serendipity has it, Kelly’s identical twin brother, Mark, is a retired astronaut, providing a perfect controlled study of how men with matching genomes and matching backgrounds react to a year spent in decidedly non-matching environments. Nearly all of the studies Scott submits to in space will be duplicated in Mark on the ground.

The eleven months ahead will not all be a Groundhog Day repetition of the first. Kelly will venture out on at least two spacewalks—the first of his four-mission career—and will help oversee a complex reconfiguration of the station, with modules and docking ports repositioned to accommodate commercial crew vehicles built by Boeing and SpaceX, which are supposed to begin arriving in 2017. There will also be movie nights and web-surfing and regular video chats, phone calls and emails with family. And the periodic arrival of cargo ships will provide such luxuries as fresh fruits and vegetables, which don’t last long in space, but don’t have to because six-person crews missing the comforts of home scarf them down fast.

The clubhouse turn of Kelly’s and Kornienko’s one-year mission will occur next December, the 50th anniversary of what was once America’s longest stay in space: the two-week flight of Gemini 7, which astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell passed in the equivalent of two coach airline seats, with the ceiling just three inches over their heads. The ISS is a manor house compared to the Gemini. But the astronauts are still astronauts, human beings in a very strange place experiencing very strange things—in this case for a very long time.

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

TIME A Year In Space

See Scott Kelly’s First 30 Days in Space

A visual diary of the astronaut's first month of his year-long journey in space. Scott Kelly will be the first American astronaut to spend 12 months aboard the International Space Station

TIME is following Kelly’s mission in the new series, A Year In Space. Watch the trailer here.

TIME space

See the 50 Best Images Taken by Hubble

After a quarter of a century on the job, the Hubble Space Telescope has returned some of the most extraordinary cosmic images ever captured

The best space machines reveal their purpose with a single glance. The gangly, leggy lunar module could only have been a crude contraption designed to land on another world. A rocket, any rocket, could only be a machine designed to fly—fast, high and violently.

And so it is with the Hubble Space Telescope—a bright silver, 43 ft. (13 m) long, 14 ft. (4.2 m) diameter cylinder, with a wide open eye at one end and a flap-like eyelid that, for practical purposes never, ever closes. Since shortly after its launch on April 24, 1990, that eye has stared and stared and stared into the deep, and in the 25 years it’s been on watch, it has revealed that deep to be richer, lovelier and more complex than science ever imagined.

Hubble started off sickly, a long-awaited, breathlessly touted, $1.5 billion machine that was supposed to change astronomy forever from almost the moment it went into space, and might have too if its celebrated 94.5 in. (2.4 m) primary mirror that had been polished to tolerances of just 10 nanometers—or 10 one-billionths of a meter—hadn’t turned out to be nearsighted, warped by the equivalent of 1/50th the thickness of a sheet of paper. It would be three and a half years before a fix could be devised and built and flown to orbit and shuttle astronauts could set the myopic mirror right. And then, on January 13, 1994, the newly sharpened eye blinked open, the cosmos appeared before it and the first of one million observations the telescope has made since then began pouring back to Earth.

Some of Hubble’s images have become cultural icons—Pillars of Creation, the Horsehead Nebula. Some have thrilled only scientists. All have been mile-markers in the always-maturing field of astronomy. The fifty images that follow are just a sampling of the telescope’s vast body of work. Hubble still has close to a decade of life left to it. That means a great deal more work and a great many more images—before the metal eyelid closes forever.

TIME space

See the Closest Color Photo of Pluto Ever Taken

This image of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was taken by the Ralph color imager aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on April 9.
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute This image of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was taken by the Ralph color imager aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on April 9.

It is also the first color image snapped from an approaching spacecraft

Pluto, which sits approximately 4.67 billion miles from Earth, just got a tiny bit closer. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft this month captured the first color image of the dwarf planet from just 71 million miles away — the closest image ever recorded. It is accompanied by a image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon, which is similar in size to Texas.

NASA expects to complete early reconnaissance of Pluto and its system on July 14, when it will capture color images detailing “surface features as small as a few miles across.” The trove of data collected will no doubt enhance everyone’s insight into the minor planet.

“In an unprecedented flyby this July, our knowledge of what the Pluto systems is really like will expand exponentially and I have no doubt there will be exciting discoveries,” says NASA astronaut John Grunsfeld.

TIME space

Water Could Be Forming in the Martian Soil Under Certain Conditions

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover is pictured in this self-portrait where the rover drilled into a sandstone target called "Windjana" on Mars in this handout photo. June 2014.
NASA/Reuters NASA's Mars Curiosity rover is pictured in this self-portrait where the rover drilled into a sandstone target called "Windjana" on Mars in this handout photo. June 2014.

