Learning From Capt. Scott Kelly’s Space Odyssey

December 1, 2016

[photo by albert chau]
[photo by albert chau]

As Capt. Scott Kelly had just embarked on his historic, 340-day journey aboard the International Space Station, a thought crossed his mind.

“Man, this is a stupid thing to be doing,” Kelly said to laughter and applause during the PRSA 2016 International Conference opening General Session on Oct. 23.

An astronaut since 1996, Kelly’s achievements during his 20-year career with NASA earned him the coveted position of America’s first year-round astronaut. (He is now retired.) On his recent, record-setting mission that spanned from March 2015 to March 2016, Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko conducted scientific experiments, reconfigured space station modules and captivated audiences around the world with live interviews and never-seen-before photos from the International Space Station via Twitter and Instagram.

The journey also included NASA’s groundbreaking Twins Study, in which Kelly’s identical twin brother, retired NASA astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly, served on the ground as a control model in an experiment to understand how space affects the human body.

Kelly’s 45-minute talk, full of funny asides, focused on his record-breaking mission.

“On the Space Station you learn to live with very little stuff. I actually wore the same pair of pants for six months,” he explained. “I’m adjusting to life pretty well here back on Earth. I’ve only been wearing this pair of pants for a month now.”

He talked about his inauspicious beginnings while growing up in New Jersey.

“When I was kid, I was a really bad student,” he said. “I spent the first 13 years of my education looking out the window or looking at the clock wondering when the class was going to be over.”

At age 13, he found inspiration in his mother, who decided that she would leave her career as a secretary and waitress to become a police officer, just like her husband.

Kelly applied himself more in high school, though he still finished near the bottom of his class. He decided to attend college, but he accidentally applied to the wrong university. (Kelly wanted to go to the University of Maryland at College Park, but ended up at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. “I was like, ‘When is the football game?’ And they’re like, ‘You’re at the wrong school.’”)

Finding the right stuff

Kelly said he was on “a fast track to nowhere” when he discovered Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” at a college bookstore. The 1979 book documented the stories of the first Project Mercury astronauts, including John Glenn, selected for the NASA space program.

“I recognized traits in these guys I felt like I had in myself.” So he changed schools and changed majors. Eventually, Kelly and his twin brother would become captains in the U.S. Navy and go into space a combined total of eight times.

“The best part for me is that it’s really, really hard,” Kelly said. “Flying in space and being an astronaut is a hard job. Space is hard. Doing the easy things is easy. Everyone would do this if it were easy. The hard stuff — you have to have a goal and a plan. You have to be willing to take risks and make mistakes. You have to test the status quo.

“When I put all these things together, the sky has not been the limit for me,” he said.

While he made several quips and self-deprecating jokes, Kelly was often earnest, such as when he described the first time he saw the sunrise over Earth from space.

“As the sun came up, I saw how brilliantly blue our planet Earth was,” Kelly said. “It was like the most brilliant painting. I knew right then and there that was the most beautiful thing I was ever going to see in my life.”

He also talked about the near miss during the 340-day mission when a Russian satellite traveling 17,500 miles per hour came dangerously close to their space station. After ground control told Kelly that they were unable to move the space station in time, he started following U.S. protocol, closing hatches and preparing for a possible collision.

Then he went to the Russian side of the Space Station. “I go down there and they’re not closing their hatches,” Kelly said. “They’re eating. They’re like, ‘Want some lunch?’”

This re-emphasized the importance of focusing only on what you can control during a crisis situation, he noted.

Kelly also touched on the challenges of leadership.

“Sometimes, as a leader, you need to be a coach — a teacher. Sometimes you have to be able to follow. You have to recognize that the people you’re leading might know more about [a situation] than you do,” he said. “In space, there are also times when you have to be a dictator. There’s a fire, and you have to decide what you’re going to do and announce [your intentions] to the crew and go do it.”

He concluded by saying the reality of space travel makes all things possible.

“If you can dream it, you can do it. If you have a goal and a plan, if you’re willing to take risks and make mistakes…and if you work as a team,” Kelly said. “Teamwork makes the dream work. We can choose to do the hard things. And if we do that, then the sky is definitely not the limit.”

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



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