By Allen B. Ury
We’re often told, “If you’re going to dream, dream big.” Scott Kelly took this advice to heart — and then some. In 1995, he and his identical twin brother, Mark, fulfilled a lifelong aspiration of becoming NASA astronauts. (Thereby becoming the first and, so far, only siblings to do so.) Now, twenty-six years and more than 8,500 orbits later, Scott is focusing his still-considerable ambition and imagination on helping others fulfill their dreams.
Scott’s new children’s book, Goodnight, Astronaut, illustrated by Izzy Burton, is a bedtime-themed journey through his momentous life, beginning in childhood and progressing through his service aboard a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine, flying as a Naval aviator, working in an experimental underseas habitat, riding the Space Shuttle and finally commanding the International Space Station (ISS). Its message is clear and simple: You’re never too young — or old — to reach for the stars.
We spoke with Scott about his incremental model for personal progress, the source of his optimism for mankind’s future and his advice for people (of any age) who wish to slip the surly bounds of Earth, even if metaphorically.
Recently, you turned your talents to, among other things, writing children’s books — your latest being Goodnight, Astronaut. What prompted you to focus on the next generation? Well, a book was really important in my career, and it was something that provided me inspiration to, as I say in the book, “reach for the stars” and to have dreams of doing incredible things. In my case, it was Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff that I read when I was eighteen. But I wasn’t a good student growing up. I had a pretty wild imagination. Hopefully, the books that I’ve written, including Goodnight, Astronaut, will let kids know that they should have big dreams. And if they follow their dreams, maybe they’ll achieve great things.
Being an astronaut, though, is one of those professions, like being a rock star or a baseball player, that many kids dream about but very, very few ever actualize. How do you motivate people to go after long-shot professions when it’s inevitable they’ll run into a lot of frustration? First of all, I say, “Hey, if I could get this job, anyone can,” because I was a below-average guy growing up and was not the type of person that would have been voted Most Likely to Become an Astronaut. But it’s important, if it’s something that you want to do, to recognize there are people that actually have these kinds of jobs. Certainly, some of it involves talent, especially being a rock star or baseball player. There’s some talent involved in the job. But some of it’s innate, some of it’s learned.
You’re an engineer by education? Yeah.
There’s a certain way of thinking that engineers have. Scientifically minded. But if that’s something you want to do, choose a field that’s qualifying. There’re certainly minimum qualifications that you have to have. NASA — and, I’m sure, some of these commercial companies, when they start flying people in space with their employee astronauts — will have similar requirements. But choose something you like. You’re going to be better at it than if you’re just becoming a military pilot, for example, because that’s what I did. Someone might think, “Well, it worked for him; it will probably work for me.” But do something you like because you’ll do better. The odds, like you say, are against you because there’re so few NASA astronauts, as an example. But the odds are definitely against you if you don’t try. And, in my case, I read a book at eighteen. I was inspired. You might think, “How does an eighteen-year-old kid read a book, decide he or she is going to become an astronaut, and become one?” That’s a giant leap, something that would be impossible to really imagine. But in retrospect, it was a bunch of much smaller, more manageable steps, one built upon the other. So, in my case, you can’t imagine this eighteen-year-old, struggling freshman college student being an astronaut. But you can certainly imagine a test pilot that I was in 1995, applying to be an astronaut, or a fighter pilot becoming a test pilot or a recent college graduate learning how to fly airplanes in the U.S. Navy. So it’s definitely possible.
What are the fields that are most likely to lead someone into space? Well, there are STEM fields [where it’s] almost a requirement that you have at least a bachelor’s degree and some science, engineering, math. I’ve been selected [to be an astronaut], and I was on the selection board myself. The people that I like are the people that did well in their career, but also did other things that showed they had other skills beyond what their academic training was — beyond what they do at their jobs. In other words, you see someone come through the process. They might be a chemist. I flew with this woman, Tracy Caldwell, who’s a Ph.D. chemist. But the other cool thing about her [is], she was also a certified electrician that worked in her father’s electrical contracting company when she was younger. Those kinds of things stand out; things where you can demonstrate leadership, teamwork, doing some challenging things, usually stuff like in the outdoors or becoming a private pilot or instrument-rated pilot, scuba diving and challenging situations. Those things show that you have some operational mindset and it’s really important, especially for people that don’t have a job that is operationally oriented, like being a military test pilot.
