One would think a year in space would prepare Scott Kelly for anything. The veteran astronaut may not have been prepared for what Mother Nature had in store for his speech during the 2016 University-wide commencement ceremony.
In the hours leading up to the event, the skies opened up and unleashed a barrage of showers on Houston and the ceremony’s site, TDECU Stadium. It looked like the event might be washed out, leaving graduates without hearing from Kelly. Fortunately, graduates, friends and families were directed to the neighboring Hofheinz Pavilion to celebrate their academic accomplishments and to gain insights from Kelly. Credit UH’s events staff for coordinating a quick transition plan and saving the ceremony.
The swift set up of chairs and stage in the pavilion was no doubt inspiring to everyone in attendance, and so was Kelly who shared details of his own successes and failures as a pilot and astronaut. He also offered graduates some down-to-earth advice.
“One of the things I missed the most during my year in space was the rain,” he told the audience. “I remember thinking, ‘God, let it rain a lot when I get back to Houston.’ So for you graduates here, this is my first piece of advice for you. Be careful what you wish for.”
During his presentation, Kelly revealed that his earliest flying experiences in the Navy were less than successful. At times, he felt that his career was over. Still, he took note of his failures, implemented corrections, persisted and ultimately succeeded.
“What I’m trying to tell you is that if you’re not making mistakes and doing the hard things, you’re not testing the limits of your capabilities,” he said. “You’re not discovering your full potential. Whenever you do something hard, there will be setbacks. You need to use these setbacks as lessons for the future. So, make mistakes—just not the ones that are going to get you killed.”
Kelly’s early failures definitely helped him succeed in his careers with the Navy and NASA. As an astronaut, Kelly logged 520 days in space during missions on the International Space Station and on Space Shuttles Endeavor and Discovery. Of course, the bulk of this time was spent on a yearlong mission alongside Mikhail Kornienko to help scientists understand the impact of space on the human body.
Kelly resides in the Houston area but was raised in New Jersey with his identical twin brother and fellow astronaut Mark Kelly. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from State University of New York Maritime College and a master’s in aviation systems from the University of Tennessee.
UH Magazine had the privilege of chatting with Kelly before his commencement presentation to learn about the things his missed most during his year in space and whether he has a Kirk or Spock personality.
You’re a hero to future space explorers. Who were some of your heroes?
Certainly I was aware of the space program, and I knew who the early astronauts were. I’d have to include those in the group. I also became a big fan of explorer Ernest Shackleton (who led Antarctic expeditions) and that mission of endurance and how those guys were able to survive in that environment—and not lose anyone—and make it to safety in that area in which they were stranded in Antarctica. I read his book twice while in space.
When you were in space, what was the one thing you couldn’t wait to do back here on Earth?
Stand in the rain. (Laughing) Now, I regret that.
During the yearlong mission, was there ever a point where you thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”
There is definitely a period where you start thinking, “Man, I’m going to be here another 10 months! That’s a long time.” So, absolutely. There were points toward the end of the mission where I felt that I lived my whole life up there. A year is a really long time. When you think about what was going on a year ago, Donald Trump wasn’t a presidential candidate. That wasn’t even a topic that was mentioned. So, a year is a long time no matter where you are.
What advice do you have for those who aspire to become astronauts or be involved with space exploration?
I’d say there are many ways to contribute and not only as an astronaut. Working for NASA, the government or in the private sector can connect people to the future of space travel. It’s very exciting and rewarding—but also challenging. I would encourage them to pursue their dreams and be determined. If a door is shut, just keep trying and working to achieve their goals.
You have an identical twin brother who also is an astronaut. If you’re both on the Enterprise, who’s Captain Kirk and who’s Mister Spock?
I think we’d both be fighting to be Captain Kirk. Neither one of us would be Spock. We’re not that type of personality. Or, maybe one of us would be Scotty and the other would be Captain Kirk. We could flip a coin. (Laughing)
You recently retired. What will you miss most about your career as an astronaut?
I think the flying in space stuff is one of the obvious things. Maybe the not so obvious thing is the camaraderie with the people at the Johnson Space Center and not just the other astronauts. There’s a large team of instructors, flight controllers and engineers that make this thing that is hard to believe work. Being part of that team is what I’m going to miss more than flying in space, because those opportunities don’t come very often.
How does space travel compare with navigating the fourth largest city in the U.S.?
Well, navigating I-45 south of the Beltway is the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life. I hope someday it will be fixed. Actually, that was a joke. (Laughing)