Major requirement for the existence of life? Check

NASA’s Curiosity rover has discovered that conditions on Mars are “favorable” to producing briny water in the soil, which could in turn imply that water could form all over the surface of the Red Planet if certain conditions are met.

Scientists found that the soil in the Gale Crater of Mars contained perchlorate, a salt that acts as a kind of anti-freeze by absorbing water vapor from the atmosphere, lowering the freezing temperature of the water.

Curiosity’s latest findings — published as a study in Nature Geosciences — have led NASA scientists to suggest that, during certain cold nights, the temperature and humidity levels are just right for brine to form in the soil, drying out after sunrise.

Liquid water is a requirement for life, the study’s lead author Javier Martin-Torres said. But the data doesn’t mean the rover will unearth E.T. on its next mission.

“Conditions near the surface of present-day Mars are hardly favorable for microbial life as we know it, but the possibility for liquid brine on Mars has wider implications for habitability and geological water-related processes,” he said.

The latest study analyzes the planet’s humidity and temperature for a full Martian year. The data shows that brine should be forming all over the planet, especially at higher altitudes.

“Gale Crater is one of the least likely places on Mars to have conditions for brines to form, compared to sites at higher latitudes or with more shading,” said co-author of the report Alfred McEwen.

Since Curiosity landed on the Martian planet in August 2012, it has found strong evidence to suggest that ancient stream-beds and lakes existed more than three billion years ago. To discover how these environmental conditions evolved, the rover is now examining Mount Sharp, a mountain with sediment layers that lies at the center of the Gale Crater.

TIME space

See a 1970 Explanation of What Happened to Apollo 13

Astronauts Lovell, Haise & Swigert
Cover Credit: CBS NEWS The April 27, 1970, cover of TIME

The ill-fated lunar journey lifted off on April 11, 1970

Forty-five years ago, on April 11, 1970, when Apollo 13 was launched into space, manned missions to the moon were just starting to seem like something that the U.S. had a handle on. The space race had been won. There had been no recent disasters. The technology had already been proven. Discussions of NASA missions were as likely to involve budget bickering as they were grand dreams of exploration.

So what happened to Apollo 13 was, TIME noted a few weeks later, when the astronauts on board had safely returned to earth after their calamitous journey, a reminder of the ever-present danger and bravery involved in space flight.

The mission, with its ruptured oxygen tank and aborted attempt to land on the moon, was also a reminder of just how complicated the science behind such flights can be.

To see TIME’s 1970 illustration explaining how the astronauts made it home safely, roll over the diagram (or, on mobile, click) to zoom:

TIME

In order to explain that science, TIME took readers from Commander Jim Lovell’s “understatement of the space age” (“I believe we’ve had a problem here,” he told the ground controllers in Houston), to the loss of oxygen and electricity in the spacecraft, to the decision to use the moon’s gravity to send the ship home:

If the astronauts could use a small burn of the Aquarius descent engine to jog Apollo 13 back into a “free-return” trajectory, the combination of the spacecraft’s velocity and lunar gravity would do the rest, slinging the ship around the moon and hurling it back on a direct course to the earth. Ironically, Apollo had been on a free-return trajectory, but its course was changed in preparation for the lunar landing.

Thus, five hours and 25 minutes after the service-module explosion, the lunar module’s descent engine was fired. Had it not burned, Apollo 13 would have swung around the moon but missed the earth on the return trip by 2,951 miles and gone into a wide-ranging earth orbit, stranding the astronauts. But the lunar module engine performed reliably. With only a 30.7-second burn, it put Apollo 13 on a course that would carry it toward a splashdown in the Indian Ocean. Houston—and the world—breathed easier, but Mission Control knew that the burn was only a stopgap measure. The calculated splashdown area was not only far away from any U.S. recovery ships, but it would also take 74 hours to reach—perhaps longer than the LM’s dwindling supply of water, oxygen and electricity would last.

Still, not everything about Apollo 13 was complicated. The feeling of gratitude that swept the nation when, on April 17, the crew splashed down safely, was strong but simple. “James Lovell added his own benediction when the astronauts first set foot on land en route home,” TIME noted. “Welcomed by gaily-dressed Samoans on Pago-Pago, Lovell said: ‘We do not realize what we have on earth until we leave it.'”

See the full 1970 report on Apollo 13, here in the TIME Vault: Apollo’s Return

TIME review

The Enduring Importance of the Last Man on the Moon

Good times: Gene Cernan (left) and fellow moon walker Jack Schmitt, during the Apollo 17 mission, photographed by crew mate Ron Evans
NASA Good times: Gene Cernan (left) and crew mate Ron Evans, during the Apollo 17 mission, photographed by crew mate J

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

A new documentary about astronaut Gene Cernan is far more than the story of one person's life

Correction appended, April 7

Real astronauts never say goodbye. At least, not the way you’d think they would before they take off on a mission that could very well kill them. They’re good at the quick wave, the hat tip, the catch-you-on-the-flip-side wink. But the real goodbye—the if I don’t come home here are all the things I always wanted to say to you sort of thing? Not a chance.

But Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, tried to split the difference—as a scene in the new documentary The Last Man on the Moon sweetly captures. Before Cernan headed off for his first trip to the moon, the Apollo 10 orbital mission, which was the final dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 landing a few months later, he mailed his young daughter Tracy a letter. It was written on the fragile onion skin that was air mail stationery, back in the era when the very idea of air mail carried a whiff of exotic distance.

Cernan was a young man when he wrote the letter in 1969, and is a much older man, at 81, when he returns to it in the film. “You’re almost too young to know what it means to have your Daddy go to the moon,” he reads aloud, “But one day, you’ll have the feeling of excitement and pride Mommy and Daddy do. Punk, we have lots of camping and horseback riding to do when I get back. I want you to look at the moon, because when you are reading this, Daddy is almost there.” If the Navy pilot who once landed jets on carrier decks and twice went to the moon mists up as he reads, if his voice quavers a bit, well what of it?

As the title of the movie makes clear, Cernan was the last of the dozen men who set foot on the moon, and the 24 overall who journeyed there. No human being has traveled further into space than low-Earth orbit since Cernan climbed up the ladder of his lunar module in December of 1972, closed the hatch and headed for home. That makes it a very good time for a movie that can serve as equal parts biography, reminiscence and, yes, cultural reprimand for a nation that did a great thing once and has spent a whole lot of time since trying to summon the resolve, the discipline and the political maturity to do something similar again.

The Last Man on the Moon, which premiered at Austin’s South by Southwest festival in March and was later shown at the Toronto Film Festival, had a long provenance, beginning eight years ago when director Mark Craig, who had read Cernan’s book, requested an interview. Cernan agreed and six months later Craig got back in touch and said he wanted to make a movie based on his memoir.

“My first answer was, ‘Who would be interested in a movie about me?'” Cernan tells TIME. The answer he got impressed him: “This movie is not going to be about you.” It was, instead, going to be about the larger story.

That story, as Cernan and Craig came to agree, would be about the lunar program as a whole and the up-from-the-farm narrative of so many of the men who flew in it, as well as the random currents of fortune that saw some those men make it from terrestrial soil to lunar soil, while others perished in the violent machines that were necessary for them to make those journeys.

So we see the wreckage of the jet that killed astronauts Charlie Bassett and Elliott See, the prime crew for the 1966 Gemini 9 flight, an accident that required backup pilots Tom Stafford and Cernan to go in their place. We see Gemini 9 unfold, a mission that could have claimed Cernan too. The absence of handholds on the spacecraft and the poor state of knowledge about maneuvering in space left him whipping about at the end of his umbilical cord during his spacewalk, his visor blinding him with fog and his suit swelling so much in the surrounding vacuum that he could barely get back inside through the hatch.

We see, wrenchingly, Martha Chaffee, Cernan’s one-time neighbor and the wife of his close friend Roger—one of the three astronauts who died in the Apollo 1 fire in 1967—describing the moment she learned the terrible thing that had happened to her husband. “That evening, January 27th, a Friday, I was giving my kids hot dogs,” she says, fighting back tears these 48 years later, “and somebody said there’d been an accident. So when Mike Collins came to the door, I knew, I knew, I knew right away. I said, ‘I know, Mike, but you’ve got to tell me.’ And he did.”

Cernan is philosophical about the deaths—losses as inevitable as the very physics of space travel—and sees neither plan nor order in them. “I went to the cemetery at Arlington and I see Charlie’s and Roger’s headstone and say, ‘Why them, not me?'” he says. “Fate. Fate picked Neil [Armstrong] to be first on the moon, not [head astronaut] Deke Slayton. The point is, here we are, so what do we do with it?”

What Cernan has decided to do with it, in the ninth decade of his life, is tell the story of where America went before, make the case for going again and, importantly, remind children that while not every life mission involves going to the moon, each requires the same ferocious focus and commitment. He knows—perhaps immodestly, but surely accurately—that that message carries a special resonance when it comes from the likes of him.

“I realize that I’m the last man on the moon and that the more of us who leave this Earth permanently the more we’re appreciated,” he says. “I want to inspire a young kid to dream about being a doctor, a teacher an engineer, a scientist. I want that young kid to believe he could do things other people said he couldn’t, wouldn’t do.”