In Goodnight, Astronaut, you touch on all the very exotic places where you’ve slept over your career, from a nuclear submarine to a yurt at the base of Mount Everest and, of course, the International Space Station. Of all the places that you’ve slept, which proved the most difficult? I’d say on the space shuttle. It’s pretty hard because you’re excited, you’re floating, your blood is floating inside of you and all those other fluids. So you’re not particularly comfortable. It can be loud. It can be cold. Even though you have window covers on, you can still see the light creeping through. You see cosmic rays hitting your retina, which looks like little flashes of light, radially inward on you from your peripheral vision with your eyes closed. You see more of them on a higher altitude mission. My first flight was to the Hubble Space Telescope; you can see a lot of them at that altitude. At the lower altitude that the space station is, you don’t see as many, but you still notice them at times. And that can be a distraction.
When John Glenn was asked how he had felt before the launch of his legendary Friendship 7 flight in 1962, he famously cracked, “I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of two million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.” How did you deal with the natural fears associated with space flight, and how would you advise the next generation — or anyone, for that matter — to conquer fear? Well, fear is a natural part of life. If we didn’t have [fear], we probably wouldn’t have survived. We would not have hidden from the sabertooth tigers because we wouldn’t have been scared of them, [for example]. So it’s natural to be scared. It focuses your attention. But, at some point, you have to put the fear behind you and understand that, in some cases, what happens to you is beyond your control. Focus on what you can control, in whatever situation you happen to be in, and ignore the stuff you have no control over because that gives you the better chance of succeeding. It is that philosophy of compartmentalization — knowing what we can control, ignoring everything else — that helps you deal with fear and anxiety of launching into space, if you someday have that opportunity.
Looking forward to it. Yeah, right?!
Glenn flew on the Space Shuttle. Maybe you’ll get on Artemis. Maybe not Artemis. Maybe a SpaceX Dragon. An Artemis will be for NASA astronauts, and I am no longer one of them. But I would never rule out flying in space again, somehow. Maybe I can go when I’m older than John Glenn was. That’ll be a while though.
You were in your mid-50s when you started a yearlong mission on the International Space Station. How does someone stay at the top of their game in their fifties or sixties? I’ve never looked at anything I’ve ever done from the perspective of, “Hey, am I too old to do this?” Perhaps someday I will.
What about people who think you’re too old? I don’t care what they think, but I would say, yeah, we should not discriminate against anybody because of their age or their gender or their sexual orientation. We’re all different. We all have different things that we can contribute.
You spent 520 days sleeping and working at the International Space Station. At the time, that was a world endurance record — congratulations. You also served aboard a nuclear submarine, which is similarly claustrophobic and which you describe in Goodnight, Astronaut as having no day and no night. In this age of COVID-related lockdowns and social distancing, what is your advice for anyone, including children, dealing with long-term isolation and boredom? First of all, it’s easier when you recognize that living in this new reality that we’ve been in for the last year is something that’s important. It’s part of our mission objective as a civilization, as a species, right now, that we’re on this planet currently all engaged in one thing. It’s the first time in my life that everyone’s been engaged in one particular event that has implications not only for our personal health, but society as a whole. Spending time in space was easier than it might otherwise have been because that’s one of the reasons I was there; I was going to spend a long time and I wanted to do a good job and I wanted to look back on this situation when it was over and think, “Did I do this the right way?” The same thing for this pandemic: Am I contributing to the solution or am I part of the problem? It’s important to understand that we’re all different. If there are challenges that you’re experiencing, ask for help.
There’s no stigma attached. It’s very easy for us to go to the doctor when there’s something physically wrong with us, but a lot of people have this stigma around mental health. At NASA, when I was in space for a year, every two weeks I had to talk to a psychiatrist and a psychologist — actually, four of them. If we can do it at NASA, you can find help. You understand that people deal with challenging situations differently. So the people you are in quarantine with are not always going to be reacting the same way, and you need to help each other out. If you’re a kid, you understand this is a very stressful time for your parents. It’s also a stressful time for you. Help each other rise to the occasion, if you can. But understand we are all different. For me, it was important to have a very tightly controlled schedule, and for the schedule to have variety in it — not only work but also rest and exercise. Getting outside was a little problematic in space. But in this pandemic, take time for yourself and time to be alone, if you can. Make the weekends different from the weekdays, because it’s important to have something right in front of you to look forward to.
