When NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returns to earth Tuesday after 340 days in space, he will have spent more time there than any other American. But while his feat breaks a record at home, it doesn’t come close to that of a lesser known—but equally bold—cosmonaut, Gennady Padalka.
A lover of parachutes, running, and theater, 57-year-old Padalka has now spent nearly two and half years in space, the longest of any human thus far. Referred to by his colleagues as the “greatest obi wan kenobi,” he gunning to reach 1000 days in space before his time is over.
Has the legend of Gennady Padalka just begun?
Born on June 21, 1958 in Krasnodar, Russia, Padalka began his career as bomber pilot during the Soviet era. After high school, he attended the Eisk Military College, graduating in 1979 with a pilot-engineering degree. From there, the athletic Padalka rose through the ranks of the Russian Air Force from senior pilot to colonel, where he was awarded the Hero Star of the Russian Federation.
In 1989, after logging 1200 flight hours and 300 parachute jumps, the 31-year-old had a “chance meeting” with famed Russian cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov—the first man to step out of a spacecraft and “walk” in space. Unbeknownst to Padalka, the meeting would alter the course of the fighter pilot’s life. “He suggested that I become a cosmonaut,” Padalka said in a 2004 interview about the encounter. “I agreed.”
Soon after, Padalka was selected to study as a cosmonaut at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center near Moscow. Much like during his time at Eisk, Padalka soared through the program, passing his certification test in 1991 with “excellent results.”
For the next five years, he worked at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as an engineer-ecologist, earning his masters in ecological monitoring. After years of training in Russian, he blasted off for his first mission in 1998, docking the Souyz at the first modular space station, Mir.
After completing a successful 198-day mission, Padalka would go on to command four more at the International Space Station, the most recent of which (168 days) he completed on September 12, 2015.
All told, the five missions have brought the Russian cosmonaut to a total of 879 days in space. Kelly’s total is just over 500. The record for longest continuous stint belongs to Valeri Polyakov, who launched in 1994 and spent 437 days in space.
In interviews about Padalka, his colleagues and former mentors have praised his ability to remain calm under pressure. One of the first to work with Padalka in the late 1990s, cosmonaut Yury Baturin told The Guardian he was one of the “most experienced” in tricky situations. “Gennady is a real professional. He loves his work, and when a person loves his work, time doesn’t drag on,” Baturin said. “He deals with [psychological challenges] through his work.”
American astronauts who’ve worked with Padalka, including Scott Kelly himself, echo the sentiments. “If you’re a new guy (on the ISS), the guy you want to fly with is Padalka,” NASA’s Mike Fincke reportedly said in a video about him. “He’s the greatest Obi-Wan ever.”
While Padalka may be well equipped to survive long stints in space, he’s the first to admit that it’s not easy. “This is [a very] stressful event for the astronauts and cosmonauts who…[do] this for the first time in their life,” Padalka said in 2004.
On top of the psychological strain, staying in space for prolonged periods of time can have negative effects on the body, including severe loss of skeletal muscle and strength. Scientists hope to have more specific data on exactly how harmful it is when Kelly lands, after which they will compare his numbers to that of his twin brother and fellow astronaut Mark Kelly, who has spent the past year on earth.
In spite of the physical dangers of being in space, Padalka considers it a gift. “[The] Space Station is only a tiny part of our planet,” Padalka said in 2004. “But I think this is a great example how our life can be established on the ground in the ideal.”