The space capsule descended gently through the stratosphere, like a falling feather. As it slipped through the clouds, a strange land loomed below.
Just as the craft was about to touch the surface, six engines suddenly fired simultaneously, bringing the Soyuz descent module to a cushioned stop.
Scott Kelly looked out the window at the flat, barren terrain around him.
It wasn’t Mars. It wasn’t even the moon.
It was Kazakhstan.
But after 340 days in space, anywhere on planet Earth felt like home.
Then he pumped his fist in celebration, zero-gravity-weakened muscles be damned.
Over the past 11 months, Kelly and Russian colleague Mikhail Kornienko have traveled 144 million miles through space, orbited the globe 5,440 times and experienced 10,880 sunrises and sunsets. Kelly’s 340-day stint in space is a record for an American astronaut, as is his total of 520 days spread over four missions.
Even more than his records, however, it’s Kelly’s attitude that has made him a crowd favorite back on the Big Blue Marble. He has performed death-defying spacewalks, successfully grown (and eaten) lettuce in outer space and chased a colleague around the International Space Station in a gorilla suit. He has chatted with everyone from President Obama and Stephen Colbert to school kids.
Perhaps most memorable of all, he has snapped more than 1,000 stunning photos of the planet, sharing them with his nearly 1 million Twitter followers with the hashtag “#yearinspace.”
And that’s what it felt like — for all of us.
“Talking to someone who’s in orbit. … It’s like I’m an astronaut right now,”gushed Colbert.
Kelly’s safe return Tuesday night is, therefore, a bit of a mixed blessing. We have regained an Earthling but lost a colorful and quirky view of our planet from 250 miles up.