Earth, Mars, and working in the space in between

As a child, one of my favorite picture books at my Grandma’s house to read and reread was about astronauts. I was born after the moon launch, but the lure of “the space age” continued to populate children’s literature, and I marveled at the curiosities of space travel, the preparations and lives of astronauts, and the illustrator’s conception of a future space station. (A space station! Imagine that!) Later, I watched with my classmates on a small TV set in our classroom as the first American space shuttle, Columbia, launched its way into orbit, human history, and our imaginations. I also spent hours learning about the unknowns of the universe from Carl Sagan on TV’s first version of “Cosmos.” I knew space travel would never be in my future (too much motion sickness), but I’ve continued to marvel at human ingenuity and respect the challenges of space science ever since.

We did eventually build space stations. The current International Space Station (ISS) was–and continues to be–a remarkable effort in international cooperation, science, and engineering. In 2016, I became aware of the most high-profile science experiment on board that year: Scott Kelly, an American astronaut, was concluding a year’s stay on the ISS. One aspect of his mission participating in a human study to learn more about the effects of sustained life in space, which is important as we consider sending people to Mars. As a geneticist, I found one piece of this study very intriguing: Scott Kelly is an identical twin; his brother, Mark Kelly, is also an astronaut. The two men agreed to submit to physiological and genetic tests to compare potential differences in how their bodies and their DNA itself might differ in the long-term after Scott Kelly’s year in space. Analysis of the data continue and should provide interesting topics for continued research on human biology in space.

Much fanfare accompanied Kelly’s recent stint on the ISS. Kelly shared many photos he took while on board and has an extensive social media following. TIME magazine and PBS collaborated on a documentary, “A Year in Space,” in 2016. A second, follow-up installment (“Beyond a Year in Space”) was released in November, 2017 and highlights continued work by additional astronauts working on the ISS and training for future missions. I caught up with the backstory on Scott Kelly’s mission and training curled up on the couch over few snowy evenings last week with Kelly’s new book, Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discoveryin hand. It was a fast-paced read about how one human discovered the world of high-stakes flight and came to be launched into space and spend a year on the ISS. Kelly’s insights into the life of an astronaut, the distinctive contributions of each participating country’s personnel aboard the ISS, the perils of traveling and living in space, and the important scientific work aboard the ISS are compelling. He highlights the collaborative teamwork needed to safely travel and live in space, and he identifies some of the key issues that will define proposals to send humans to Mars. (Read here for an interview and sneak preview of the book by National Geographic.)

scott kelly

Scott Kelly aboard the ISS. Credit: NASA

Coincidentally, I also (finally) read the 2011 book The Martian, by Andy Weir, last October. The story chronicles the fate of an astronaut stranded on Mars, who survives through his own ingenuity and teamwork with support staff back on Earth. Not surprisingly, it made for a hit movie by the same name (which I haven’t yet seen). The book envisions (as a fictional accounting, of course) what it might really take to transport people to and from Mars and what it would be like to live there. Of course, the exciting narrative of the story is following along to see how human ingenuity can save our hero (Mark Whatney) and bring him home again.

It struck me that reading Scott Kelly’s book at times mirrors the excitement of reading The Martian, as we are carried along a first-person narrative of potentially perilous circumstances and how human ingenuity and teamwork would save the day. Kelly even references Mark Whatney with his own participation in a botany experiment aboard the ISS. The spirit of exploring the unknown and also doing important science are important themes in both accounts of space work (fictional and real-life).


Peggy Whitson helping with a bone cell study to understand the effects of microgravity on bone density. Many areas of science are represented in space research.–Credit: NASA

The idea of Mars exploration isn’t just science fiction, however. Mars research continues to make headlines each year. Just last week, new images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed what scientists think are strata of rock containing trapped water on Mars. Such resources could be valuable to future astronauts working and living on our planetary neighbor. (It wasn’t long ago that we thought Mars didn’t have any water. I continue to be excited to hear about Martian water news!)

Mars water

Mars water deposits. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA/USGS

It’s easy to forget about the ISS, or about sustained research on Mars, both of which are going on every day, right now. Space exploration is exciting and exhilarating, but it’s easy to lose track of the progress as we engage in our everyday lives. We no longer gather around the TV to watch crew launches, to celebrate their safe return, or to mourn their loss when disaster strikes. However, a few weeks ago, I saw an announcement on social media that the ISS would be flying overhead in a brief period where I was available to run outside and look for it. I felt a sense of that old excitement as I was able to catch a fleeting glimpse of the fast-moving, bright shiny light moving across the sky. (Go to to see a calendar of ISS movement over your community.) Thanks to Kelly’s book, I will try to remember to keep an eye out for the ISS more often and track the work of the ISS teams in advancing science to benefit both space exploration and life here on Earth.

Cover photo: International Space Station. Credit: NASA. Learn more about the ISS at


“Astronaut Mark Vande Hei is pictured attached to the outside of the space station during a spacewalk to lubricate the latching end effector on the tip of the Canadarm2 on Oct. 10, 2017.”– Credit: NASA

3 thoughts on “Earth, Mars, and working in the space in between

  1. I am such a space nerd, too! Wonderful article. Do you listen to the podcast, ‘The Skeptics Guide to the Universe’? They often talk about these very topics. 😀

    I love Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ (actually, just about all of his work to tell the truth 😛 ) The perfect blend of science and poetry!



  2. Pingback: Scientist fiction | Mulled Science

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