Astronaut Scott Kelly gets down to earth
Spending a year in space changes your perspective, in more ways than one.
Captain Scott Kelly made history when he spent nearly a full year on the International Space Station, the longest flight ever by an American. And while human space flight is not the national priority it used to be, the cool factor is as high as ever. Social media now gives Earth-bound space lovers a window into astronaut life, and if Kelly’s 1.1 million Instagram followers are any indication, it’s a fascinating glimpse.
When the National Retail Federation booked Captain Kelly to speak at Retail’s BIG Show, it wasn’t because the astronaut has a direct tie to the retail industry, but because his perspective is completely unique and valuable.
Astronauts like Kelly remain aspirational figures, representing the pinnacle of what can be accomplished with lots of hard work and cooperation.
There are plenty of lessons Kelly can teach business leaders, like how to tackle what seem like insurmountable challenges, solve problems creatively and put in the hard work to achieve a big goal. Prior to Captain Kelly’s keynote at Retail’s BIG Show in January, we invited Medium readers to submit questions for him, asking: If you could ask an astronaut anything, what would it be? Thanks to Nancy Baldwin, Robert Barronton and Noel Gilles for submitting ideas. We used them to guide our questions, and the result was a great conversation.
In what ways did your year in space change you?
There’s physical aspects — bone mass, muscle mass, changes in vision. But you get to experience what the Earth’s atmosphere looks like over a long period of time, so it makes you more sympathetic to the plight of our environment. From my first flight to my last, you could see the pollution and how fragile our atmosphere is. You also understand that every person on Earth is below us while you’re in orbit. It seems like most of the news that you hear about on Earth is bad news, and we hear that in space. It’s somewhat troubling to think about all the bad stuff that goes on down here. When you’re looking at the planet, you just think that we’re so lucky to have this place and you want to take care of it.
Tell us about an unexpected experience you had during your mission.
I didn’t expect that a year was so long.
How does being in an international environment for a year change your perspective on the world?
The international environment is one of the greatest things about the space station. It’s an international program that allows us to cooperate on something that’s very, very difficult and come together as friends rather than foes. It’s one of the great privileges of my life that I’ve gotten to become friends with the cosmonauts and other foreign astronauts that I’ve worked so closely with.
What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about being an astronaut?
That you fly in space a lot. A lot of people think that’s all it’s about, but that’s a very small part of your job. Most of the time is spent training, supporting other people that are in space and doing public outreach. Some people may be an astronaut for 10 years and fly one week-long space flight. Obviously, my experience is much different.
How did the rise of social media change your experience in space from your first trip to your last?
On my first trip there was no such thing, and on my last, there was Donald Trump. So it’s changed significantly! It allows you to interact with the public and the people who pay for and support the space program. It’s entertaining, and I felt like it was an important responsibility for me. It’s also just enjoyable to see the feedback that people give you.
Did you ever shop online from space?
I did. I bought airline tickets for my kids, and flowers. I also bought my girlfriend a selfie stick so she could take pictures and send them to me.
What did you miss most about being on Earth? And what did you like best about working in space?
People, going outside, the weather. Freedom of choice. The best part is the work because it’s challenging. And certainly, the view and floating around is great, but mostly I love the challenge of it all.
What are the biggest obstacles to the future of human space travel?
Money. I understand there are competing priorities, so it’s understandable. But doing hard things like this is really expensive, and flying in space is hard. So if we want to have a robust space program, we need to adequately fund it and support it. That’s the biggest obstacle.