THE KELLY BROTHERS HAVE SPENT THEIR FAIR SHARE OF TIME IN SPACE, MOST OF IT ACCOMPANIED BY A BREITLING – MAKER OF THE FIRST SWISS WATCH IN ORBIT AND STILL THE ASTRONAUT’S CHOICE.
After spending 340 consecutive days in space, the first thing American astronaut, Commander Scott Kelly, did after touching down on terra firma on March 2 last year was to “jump in my swimming pool in the back yard of the house … and have a Vegemite sandwich”. He’s joking about the Vegemite, he tells WISH from his home in Houston. “But, you know, even though the pool was heated I got very cold … I hadn’t been submerged in water for a year. So it was quite refreshing but I quickly got a lot colder than I expected. It was something physiological going on there.”
If future generations of humankind are, as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk hopes, to live and “die on Mars, just not on impact”, we’ll have a lot to thank Kelly for. The New Jersey-born former Navy pilot spent almost a year living in the International Space Station with Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov. The trio were guinea pigs in the ultimate long-haul experiment, tracking what NASA calls the “physiological, neurobehavioural and molecular” effects of prolonged space travel on humans. With the travel time from Earth to Mars in Musk’s future SpaceX rockets estimated at six months, it was a mission of existential significance for our species: before we seek to colonise Mars, will we survive the journey there?
Scott Kelly and his identical twin brother, Mark, also took part in a separate NASA-sponsored twins study. Mark, a former astronaut, stayed behind in the US as a control so scientists from 10 institutions, including Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Harvard and Cornell, could compare data between the brothers. “I would think it’s months before we start hearing some interesting stuff about me being in space for a year and that I am better than my brother in all ways,” Scott drawls.
WISH is talking to the Kelly brothers thanks to the involvement of Breitling, the 133-year-old Swiss watchmaker that specialises in timepieces for aviation, and now space exploration. (Breitling claims its Navitimer Cosmonaut worn by US astronaut Scott
Carpenter in 1962 was the first watch to go into orbit.) Both Kelly twins wore Breitling watches on their space missions, including Scott’s year in space.
Mark wore Breitling’s Emergency, with in-built dual frequency beacon that sends the wearer’s GPS coordinates to SARSAT (Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking), on three of his missions. “The best thing about that watch is you have a search beacon attached to your body, particularly when you gotta jump out of a space craft at 30,000 feet, slide down a pole and hope that everything goes right. You’re not even guaranteed to end up with all your survival equipment. For me it was reassuring to know that unless my arm got ripped off, it [the Emergency] was very likely to be with me.
“If you were to go out there and ask the pilots in the United States Navy or astronauts what watch they want to be wearing for their job, it’d be rare to get an answer other than Breitling.”
Scott, who owns five Breitling watches, wore the Navitimer 1461 Blacksteel limited edition chronometer and the Breitling Cosmonaut and Aerospace at the station – a gift from his brother. “We have a schedule that [times] us down to five-minute increments, so when you’re in space on the space station living there you’re looking at that watch much, much more than you look at a watch on earth.”
Scott says the biggest biological hurdle future space travellers will have to navigate in zero gravity is the loss of bone density and muscle. “Our physiological system is very smart,” he says. “It recognises that our skeleton, which supports our structure for the most part and helps us move around, is no longer required, so it gets rid of our bone mass. The calcium in our bones is released into our system and it’s just urinated out. It recognises we don’t need as much muscle mass, so you lose that [too].” Both problems can be mitigated with exercise. “We exercise an awful lot to prevent that from happening.”
Brother Mark, who has flown four previous NASA space missions, agrees that gravity remains the biggest barrier to future Mars commutes. “Maybe they could keep someone in space for a couple of years, but then they’re going to start to have problems. They’re going to
“When you’re on the space station you’re looking at that watch much, much more than you look at a watch on earth.”
Scott Kelly, in spacesuit, and Mark Kelly, with moustache, were part of a twins study on the physiological effects of prolonged space travel.