An American astronaut is gearing up to launch into space Thursday (Oct. 7), setting up a potential in-orbit meeting with his identical twin brother — also a space man — early next year.
U.S. Navy Capt. Scott Kelly, a NASA astronaut, is poised to ride a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station alongside two Russian crewmates. Liftoff is set for 7:10 p.m. EDT (2310 GMT) from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Kelly, 46, won't be far from family when his rocket blasts off. His twin brother Mark, also a NASA astronaut and Navy captain, will watch his twin launch and then prepare to command his own mission — the final flight of space shuttle Endeavour. [Video: NASA's Identical Twin Astronauts]
If all goes well, Mark Kelly will launch on Endeavour Feb. 27 and join Scott, who will be in command of the space station by then.
"It's something that I think we both consider would be really neat if it happened," Scott said during a series of NASA interviews. "But having the privilege of flying in space, without flying together, is just an incredible opportunity and I always thought it'd be great if it happened."
Scott said he looks forward to greeting Mark when the brothers meet at the space station's hatch — marking the first time any siblings, let alone identical twin astronauts, have ever met up in space.
That moment would be a happy one, both brothers said, but they wouldn't have too much time to dwell on it.
"These missions are incredibly complicated," Mark said in a NASA interview. "Scott and I have to work together to make sure this thing gets executed correctly with nobody getting hurt and everything getting accomplished. So it's really going to be more about the mission than 'Hey, we're in space together.'"
"There's not going to be a whole lot of time for joking around," Scott agreed.
Still, both brothers plan to share their experiences in space via the microblogging site Twitter. Scott Kelly posts Twitter updates under the name @StationCDRKelly. Mark Kelly's Twitter posts appear under the moniker @ShuttleCDRKelly.
Seeing Scott off
Scott Kelly will blast off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the primary launch site for Russian space missions since the 1950s. The same launch pad was used to launch Sputnik, the first-ever artificial satellite, 53 years ago this week on Oct. 4, 1957.
"It's pretty exciting," Mark said from the launch site in a NASA interview. "It's nice to get a chance to see him off."
Mark voiced confidence that his brother's flight and mission will go well.
"He's absolutely ready for this mission," Mark said. "He's been training for this for a long time. He's going to have a very busy flight. So I think for him that's going to go very fast and, if everything goes well, should be very satisfying."
The twin missions
The spaceflying Kelly brothers, from West Orange, N.J., are both veteran astronauts. Mark — the elder by 6 minutes — has flown on three shuttle missions, and Scott has two spaceflights under his belt.
Scott will command Expedition 26 on the space station, which will last until March 2011. Mark's Endeavour mission in February will deliver some fancy scientific gear to the station — an instrument called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which will search for elusive antimatter galaxies and dark matter from orbit.
Endeavour's mission was slated to be the last hurrah for the shuttle program, which has been running since 1981. Endeavour was the second of two scheduled flights left — Discovery is set to launch Nov. 1 — as NASA transitions toward exploring asteroids and other objects in deep space.
However, Congress recently approved an additional shuttle flight, which could take place sometime next year once finalized.
Endeavour's crew should return to Earth on March 10, 2011, shortly before the Expedition 26 spaceflyers come home from the space station. So the Kelly brothers should have another reunion on terra firma just after meeting up in orbit.
"The thing I've got to figure out is how I'm going to land the space shuttle in Florida and then convince my boss to send me over to Baikonur for when he lands," Mark said.