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Amiko Kauderer

Scott Kelly and Amiko Kauderer.Photo by Stephanie Stoll/ NASA
Astronaut Scott Kelly’s girlfriend recounts a year apart

By Daniel Dunaief

One night, her leg drifted to his side of the bed, where she often snuggled up so close that she nearly pushed him off the bed. The cold woke her up. After that, she stayed away until he returned from his perch, circling 249 miles above the Earth for a record-breaking year.

Amiko Kauderer, who works for NASA, has been dating astronaut Scott Kelly for years. Indeed, she had been through a six-month separation when he traveled to the International Space Station in 2011. This time, however, Kelly was gone for a year, conducting a range of experiments, including one in which he grew flowers in space. He also took samples of his own blood, which NASA will use to compare to his identical twin brother Mark to track the effects of extended time in space on his body. The information Kelly collected will help NASA prepare for future missions deeper into space, including to Mars.

Kelly’s journey, and his NASA career, ended on March 1, 2016, a year after jetting away from Kauderer and his two daughters from a previous marriage for an extraordinary journey that covered 144 million miles, or more than the distance from Earth to the sun.

Kelly recently published an in-depth book about his life before and after his historic mission titled “Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery.” Kauderer has her own story to tell about their prolonged separation. When asked about the time apart, both of them acknowledge that the challenges are no different from the ones people face when a spouse is on active deployment with the military.

During their separation, Kelly and Kauderer spoke regularly, including by videoconference. In an early videoconference, Kelly took Kauderer on a tour of his orbiting home, where he circled Earth 5,440 times. “I’ve seen it,” Kauderer recalled, as he drifted from room to room, using his toes to push off and float to the next destination. When he entered a room, Kelly asked her to guess where he was. “I know where you’re at,” she laughed. “You’re in the gym.”

While he was beaming images of his life in space, Kauderer returned the favor with video of their home in Houston, Texas. She took him outside, where he could see the pool. She knew he loved the water. When they were on these calls, Kelly focused on Kauderer as well as on areas around the house that he could see from space that needed attention. He saw that the refrigerator water filter light was on, indicating it was time for a new one. He told her, “You need to change the filter,” she recalled. She enjoyed the observation because “those kinds of moments felt like he was home.”

Kauderer recalled an experience where she was on a video conference with Kelly while she cooked a pizza, something he couldn’t eat during his journey. He asked her to show it to him when she was taking it out of the oven and then told her the pizza wasn’t done and she needed to stick it back in the oven for another few moments. “Him being from New Jersey and me being from China Spring, Texas, I’m not going to argue with the New Jersey guy on how to make a pizza,” she recalled. That, too, felt more like normal.

Kauderer didn’t dwell on the dangers of his trip, even though she had considerable information about his schedule and his daily assignments. Knowing “her man,” as she puts it, well also helped her recognize the early signs of trouble for him from afar. Once, when they began a conversation, she heard an aggressiveness and frustration in his voice. She told him to check the carbon dioxide levels, which were above normal.

The most stressful moment for her was when he went on the first of his three space walks. “I had seen how hard he worked,” she said “I knew all the behind-the-scenes stuff, even the things that are not as fun and [are] painful. I was extremely excited that he was finally going to do this.”

She said she knew he’d be fine as soon as he got back inside. While he was gone, she forgot what it felt like to have physical contact with Kelly. “The one thing you can not replicate is human touch,” she said. “There does come a time when you forget what that person feels like, what it feels like to get a hug.” The moment of realization is “sad,” although she said she always knew there was an end point.

Indeed, when his journey was almost over, Kelly sent her a list of the things he wanted and craved back on Earth, including green Gatorade, strawberries and salad. She didn’t have any similar such lists for him. “You tend to put your own needs aside,” she said. “You focus on everything for him. I didn’t think about what I wanted.”

At first, she felt an urgency to make sure he adapted to his return, which was no small task. In addition to getting him to doctors’ appointments, she helped him deal with a painful rash that developed after an extended time when gravity didn’t push clothing against his skin. He also had swelling in his legs. When she massaged his feet, she couldn’t feel his ankle bones. At the beginning, it was “disgusting,” she said. “I knew they weren’t his feet.” She said he was “in such a fog” after his return. Physically, he was back, but the pain, particularly in his feet, was difficult for him.

Kauderer felt limited in what she could do for herself. “When he came home, I didn’t have any me-time,” she said. She went to the door to go for a run and Kelly asked her where she was going. She told him she needed to get out for 20 minutes to take a run. “That’s all I need,” she said. “He was like, ‘OK.’”

Kelly’s life has returned to a new normal, as he travels to promote his book. Kauderer said the distance apart brought them closer together. At night, she said she has returned to moving over to his side of the bed, which is warmer than it was during his absence. “When he was back, I went back to pushing him off the bed again,” she said.