Scott Kelly was in college when a trip to a bookstore changed his life. He was drawn to the cover of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, which contains Wolfe’s extensive research and interviews with test pilots and the first Project Mercury astronauts selected for NASA’s space program. Kelly decided to give it a read and was hooked.
So much so that he decided to pivot and become an astronaut. The only problem? He was in school to learn electrical engineering. Also, becoming an astronaut is hard. It’s incredibly hard.
The sky is not the limit
Today Scott Kelly is better known as Captain Scott Kelly, who in March of 2015 embarked on a journey to spend a record-breaking year in space. The trajectory from bookstore to space shuttle is one so daunting, and so long, that most people wouldn’t even dare to set such a goal, let alone go after it.
Yet Kelly had a good role model. While growing up in New Jersey, he witnessed his mother train to become a police officer. From her, he learned the value of setting a challenging goal and making a plan to get there in incremental steps.
He broke his lofty, seemingly insurmountable goal into a plan of “small” steps. First, he needed to be a better student. This is by his own admission, as he stood before thousands of retailers at the National Retail Federation’s BIG Show this past January. He needed to learn to focus and apply himself to his work—a crucial skill that would carry him all the way through. He also needed to change schools, and so he completed his degree in engineering and went on to get a master's degree in Aviation Systems. The next step was to join the Navy and go to flight school. Only then could he apply to be an astronaut.
Flying is hard
Once broken down, each of these smaller steps was difficult in their own right. At flight school in Pensacola, Kelly learned that he was not a great pilot.
Naturally, this was discouraging and might have been a deal-breaker, but he’d come a long way. He doubled-down and studied as hard as he ever had, and was eventually assigned to fly jets and later an F-14 Tomcat (which is, in the most official of terms, a pretty serious fighter jet).
“From the sky, an aircraft carrier looks like a postage stamp on the ocean,” he explained. So perhaps that’s why, then, the first time he landed the F-14, he came in too low and clipped the back of the ship. And by “clip” I mean he almost crashed. Kelly was given only one more shot at flying and landing the jet, and he took it. “You might as well fail at something really, really hard. Not something that’s easy,” he said.
“You might as well fail at something really, really hard. Not something that’s easy.” - Captain Scott Kelly
This time he landed the jet. It was also around this time that he realized he was never done learning—a mentor taught him to always make small corrections, and it was advice that would propel him onward to become a fighter pilot, and then a test pilot.
Ten seconds to lift off
It’s worth mentioning that Kelly has a twin brother, Mark, who first applied to NASA.
At that point in his career, Kelly knew and remembered that being an astronaut had been his initial goal, but the journey had become the destination, as they say. Nevertheless, he decided to apply to NASA too. By then there was “no real risk” in submitting the application, as he put it, and both brothers were accepted into the space program.
With every challenge Kelly scaled, there was a new challenge before him. Learning how to operate a space shuttle became the new hardest thing he’d ever had to do. The Discovery shuttle, which he piloted in December of 1999 on a mission to make repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope, had over 2,000 switches and circuit breakers. He studied it for three years before lift off.
And although Kelly’s story is inspiring, meant to impart takeaways about resilience, teamwork, and goal-setting, his anecdotes are equally compelling. If you’ve ever wondered what’s going through an astronaut’s mind 10 seconds before the five million pounds of a fully-fueled space shuttle blasts off, it might be something like this: “Man, this is a really stupid thing to be doing.”
If you’ve ever wondered what’s going through an astronaut’s mind 10 seconds before the five million pounds of a fully-fueled space shuttle blasts off, it might be something like this: “Man, this is a really stupid thing to be doing.”
To a bystander, a space shuttle lifts slowly, even gracefully. As it rises, the rocket appears almost stationary against the sky but for the trail of flames from the rockets. From the inside, however, it feels fast. “You launch like the hand of God has just grabbed you and thrown you into space,” Kelly said.
This is an extreme scenario to find oneself in, but Kelly’s reaction is one we can all learn from. In the moment, he tried to pay attention to the things that he could control and to ignore all the rest. It was that early skill—learning to focus—that helped him to compartmentalize and filter out the “noise” around him.
The payoff was worth it. Once in space, he saw the sun rise and illuminate the planet. “As the sun came up, I saw how brilliantly blue the planet earth is. It was absolutely breathtaking and I knew that earth would be the most beautiful thing I’d ever see in my entire life.”
