Astronaut Scott Kelly visits UW for an evening talk

Retired astronaut Scott Kelly visited the University Temple/United Methodist Church lon the University of Washington Seattle campus this past Nov. 16. He is currently on a tour promoting the release of his memoir, titled “Endurance.” You might recognize Kelly from the stunning photos of planet Earth taken from space — and shared frequently on social network sites. In fact, he was aboard the International Space Station for nearly a whole year. This historic undertaking gave Kelly the record for longest space mission by an American astronaut. Naturally, this provides him with an abundance of material to write about. After all, who doesn’t want to know the goal of the mission, its long-term purposes and what it means for humanity?

The University Temple was packed with people eager to spend “An Evening with Scott Kelly,” as the event was titled. Autographed copies of “Endurance” were given to those who had purchased a ticket beforehand. I grabbed mine, and rushed to the front row, where chairs were reserved for UW Bookstore’s “Pack Rewards” members. Soon after 7:00 p.m., Kelly made his entrance, inciting a loud applause from the crowd. An introductory video — which sadly lagged due to technical difficulties — played from a projector. The fascinating conversation followed.

Kelly looks like the type of person who gives serious, straight-to-the-point and cold responses when talking. In reality, he sprinkles a lot of personality and humor into his talks, making it enjoyable to hear what he says. He began the event by narrating the prologue of his book, jokingly remarking that this is so people don’t have to get the audio version. This part of the memoir talks about an incident that occurred soon after he returned from space. He was having dinner with his family — something he sorely missed after being away for so long — but was tired. He followed the advice to go rest. After waking up and feeling a sensation of discomfort in his legs, he went to the bathroom, only to discover they looked like “swollen and alien stumps.” Kelly was then taken to the doctor. This cliff-hanger makes the reader want to turn page after page and see what other weird effects lack of gravity might have had on him.

I’ve read a few other books by astronauts. It’s very clear that — for most of them — dreams of this career arise early in their lives, sometimes during childhood. This forces them to follow an incredibly arduous path of training, academic excellence and professional experience. Kelly — at least early on — was an outlier to this trend. He admits with honesty that he was an awful student. His grades were terrible, he didn’t pay attention to instructors and he spent more time looking outside the window than focusing on a task. This continued into his college years, until he casually picked up a copy of a book titled “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe. Little did he know that book would change his life, permanently flipping a switch inside his head. “Endurance” details the steps Kelly took to align himself with this newly found goal — becoming an astronaut. This included joining the United States Navy and becoming a military fighter pilot.

Kelly’s mission aboard the ISS is of tremendous significance, as data collected from it will help determine the future of space exploration. One of the goals is to understand the changes the human body experiences in the absence of gravity for long periods of time. Many astronauts suffer bone mass degradation, loss of muscle mass and negative effects on vision upon returning to Earth. To top it all off, being in space exposes astronauts to radiation levels equivalent to 10 chest X-rays per day. Kelly jokes he will be a guinea pig for the rest of his life, as his monitoring data will be compared to that of his identical twin brother Mark — also a retired astronaut. The information collected from several experiments will play a huge role for the planned missions to Mars. After all, it would be pointless venturing there if people arrive weak and sick.

Near the end of the discussion, Kelly touched an important point regarding the “rivalry” between the United States and Russia. The ISS project is a collaboration from space agencies all over the world. To him, this is an advantage, as it brings different perspectives, philosophies and ways to solve problems. Though, his relationship with fellow cosmonauts isn’t negatively affected at all. He believes the bonds developed with people — whom your life might depend on — are stronger and transcend any sort of political tension. Mikhail Kornienko, Kelly’s Russian partner in the year-long mission told him the following, which provoked laughter from the crowd.

“If our two countries want to solve our conflicts, all we have to do is send their two presidents to space.”

Kelly concluded the evening with an uplifting message. He believes we are “in the cusp of a revolution” when it comes to flying people into space at lower costs. Although he is unsure if humanity will reach Mars in his lifetime, it is not a wild idea anymore. This is a costly endeavor, so he encouraged the audience to do their part by electing leaders “that are more science-minded people.” Kelly also threw a jab at the global warming non-believers, as he finds shocking how people like politicians can say that’s not an issue when they don’t have a science background. Finally, he went back to the idea behind the ISS. A project of this magnitude is proof of what humanity can achieve — and it can be used as inspiration on who we want to become.

“An Evening with Scott Kelly” was a great opportunity to learn more about this decorated astronaut. Many of the points he talked about in the event are discussed in detail in his memoir, “Endurance.” I’ve been reading the book for a month, and I’d strongly suggest it to anybody. Learning about an astronaut journey to become one is a great source of motivation. These people have done many seemingly impossible things during their lifetimes. But like all of us, they’re only human, which makes us think of what we can also accomplish.

PHOTO BY DIEGO MEZA

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