Scott Kelly

Lessons from a year in space

NASA’s Scott Kelly reflects on what it takes to be successful in space travel.

April 25, 2016

In one of his first speaking engagements since returning to earth, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly encouraged credit union leaders to dream big, do the hard things, and take care of the “fragile” planet Earth.

Kelly, who returned from a year-long mission on the International Space Station last month, treated CSCU Solutions Conference attendees to tales about space travel and the lessons he learned on the journey.

“It is hard to imagine how long a year is,” Kelly said. “A year is a long time. It really is.”

Highlights from Kelly’s address:

• Embrace challenges. Kelly said he wanted to do the mission because he knew it would be difficult. Doing the “challenging things” has always paid off for him.

“You may not see the immediate benefit,” Kelly said, “but you generally will in the long-term.”

• Start with small steps. Accomplish one small goal at a time to reach big ones. Kelly went from failing college student to astronaut after being inspired by a book about early American astronauts.

He started by being a better student, then moved on to the next small goal. “You need to find your spark wherever that may be to get on the path.”

Be comfortable with less. You can't fit a lot of personal items on the space station. Your personal area is very small, about the size of a phone booth or a “coffin,” he joked.

“I learned that you can be comfortable and content with not a whole lot of stuff. That is my new mantra: get by with less.”

• Reflect and appreciate. You stay busy on the space station running all kinds of experiments and doing general maintenance, but you generally have a few hours of personal time at night, he said.

“I wrote in a journal to document the whole experience. I considered it a privilege to do this mission.”

• Connect with your audience. Kelly developed a strong following on Twitter and Instagram during his #YearinSpace mission.

“I felt I had an obligation to connect as best I could with our customers—NASA’s customers, who are taxpayers,” Kelly said. “I wanted to bring them along because it is something I feel passionate about, and I want them to be passionate about it too.”

Realize that teamwork makes the dream work. “Teamwork in space is the most important thing,” Kelly said.

Astronauts are the extension of a larger team on the ground making sure the mission is a success. It takes both parties to make it work and make it work well, he said.

Even though astronauts get much of the attention, Kelly added, you have to realize everyone is working together for the mission.

• Embrace cooperation. The international space station is a cooperative effort with countries around the world. And NASA currently works closely with Russia’s space agency even though, politically, the two countries don’t always get along.

Kelly lived with Russian cosmonauts in space. “You can cooperate if it is very important to you. We really depended on each other for our lives. We made a choice to cooperate on this program and we made it work,” he said of the countries and people involved.

• Take a 1.3 million-foot view. From 249 miles up, “the earth is incredibly beautiful,” Kelly said. Watching the seasons change was amazing—and so was seeing “horrific” pollution over China.

“It looks fragile,” Kelly said of Earth’s atmosphere. “It gave me a unique perspective and made me more of the type of person who wants to take care of the environment because it is what takes care of us. We have to take care of spaceship Earth.”

• Dream big. Kelly said he felt a “sense of inspiration” when leaving the space station on his last day in space.

If humans can build this impressive space station together, Kelly said, “We can do anything, whether it is going to Mars, curing cancer, or fixing our economic issues or the environment. If we can dream it, we can do it.”

Part of Kelly’s mission was the so-called “Twin Study” to see how extended time in space affects the human body. Kelly’s twin brother, Mark, also an astronaut, acted as a scientific control subject on the ground during the mission.

Extended time in space also decreases bone and muscle mass, and vision, Kelly said. Plus, astronauts in space are subject to radiation.

NASA hopes to use the data from the study and other work being done on the space station to further explore space, including Mars.

Mars is in reach, Kelley said. “We know a lot of what we need to know to get to Mars.

“Hopefully, it is something I get to witness.”