Back on Earth, U.S. astronaut faces science labs without the view

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. The return of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly from the longest U.S. space mission on record will kick off a wave of medical tests and experiments intended to pave the way for extended human missions to Mars.

Kelly, 52, is scheduled to give a news conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on Friday to discuss his 340-day mission aboard the International Space Station.

He left the station on Tuesday in a Russian Soyuz capsule, landed in Kazakhstan, then headed home to Houston.

“I’m used to going 17,500 miles per hour, but this airplane doesn’t quite do that,” Kelly quipped after a belated 2:30 a.m. EST/0730 GMT touchdown on Thursday at Ellington Field near the Johnson Space Center.

He was welcomed by a crowd that included Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, who gave him beer and apple pie.

“Welcome back to Earth,” President Barack Obama wrote to Kelly on Twitter. “Your year in space is vital to the future of American space travel. Hope gravity isn’t a drag!”

Kelly is undergoing initial medical checks at the space center as he starts recovering from his time in the weightless and high-radiation environment of space.

He and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko served about twice as long as previous crews as part of a pilot program to help NASA and its partners prepare for eventual human missions to Mars that will last at least two years.

Scientists are studying how the human body fares during longer stays in space. Before landing, Kelly told reporters he had experienced some changes in his vision, a relatively newly discovered affliction that affects about half of astronauts on long-duration space missions.

Kelly’s participation in the mission also gave doctors an opportunity to look at possible genetic changes from spaceflight. Researchers have been studying whether he and his identical twin brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly, are as genetically similar now as they were before Scott Kelly’s launch in March 2015.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins)

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