The mysteries of space have captivated the human race for centuries, driving us to learn and explore. Since Yuri Gagarin first reached orbit in 1961, over 600 people have ventured beyond Earth’s atmosphere. One of them is Captain Scott Kelly, who the Wisconsin Union Directorate Distinguished Lecture Series (WUD-DLS) welcomed to campus on Tuesday.
Kelly logged an impressive 520 days of spaceflight with NASA — the fourth-longest of any American astronaut. Three hundred and forty of those days were spent consecutively during his Year in Space, a joint endeavor between NASA and the Russian space program (Roscosmos) that sent Kelly and his “Russian brother from another mother” — cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko — to the International Space Station together for nearly a full year.
Kelly described the perspective shift that comes with being in space, saying he saw “that we’re all on this planet together without political borders — you don’t see those from space. And you understand that big problems take cooperation.”
One’s worldview changing after going to space is commonly referred to as the “overview effect” and is something that many astronauts, including Kelly himself, have discussed.
Scientifically, Kelly’s year in space provided a unique opportunity to study the effects of long-term space travel on the human body — he has an identical twin, Mark, also a former astronaut. This opened the door for NASA’s landmark twins study, measuring the physical and psychological changes experienced by Scott and using Mark as a sort of control.
The brothers are genetically almost identical, which allowed NASA to easily observe changes in Kelly’s genome over time. The study reported changes in gene expression and telomere length, which are the ends of chromosomes that tend to shorten as people age. NASA predicted the telomeres would shorten at a faster rate while in space, but results showed they lengthened.
“My first reaction was ‘That’s really weird’,’’ Kelly told the Daily Cardinal. “We found out later it was due to radiation [exposure].”
Many beneficial findings regarding human health and genetics came out of the study, and Kelly emphasized that for our future, spaceflight and its accompanying research are worth the investment.
“I think we’re getting to the point where, hopefully, we'll see some really exciting developments in genetics,” Kelly said. “But are we going to cure cancer from spaceflight? Probably not. Will we get other things, [like] scientific discoveries? Yes.”
Kelly deemed it “a privilege to be able to fly in space, especially when you’re doing it at the expense of the taxpayer.” He expressed his belief that “with that privilege comes an obligation to talk about it.” As a result of this principle, Kelly shares his experience in public speaking engagements all across the country, relating the lessons he learned in space to people’s everyday lives.
The former astronaut explained how he applied to the program with NASA completely on a whim, as he was focused on a career as a Navy pilot at the time. To his surprise, Kelly was accepted in the same class as his brother, making them the first relatives to both be selected to NASA. He then began working for three years to understand the complicated and sophisticated machinery that is a NASA spacecraft.
“I had this idea that taking risks, being willing to make mistakes and at times willing to fail, is what separates people that are really successful,” Kelly said in his talk.
He described difficult risks and failures in school and with the Navy that preceded his remarkable achievements with NASA. Kelly emphasized how far he had come from being “the kid that couldn’t do his homework” to “getting ready to fly in space for the first time as the first person in [my] class of 35 other people.”
Kelly attributed his successes to his years of hard work and the many risks he’d taken with the understanding that he may fail, as well as people skills that he deemed crucial for living with others in space. He encouraged his audience to take on the same mindset in their own lives.