Life in space
Kelly took two more spaceflights before he was selected, along with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko, for his year-long mission to the International Space Station. Here again was a new, daunting challenge. In addition to the science and research he’d conduct while at the space station, this mission would study the effects of space on the human body on a longer-term flight.
Humans lose one percent of their bone mass every month in space, so Kelly would need to exercise, and he’d be monitored for changes in vision, and for exposure to space radiation, among many other things. Given that Kelly is a twin, he was a perfect fit for the mission, as Mark remained the control subject back home.
This time around, Kelly rocketed off the earth in the Russian Soyuz TMA-16M shuttle. This was a very different experience. He described it as hot, loud, dark, and small—and there was no internal countdown clock to prepare them for their upward hurtle.
The space station, which weighs a million pounds and is the size of a football field, is divided into two halves, between the U.S. and the Russians. Life there, Kelly said, “is really hard.” While the station is large, he described it as living in a hospital or scientific lab. Everything is there for a reason, in the event it’s needed, and so there’s no running to Target on a whim, or using up extra supplies because you feel like it. There’s no running anywhere or stepping outside for a breath of fresh air. There’s no weather or changes in weather. And there’s no time when he was not at work, or on a timeline, or on high alert for potential emergencies like ammonia leaks or collisions with orbital debris.
Instead, there’s a lot of science. People who live on the space station have been studying the earth and sun, and the sun’s effect on earth, for something like 17 years now. The space station is a renewable place with carbon dioxide and oxygen, and the ability to turn urine into drinking water. They conduct many experiments to help develop medicine. In their off time, however, they can search the Internet, email, and go online shopping. (It’s just delivery that’s a bit tough.) There are also the stars—ten times as many as there are grains of sand on earth.
Lessons from a year in space
You can learn to live with less. In space, he wore the same pants for six months.
Hard things become rewarding. Tackling a difficult challenge is hard, but it’s also rewarding. It feels good to focus and make improvements to your life, to have a goal and a plan.
Challenge the status quo. To do the hard things, you have to be okay with taking risks and failing. Under duress, concentrate on what you can control and ignore the rest. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
Prepare for the unlikely. Space travel is a high-stakes endeavor, and after the accidents the U.S. has had, NASA’s philosophy is to look for and anticipate anything that could go wrong, and to be prepared to handle it.
To be a good leader, you have to be a good follower. By working with people from different cultures, different skillsets, and different leadership styles, Kelly learned that “sometimes the people you’re trying to lead know more about the thing you’re trying to do than you do.”
Relative to the universe, the earth is small. We should take care of it. From a distance, Kelly described the earth’s atmosphere as a “tiny film” around the planet. It was evident where the rainforest had been decimated, and it was easy to see areas of deep pollution, where the sky is no longer blue.
“We’re all teammates on spaceship earth.” That’s a direct quote. The space station was built in outer space while orbiting around the earth. That’s amazing, and it’s the result of international partnerships with many countries, sometimes putting together parts in space that never touched each other back on land. If we can do this, Kelly said, we can do anything.
Over the course of his career, Kelly spent more than 500 days of his life on the space station. After this year-long mission, it was time to return home and, unlike the U.S. shuttles, which re-enter the earth’s atmosphere slowly and gently, the Russian shuttle takes a more dramatic approach. Parts of it blow off, Kelly said. His line of vision was taken over by an orange glow as he hit the earth’s atmosphere. The sun felt like it was right outside.
“It’s kind of like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but on fire,” he explained, but “once you realize you’re not going to die, it’s the most fun you’ve ever had.” The parachute opens and the shuttle swings wildly until it hits land. Then, it’s very quiet. When the door opens, “it feels like the freshest air you’ve ever breathed in your entire life. It was almost like I’d never breathed air before.”
“It’s kind of like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but on fire. Once you realize you’re not going to die, it’s the most fun you’ve ever had.” - Captain Scott Kelly
A year in space wreaks some havoc on the body. Kelly admitted that it didn’t feel great to get out of the spaceship. He had hives for weeks because his skin was so sensitive, and he felt like he had the flu. His legs would swell and it was difficult to stand on feet that hadn’t been used in a year. In all, it took about six months to recover. But that first 24 hours found him with his family, having pie and a beer, a shower and a soft bed, and the satisfaction that he’d just accomplished, officially, the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life.
Original illustration by Violeta Noy.