Commodore, Royal Saudi Navy (Retired)
In November 2012, Riyadh hosted the 25th annual Association of Space Explorers Congress. The International Aeronautics Technology Conference was organized by King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology. At the conference, I met a number of scientists and astronauts from different parts of the world. I had a wonderful discussion with a retired US Navy captain and an astronaut, Scott Kelly. He and I graduated from the same school back in the US, The State University of New York, Maritime College. I was a few years his senior. As I was talking to him, I was wondering what if NASA ran out of ideas regarding the outer space. Later, I was informed that Kelly was selected by NASA to be one of the two people aboard the International Space Station for a whole year for an experiment that might never happen again. Now, many people might wonder that a one-year stay in outer space has become a normal thing but this case was different? Kelly had been in the outer space before, aboard NASA’s shuttles and aboard the International Space Station. And when he was confirmed, he invited me through NASA to attend either the Mission 43 Russian Soyuz rocket’s launch from Baikanour, Kazakhstan that will take them to the International Space Station or to be at NASA’s Johnson’s Space Center Mission Control Center. The minute I got the invitation, I knew this is something I wouldn’t want to miss. I ended up in Houston because there were limited guests for the Kazakhstan rocket launch and family members were given priority. I have seen a space ship launch before when I was present in Florida for the first shuttle (Columbia) launch mission STS-1 in April 1981. As soon as I arrived at Johnson’s Space Center for the launch, I was met with a genuine South American hospitality. I would like to extend my thanks and appreciation to Brooke Heathman for coordinating my visit to the center. After the launch, we had lunch with some of Kelly’s friends and relatives. His father, a very charming and intelligent man, hosted us. The launch took place on Friday at around 3p.m. Houston time and the docking and hatch opening took place about 6 hours later. So, what is so different about this one-year mission to the outer space in a station 250 miles above earth? The crew of Soyuz consisted of three astronauts, Russia’s Mikhail Komeinko and Gennady Padalka and America’s Scott Kelly. Astronaut Padalka will return after few months at the station while Kelly and Komeinko will be there for a year. The three will be joining the other crewmembers who are already at the station —Terry Virts (an American), Anton Shkaplerov (a Russian) and Samantha Cristoforetti (an Italian. During the yearlong stay at the station, other crewmembers will rotate in and out. At least, Kelly and Komeinko will not always be alone. During the stay, many scientific experiments will be conducted but the most notable one is that during Kelly’s stay he would in reality be a guinea pig. The reason for that is his identical twin and former astronaut, Mark Kelly, will be on earth. During and after the yearlong stay, there will be a lot to be studied regarding the effects of zero gravity on the human body. And as I know it, Mark is older than his twin brother Scott by just six minutes. So, after one year in space and zero gravity, can there be any changes in the aging process. We will know this next year when Scot returns from the space. This is why this space experiment might not be conducted again. But at the end of the day, it is clear that NASA is the barometer for the world’s science research and development. Finally, it was an honor for me to be present at this historical event and I would like to thank everyone at NASA who made my visit not only enjoyable but also very educational. During the visit to NASA, I ran into a former schoolmate Capt. Elizabeth Christman who was there for the same event and I appreciate her input in refreshing my memory about the old navigation methods we used to apply during our school years, celestial and terrestrial. Written by Abdulateef Al‐Mulhim. NASA: Science and Hospitality reprinted with permission of Arab News and Abdulateef Al‐Mulhim.