In 1974 a boy ten years of age sank into his classroom desk, unable to concentrate or absorb his teacher’s words. He was a rebellious dreamer who felt at home when he was flying down hills on a bike or launching off of roofs, but was otherwise lost, defeated by the enigma of the academic world.
The tides changed a decade later when Scott Kelly — only barely accepted into college — picked up a book, The Right Stuff, at a campus bookstore. The first few sentences detailing the gruesome death of a test pilot, hooked him. The electrifying path he craved and sought throughout his life went from a distant mirage to a palpable career in an instant.
“I remember thinking years ago, that if someone was holding a gun to my head, I wouldn’t have been able to pay attention in school, and what I tell people is that all kids are different and they can all be good students; you just have to find the thing that motivates them,” he tells me as we sit down in his Houston home. “I read that book and was like, ‘I think I could do this, maybe if I could just become a better student.’ “ Kelly learned to look at grades in school as targets. “If your mindset is to get 200% on a test and you fall 100% short, you’re still getting an A, so I tried to learn everything and know it well, rather than just a 90%-100% goal which is a smaller target of 10%.”
Purpose had found him, followed by years of meticulous studying that led him to an engineering degree, the cockpit as a military fighter pilot, test pilot and orbiter of the earth at 17,500mph — commander of the space shuttle and performing EVAs (spacewalks).
But it wasn’t until 2015 when Kelly would endure the greatest test of all as the first American to spend the most consecutive days (nearly a year) aboard the ISS (International Space Station), explained in his book, Endurance. For that mission, he would in part, serve as the test subject for the physical effects of longterm spaceflight as his twin brother, fellow astronaut, Mark Kelly, remained on earth as the control. Roundtrip, a Mars journey would take 3–4 years and if presented with the opportunity, the former commander says without pause that he would go to the red planet, under one condition: “As long as I could come back,” he asserts. “I’m not a big fan of this Mars, like, one way trip.”
While the former commander says a human takeover of Mars is ‘on the realm of science fiction,’ the crucial need to consider habitable options for us was cemented after he heard a talk by Amazon’s, Jeff Bezos. “He was talking about population increase and energy requirements and at some point the whole world has to be covered in solar panels or you have to stop population growth, and if you don’t continue to grow, you don’t continue to exist, so we need somewhere to grow into,” he recalls.
Should we go to Mars now? Kelly says it’s a matter of resources and ascertaining the physical risks. If the cost is $100B-$150B, ‘it’s a lot to ask of the American people’ — he adds that a privatized route supported by SpaceX cofounder, Elon Musk, could be feasible. Radiation exposure is a concern as well, as the danger could be as high as 10% chance of a fatal cancer on Mars (his currently sits at 1%).
In the beginning of Endurance, the author takes the reader through his running list of newly discovered aches and pains in the early days following his landing, including rashes and fluid pooling in his legs, the beginning of an eight-month recovery period that went in stages; the first month the most painful.
The potential cellular and genetic developments though, garnered the most attention and debate, and Kelly sets the record straight about the swirling misinformation on 7% of his genes not returning to normal.
“I’m not a big fan of the term, ‘fake news,’ but if there was any news about me that would fit into that category, it would be that,” he says with a sarcastic grin. “If my genes changed that completely, I’d be a recess monkey because they’re 93% the same as us.” He adds, “What some reporter kind of failed to explain properly was the gene expression — imagine my genetics as one orchestra and my brother’s as another, and the people and instruments as 99.9% the same; the difference with my gene expression is 7% of that, so now the orchestra is playing a little bit different tune, and some went back to normal, some did not.”
According to NASA’s report, Kelly’s telomeres — compound structures that protect the ends of chromosomes and decrease in length with age — significantly increased in average length (potentially due to his rigorous exercise regimen and restricted caloric intake), stating his post-flight measurements showed that his telomeres shortened in length within about 48 hours of landing, then stabilized to nearly preflight levels.
And about his cellular changes, suggesting increased mitochondrial stress? “Yeah, I heard something about that,” he replies, unconcerned. “That’s getting down into the weeds and I don’t lose sleep over it.”
The astronaut turned keynote speaker who now rules the podium seventy times per year, received a tweet from President Obama during his ISS mission but was immediately trolled just afterward by Apollo 11 mission commander, Buzz Aldrin, who wrote, ‘Mr. President, he’s only in low earth orbit. I went all the way to the moon.’ We joked about their banter but quickly realized that their membership to the numbered and exclusive space travelers club wasn’t their only common ground; their adjustment to civilian life is deeply similar.
“I was on this thirty-year straight line trajectory toward flying something and I went from something that was always technically complicated and demanding to a role that’s much different than anything I’ve done,” he admits, adding, “The implications of not being good at my job now is not the same — much different, much less rewarding, much less meaningful.” Kelly concludes, “I can absolutely see where Buzz (who also expressed in the past, his internal struggles post-moon landing) was coming from — or anyone who has done anything meaningful and worked with a great group of people, and one day it’s done.”
I ask Kelly how he wants to be remembered. He glances downward, fiddles with the centerpiece on the table, squirms in his chair and replies, “As a below average guy who did a slightly above average job.”
“Really?” I ask.
“I’d want to be remembered as this kid who couldn’t do his homework, found inspiration from a book and was able to achieve some pretty remarkable things.”