As Goodnight, Astronaut illustrates, you spent a lot of time in public service. Today, the big focus in space travel is on the private sector, with companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, among others. What are your feelings about space travel and space engineering moving from NASA into the private sector? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It’s great, and it’s just a natural [example] of how technology progresses. If you look at the aviation industry, early on it was government-run and later it became very much commercialized. We’re at the beginning of a new age in space flight, with companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing and Virgin Galactic that will provide new opportunities and experiences for different people. Certainly, it’ll be risky. But the more you do it, the less risky it’ll get and it’ll also get cheaper. So it’s a great thing. It’s really a privilege to fly in space and have that whole perspective on Earth and life. The more people can experience it, the better we will be as a society.
In that same vein, space travel from the beginning has always been dangerous, and a lot of people have been critical of that danger and the costs involved. There are those who say that we should just leave it up to the robots. For example, we’ve got Perseverance on Mars right now. What do people bring to the equation that probes and robots can’t? Why continue to send people into space? Well, both of them are important. But if you consider robots like Spirit and Opportunity, those first Mars rovers, you could do what those rovers did in years with a person in a few days. People also bring a different perspective to science and operating things. Now, granted, there’s a lot of overhead with a person, with regards to getting them there and back and protecting their health and safety and life support systems and things like that. But you can actually do a lot more. But there are other reasons why we explore. First of all, if we didn’t, if that was not part of our DNA, we would not be here talking right now. We would not have ever ventured out of Africa, where the human species evolved. So exploration — knowing and wanting to know what’s on the other side of the hill, the mountain, what’s out in space — is part of what and who we are. There’s a lot to be gained technologically from space flight because it’s one of the most challenging things we do. And when we do challenging things, we develop new and better technologies to achieve them. It’s also great for the economy. If you look at NASA and space flight’s contribution to the economy, it’s much larger than the investment. Sometimes people ask, “Hey, why do we spend all that money in space?” And I say, “I was on a space station for over 500 days; never saw any money up there.”
We’re spending it here. Money is being spent on Earth with high-paying jobs [to] people that pay taxes and go to the store and support the local economies. Then, there’s also going to Mars. It’s really important for us to know what happened to Mars because at one time it was like Earth. Right? Now it’s not similar in atmosphere and water. It’d be good to know what happened. Maybe there’s life up there. That would surely change our perspective on humanity. But if everything I said was wrong and the only thing we get out of going to Mars … was inspiring kids to work and study in STEM-type fields, that’s worth the investment right there. Because some of them might go on to walk on Mars or fly in space; most of them won’t, but they’ll have the skills that we need for a strong economy, for national security. So it’s a win-win situation for many different reasons.
Many astronauts, especially those who went to the moon, said that they experienced a spiritual epiphany upon their return. That it changed their perspective on the world and the universe. Have your experiences away from Earth changed your outlook in any way? Certainly it changed my perspective on Earth and humanity, but not in a spiritual sense. The Earth is very beautiful, but a lot of it’s covered in pollution. The atmosphere is very fragile. The rainforest — over the course of the seventeen years I flew in space, you could notice deforestation and fires there. So yeah, [it] makes you more of an environmentalist. Also, you don’t see political borders. When you look out at the planet, you see continents. There are people down there; they have challenges. From working in space on the International Space Station, [I learned] the way we solve hard problems is by working cooperatively together. So it gives you a different perspective on humanity. Looking out at the Earth, it doesn’t seem like it is this infinitely large thing; it seems very isolated in our part of the Milky Way Galaxy. I guess you could say we’re all very much connected to one another. Certainly, the pandemic demonstrated that what happens in one country can quickly spread around the world.
In these days of COVID, climate change and deep political divisions, there’s a lot of pessimism about the future. We’re told that this might be the first generation of kids who are not going to do better than their parents. How do we get them to dream big in the current environment? Read a book like Goodnight, Astronaut or Endurance or Infinite Wonder or My Journey to the Stars. What’s the alternative? It’s not like you’re going to move to another planet, right? It’s important for all of us to recognize. People used to ask me, “Hey, are you pissed off you didn’t get to go to the moon; like you weren’t born in the 1940s and got to be part of the Apollo program?” I never even considered it. I was just happy to have the privilege I had when I had it. I never look back on whatever anyone else got to do that might be considered better or different. You’ve just got to keep moving ahead, doing the best you can. This is the planet we currently have, and we need to do the best job we can to take care of it and take care of the economy and make the best of our situation. I’m an optimist, I guess. I know you do sometimes see kids who think, “I can’t do anything because I got it so bad,” but somebody will have opportunities and be successful and it might as well be you.