Yes, that’s a message American kids are bottle-fed almost from birth. But when it’s spoken by a man who lived on the moon for three remarkable days, who would come inside from work in the evening, shake the lunar dust off his suit, smell its strange gunpowder scent, then go out the next morning and leave prints that endure on the windless lunar surface to this day, it’s something else entirely. Cernan, last among the moonwalkers, may be first in the enduring good he does with the journeys he made.

Correction: The original version of the photo caption accompanying this story, using information from NASA, misidentified the astronaut on the right. He is Ron Evans.

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

Liftoff! A Year in Space Begins

Scott Kelly and his crewmates take off for the International Space Station

You’d think you’d have trouble deciding how to spend your last day on Earth if you were about to leave it for a year. But the fact is, you’d have nothing to decide at all. Every bit of it would be planned for you—literally second by second—as it was today for cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko and astronaut Scott Kelly, in advance of their liftoff at 1:42:57 AM local time. Kornienko and Kelly are set to be aboard the International Space Station for the full year; Padalko will be there for six months.

The three men were instructed to nap until nine hours before launch, or precisely 4:42:57 PM in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, where the Russian launch facilities are located. They left their quarters exactly one hour later, at 5:52:57 PM, settled into the space center ready-rooms and began their pre-flight preparations at 6:52:57. And on the day would tick.

For the families, all those hours were a much more ambling business—time they had to contrive to fill on their own. As Kelly was getting his final hours of mandated terrestrial sleep, his daughters, Samantha and Charlotte, 20 and 11, his partner Amiko Kauderer and his twin brother Mark—a retired astronaut—visited Baikonur’s outdoor market in a hunt for spices Kauderer and the girls wanted to take home. Mark, who had arrived in Baikonur yesterday still wearing his characteristic mustache—the only thing that allows most people to distinguish between him and Scott—had shaved it off this morning.

“Do I look like my brother now?” he asked, and then added mischievously, “Maybe I am…”

Kauderer, who works as a NASA public affairs officer and has witnessed her share of launches as well as her share of spouses steeling themselves—at least outwardly—for the experience, carried herself with the same apparent calm. So did the girls, who have seen their father fly off to space three times before. As for what Scott himself was feeling, Mark was reasonably sure it was nothing terribly special.

“He’s been through this routine four times already,” he said. “Actually, when you count the times you don’t launch, it’s probably six or seven.”

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

That routine pressed on today regardless of what Scott might or might not have been feeling. At 7:52 PM, the crew, still clad in Earth-appropriate jumpsuits, left the ready-rooms for the 100-yard walk to the buses that would take them to the suit-up building. A rousing Russian song played over loudspeakers, while crowds were kept behind rope lines, both to prevent a crush and protect the astronauts who, though walking without surgical masks, were still under medical quarantine.

Once they were sealed inside their bus, however, the lines collapsed and the crowd surged forward. A child was lifted to touch the window. Padalko pressed both of his hands on the glass while a woman reached up and pressed hers opposite. In Russia—if not in the U.S.—cosmonauts are every bit the cultural phenomena they were half a century ago.

No one outside of flight technicians saw the crew again for another two hours—until they had been suited up and the families were brought in for a final goodbye—the men leaving the Earth on one side of a glass and the loved ones staying behind on the other, communicating via microphones. “Poka, poka”—Russian for “bye-bye”—Padalko’s daughters called to him again and again.

Mark, who made two visits to the space station on his shuttle flights, was less sentimental in bidding farewell to his brother. “I left some old T-shirts up in the gym,” he said. “Want to bring them down for me?”

“You look good without that mustache,” Scott answered.

“Yeah, I’ll probably grow it back on the flight home. I miss it already.”

Scott’s exchanges with Amiko, Charlotte and Samantha were less playful, more tender, and afterwards, when Roscosmos officials declared the five minutes allotted for the visit over, Amiko gathered the girls in a hug. “We have to hold it together,” she says. “That’s our job, to hold it together and to help him.”

Finally, family, media and space officials left the suit-up building and walked to the parking lot just outside. The crew emerged a few minutes later to a fusillade of camera flashes and walked to three designated spots painted on the asphalt. American, Russian and Kazakh flags fluttered behind them and Roscosmos officials stood before them, bidding them a final goodbye. Padalko, the commander, stood in the middle during the little ceremony, and he occupies the middle seat in the spacecraft as well. A Soyuz veteran, he has joked that he could fly the craft with nothing but a pair of cabbages in the seats on either side of him.

Maybe. But if he meant that in the months and years he was training for this flight, there was no sign of it on the night he left. The crew, who would depend on one another for their lives tonight, boarded their bus, drove to the pad and climbed into their spacecraft. Two and a half hours later, at the designated second, their Soyuz rocket’s 20 engines lit and they left Kazakhstan—and the planet—behind them.

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

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