The mysteries of space have captivated the human race for centuries, prompting us to learn and explore. Since Yuri Gagarin reached orbit in 1961, more than 600 people ventured beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. One of them is Captain Scott Kelly, who Wisconsin Union Leadership Distinguished Lecture Series (WUD-DLS) welcomed to campus on Tuesday.
Kelly has logged an impressive 520 spaceflight days with NASA – the fourth longest of any US astronaut. Three hundred and forty of these days were passed consecutively during his year in spacea joint venture between NASA and the Russian space program (Roscosmos) that sent Kelly and her “Russian brother from another mother” – cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko – to the International Space Station together for nearly a year.
Kelly described the shift in perspective that comes with being in space, saying he saw “that we’re all together on this planet without political borders – you don’t see them from space. And you understand that big problems require cooperation.
The view of the world that changes after going to space is commonly referred to as the “big picture effect” and it’s something that many astronauts, including Kelly himselfhave discussed.
Scientifically, Kelly’s year in space provided a unique opportunity to study the effects of long-term space travel on the human body – he has an identical twin, Mark, who is also a former astronaut. This opened the door to the NASA landmark twin studymeasuring the physical and psychological changes Scott experiences and using Mark as a kind of control.
The brothers are genetically nearly identical, which made it easy for NASA to observe changes in Kelly’s genome over time. The study reported changes in gene expression and the length of telomeres, which are the ends of chromosomes that tend to get shorter with age. NASA predicted that telomeres would shorten faster in space, but results showed they lengthen.
“My first reaction was ‘This is really weird,'” Kelly told the Daily Cardinal. “We found out later that it was due to the radiation [exposure].”
Many beneficial discoveries regarding human health and genetics came out of the study, and Kelly stressed that for our future, spaceflight and the research that goes with it are worth the investment.
“I think we’re getting to the point where hopefully we’ll see some really exciting developments in genetics,” Kelly said. “But are we going to cure cancer with spaceflight? Probably not. Will we have other things, [like] scientific discoveries? Yes.”
Kelly considered it “a privilege to be able to fly in space, especially when you’re doing it at taxpayers’ expense.” He expressed his belief that “with this privilege comes an obligation to talk about it”. Following this principle, Kelly shares his experience during public speaking engagements across the country, connecting the lessons he learned in space to people’s daily lives.
The former astronaut explained how he applied for the program with NASA completely on a whim, as he was focusing on a career as a Navy pilot at the time. To her surprise, Kelly was accepted into the same class as her brother, making them the first parents to both be selected at NASA. He then began to work for three years to understand the complicated and sophisticated machinery that is a NASA spacecraft.
“I had this idea that taking risks, being willing to make mistakes and sometimes being willing to fail, is what separates truly successful people,” Kelly said in her speech.
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He described the difficult risks and failures in school and with the Navy that preceded his remarkable accomplishments with NASA. Kelly pointed out how he had gone from “the kid who couldn’t do his homework” to “preparing to fly into space for the first time as the first person in [my] class of 35 other people.
Kelly attributed his successes to his years of hard work and the many risks he took knowing he might fail, as well as the interpersonal skills he felt were crucial for living with others in space. He encouraged his audience to adopt the same mindset in their own lives.
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