SCOTT SIMON, host:
In Moscow this week, six Europeans voluntarily locked themselves into the same small living quarters, and they'll be there for 105 days. Now, this is not some kind of group honeymoon; it's an experiment to see how human beings can live, work and maintain their health and sanity locked into the same small space, as if they were in a space capsule bound for Mars.
Now, close quarters can breed complaints. A Russian cosmonaut complained that he's not allowed to use the U.S. toilet and exercise bike aboard the International Space Station because of billing problems. Astronaut Mark Kelly is familiar with the challenges of space flight; he's been in orbit three times, most recently on NASA's 123rd space shuttle flight aboard Discovery.
Commander Kelly joins us from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Mark, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. MARK KELLY (Astronaut): It's great to be with you here, Scott.
SIMON: Now, six men, one tiny room for 105 days. What's that like, would you guess?
Mr. KELLY: You know, I just actually took a look at the size of the room, and it's actually bigger than you would think. Yeah, it's going to be a challenge. Depends on how much stuff they have for them to do. You know, the Russians did this back in 1999 or 2000 with a similar kind of experiment, and I think it ended in a fight.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Well, all right. That bodes bad for the experiment. But…
Mr. KELLY: But keep in mind that this is not the Cosmonaut Office that's involved with this. The cosmonauts that we work with are very professional people that, you know, we enjoy working with. This is actually a different group of subjects that are going to be locked up for 105 days.
SIMON: There have been proposals over the years, haven't there - and I think even some science fiction films - that suggest that when you get to really long-range space travel, it might be better to put people into - okay, I've only seen it in the films - sleep capsules, to knock them out for most of the flight.
Mr. KELLY: Hey, Scott, did you see "Planet of the Apes"? Didn't work out too well there…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KELLY: You know, science fiction. I don't think that's actually a practical thing to do. You know, the crew's going to have to take care of the spacecraft, so you can't knock them out. These missions are going to be long. When we go to Mars, it's going to be upwards of 500 days, maybe a little bit longer.
SIMON: We've mentioned the Russian cosmonaut who's complained about not having access to the U.S. toilet. And apparently he says the problem is because space travel is becoming more commercial and that Russia bills the U.S. for sending up its astronauts and so the U.S. is getting a little payback by billing the cosmonaut for using the exercise bike and the toilet. Is this a real problem? Have you run into it?
Mr. KELLY: I haven't seen it, and to be honest, I don't know how much of that is true. I know Gennady Padalka, the cosmonaut that quote was attributed to. I know him very well. And I just have to think that maybe something was lost in translation from Russian to English in that interview or something was taken out of context.
You know, we work as a team in space. We have the Russian segment and the U.S. segment, but it's not like a segmented spacecraft. The crews work together, they're living in the same quarters, they eat meals together, we share the food, we share the facilities, the exercise equipment. Recently, maybe it's possible something like that has occurred, but I'm not - I'm not aware of it.
SIMON: In other space news this week, the European Space Agency held a conference to talk about space trash. Has this really become a big problem? I mean, do you have to worry about ducking stuff up there?
Mr. KELLY: Actually, we do. It is a problem. It's a big hazard. You know, recently the Chinese shot down a satellite and we had the collision between the two spacecraft. It's created some more space junk. That debris is a big problem.
SIMON: Now, in theory, right, your craft would see it coming from a long ways out.
Mr. KELLY: Well, we don't see it. It's actually the U.S. space command that tracks it. They track thousands of particles in Earth orbit and they'll notify NASA when they think we need to maneuver to get out of the way of something. On my first flight - I was on Space Shuttle Endeavor and we had to maneuver the shuttle and the station to avoid a Russian rocket casing that was actually in a lunar Earth orbit and it interfered with our trajectory and we had to maneuver the whole stack out of the way.
SIMON: NASA, as I understand, is soon going to make repairs, I guess one last round of repairs, on the Hubble Telescope. Do you have any feeling for that old telescope?
Mr. KELLY: It's one of the most amazing scientific instruments man has ever built. I mean, it's really given us some incredible discoveries. We've got to repair a couple of things on it. It's going to get some new gyros, some new batteries, and then it's going to get a couple more instruments to make it even a more capable instrument. So hopefully after this last upgrade it'll continue to provide us unbelievable science until it finally fails. I don't know when that'll be.
SIMON: What do you say to people, Mark, in these days of economic struggle that just wonder if space exploration and sending human beings into space particularly is just something we can't afford?
Mr. KELLY: You know, Scott, I think it's something we can't afford not to do. I think space exploration and, you know, exploration in general is one of the things that has made this country great. I think we get an enormous return on our investment in NASA and our investment in the space program.
SIMON: Do you think the Mars mission is going to happen within our lifetimes?
Mr. KELLY: I hope so. I think it's possible. A mission to Mars, there are incredible challenges. The space radiation environment is one of the bigger ones. You know, how the radiation affects the crew is a crucial thing that we need to solve. I think we'll get there and I hope to see it in my lifetime.
SIMON: Astronaut Commander Mark Kelly speaking with us from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Mark, thanks so much.
Mr. KELLY: You're welcome.
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