10.03.10

Twins in Space!

Mark and Scott Kelly, already America's only blood relatives to orbit in space, will make history this winter when they rendezvous on the space station. They tell Sandra McElwaine about their orbital road trip ahead of Scott's liftoff this week.

Scott and Mark, the Kelly brothers, are not household names. Not yet. They have never walked the red carpet, been interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, or been widely courted by the press. But as the only blood relatives to orbit in space, they are a unique part of American history. And when the 47-year-old identical twin astronauts—Mark is is six minutes older and sports a mustache—rendezvous aboard the International Space Station in February 2011, it will be an aerospace first.

Scott, who will command the station, is scheduled to blast off from Kazakhstan on Oct. 7 at 7:11 p.m. EST, in what he describes as the “dependable Soviet workhorse,” the updated Soyuz spacecraft, to spend six months conducting a variety of scientific experiments on the structure the size of a football field, 200 miles above the earth. Approximately 180 days later, Mark will hurtle through space at 17,500 miles per hour piloting what is likely to be the penultimate NASA space shuttle mission, Endeavor STS 134, to carry supplies and meet up with his brother on that remote outpost. When he docks, it will be an extraordinary encounter. Though both are naval commanders, there is no question of who’s in charge of what: Scott’s bailiwick is the space station; the space craft belongs to Mark.

Gallery: The World’s Most Famous Twins

Prepping for their joint venture, the siblings seem amazingly cool about their orbital road trip. “You’re just too busy to be scared,” says Scott, crediting their lack of nerves to intense training and relentless exercise. (Scott has been preparing in Kazakhstan with a Russian crew since August. Mark has been working in Houston in an underwater capsule that simulates the absence of gravity.)

When Scott says goodbye to his twin, who will be in Kazakhstan along with their father and other family members for his launch, it will be “low-key and casual,” he tells me. A “so long and see you soon” farewell. And when Mark docks at the space station, he insists his greeting will be equally low-key. An exciting but not an over-the-top moment. “For the first five minutes we’ll catch up, but after that we have a lot of work to do,” he says.

The sons of two police officers, the twins were born in West Orange, New Jersey, a leafy suburb of New York, and grew up in a Norman Rockwell environment with the sense they could accomplish anything they set out to do. Although they squabbled as kids, they were always each other’s best friend and confidant. They still are. In high school, they co-captained the swim team, played baseball, and ran track. Mark was the better student because he studied harder and did more homework, according to Scott.

They attended different universities but shared similar interests. Both opted for naval careers, became pilots, and flew dozens of missions during Operation Desert Storm. (Initially Scott wanted to be a doctor, but when Mark chose the Navy, he followed along.) Lured by NASA’s mantra of excellence and accomplishment, plus the “challenge” of outer space, both applied for the elite astronaut program in 1996 and were accepted. (Thirty-five were chosen out of a pool of 3,000 candidates.) Scott says being tapped for the original interview was the “big surprise,” not his ultimate selection. For Mark, the entire process was serendipitous. “There was a lot of luck involved,” he says. “Luck and, of course, timing.”

The first to leave Earth’s atmosphere was Scott, who piloted the mission to service the iconic Hubble Space Telescope in 1999. In 2001, Mark took off on his first expedition to the International Space Station. For Scott, the ascent, the 7.5 million-pound thrust, remains an attention grabber. “There is nothing that prepares you for the amount of energy that’s involved in getting the shuttle into space,” he has said. “You get the impression you’re going somewhere, you’re not sure where, and you’re going to get there in a hurry.”

When Mark docks at the space station, he insists his greeting to Scott will be low-key: “For the first five minutes we’ll catch up, but after that we have a lot of work to do.”

Mark agrees, admitting that no amount of training had prepared him for the first 8 1/2 minutes of flight. It is still pretty unsettling, he says. (Their profession is a risky business. Two earlier space craft have exploded or disintegrated, killing all of their crews. And Scott had what he considers a minor problem with a deep gouge caused by falling foam on a previous Endeavor mission.) For their families, optimism and self-control are crucial to coping with anxiety and danger.

Scott is divorced with two teenagers, and Mark has two children from a previous union and is married to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Tucson, Arizona. He is the first astronaut married to a congresswoman and the sole military spouse in Congress. For Giffords, the launch and re-entry are the most perilous and difficult part of Mark’s trips. “You have to be strong and detach yourself from what could happen,” she says, describing the liftoff as “a combination of excitement and fear and an awesome experience. You have to see, hear, feel, and smell what it takes.”

For luck on his last voyage, she gave her husband her wedding ring, which he had inscribed with the words “you’re the closest thing to heaven that I’ve ever been.” Wherever they are, they are in constant contact. Both carry BlackBerrys, iPads, and iPhones, and send pictures back and forth. “We are incredibly engaged with each other,” says Giffords.

On the space station, however, communication is strictly by email. “You can call out, but they delays are bad and no one can call in,” explains Mark.

A NASA tradition before each flight is for astronauts to write a letter to their families in case of an accident or simply to say a temporary goodbye. These are extremely serious, according to Mark: “Honest, open, and straight from the heart.”

Before each departure, Giffords writes a letter to her spouse telling him how much she loves him and how proud she is of his achievements. She will be at the launch pad to repeat her sentiments next February. “I am always on pins and needles, wondering, ‘Will this be the last conversation I’m going to have with my husband?’” she confesses.

After talking with Scott in Kazakhstan and Mark in Houston, it’s hard to for me to know exactly how to end the interview: “Have a fabulous trip” or “Have or a wonderful time” seemed totally inappropriate and pretty banal. So I ask Scott, “What should I say? Good luck? Godspeed? Bon voyage?”

“Godspeed is usual,” he replies. “But bon voyage will do just fine.”

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Currently she writes for The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.