There’s nothing like a blast of fresh, frigid air to welcome you back to the planet after nearly a year cooped up in space.
That’s the word from astronaut Scott Kelly, NASA’s space-endurance champ who returned to bitterly cold Kazakhstan on Wednesday, with his roommate for the past year, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.
In a NASA interview before heading home to Houston, Kelly said it was amazing to feel the cold air when the hatch of his Soyuz capsule popped open after touchdown.
“I don’t mean to say it’s not fresh on the space station,” he said, “but there’s nothing like new cold air coming into the capsule.”
Kelly, 52, and Kornienko, 55, yearned for nature throughout their 340-day mission at the International Space Station, a dry run by NASA for eventual trips to Mars.
“Just like Scott, I wanted to see earth and I wanted to smell that fresh air. This is an unforgettable feeling,” Kornienko said.
It was the longest an American has lived in space, although nothing new for the Russians.
The world record is 438 days, set in the mid-1990s at the former Mir space station. Even before that, two Soviet cosmonauts had racked up a full one-year spaceflight.
President Barack Obama joined the chorus of praise.
“Welcome back to Earth, @StationCDRKelly! Your year in space is vital to the future of American space travel. Hope gravity isn’t a drag!” Obama said via Twitter.
The White House said Obama spoke with Kelly on Wednesday, thanking him for his service and for sharing his journey through social media. Kelly posted hundreds of photos of earth.
After landing, the latest one-year space subjects quickly parted company, Kelly flying back to Houston and Kornienko to Star City, near Moscow.
Kelly acknowledged it was bitter sweet leaving the space station – his home since last March, which is staffed by three men until the arrival of three more in two weeks.
“I’d been there a long time, so I looked forward to leaving. But at the same time, it’s a magnificent place and I’m going to miss it,” he said.
Neither astronaut will be saying goodbye to medical tests any time soon.
Minutes after emerging from their capsule, they were whisked in chairs to a medical tent where they did their best to stand, walk, jump, navigate obstacles – everything an astronaut might need to do immediately upon arriving on Mars.
NASA aims to put astronauts on the red planet in the 2030s, but first wants to know how the body and mind will fare during the two-year expedition.
Kelly looked fit as he emerged from the Soyuz capsule on the remote steppes of central Asia, pumping his fist and giving a thumbs-up.
Tests – along with blood, saliva and urine collections – will continue for weeks if not months, and in the case of Kelly and his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, could last a year or longer.
The brothers served as guinea pigs – one in weightlessness, the other on the ground.