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“Coming back down is like going down Niagara Falls in a barrel…if it were on fire,” Captain Scott Kelly of NASA said of the last leg of his historic mission to the International Space Station.
During his lecture at Trinity University Thursday evening titled “The Sky is Not the Limit – Lessons from a Year in Space,” Kelly mixed laugh-out-loud humor with broad personal insight derived from his unique experience.
The packed crowd at Trinity’s Laurie Auditorium, filled with students and San Antonio residents, was clearly starstruck. Kelly is impressive even by astronaut standards. His last NASA mission made him the U.S. astronaut with the most continuous time ever spent in space. The reasoning behind the extreme duration of his mission was to gather research on the long-term effects of micro-gravity on the human body, all in preparation for an eventual trip to Mars.
His fourth and final trip to the International Space Station lasted a remarkable 340 days. That’s 10,880 sunsets, 143 million miles, and more than 400 individual experiments.
Kelly led his talk with stories of his youth as a bad student from New Jersey, who had so little focus that he applied to the wrong college, but then decided to attend anyway. He performed poorly in college, but discovered stories about the military pilots who became Project Mercury astronauts. Inspired by their achievements, he improved his grades, joined the ROTC, then the U.S. Navy, and ultimately NASA.
Kelly said that without a specific goal, he never would have accomplished anything.
“When I was a kid, you could have put a gun to my head and told me to study, and I still wouldn’t have done anything until I found my own reason to learn and work,” he said.
There was little technical discussion as Kelly chose to focus on his emotional experience during his tenure as an astronaut and the general life lessons he derived from his successes and failures.
He recalled that during his first launch, on the mission that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope, the first sunrise cresting over the surface of the Earth was “like the most brilliant painting of all time. I knew right there and then that it was the most beautiful thing I would ever see.”
As a result of that mission, which gave the most powerful telescope ever built a clear picture of the cosmos, scientists were able to detect and estimate a more accurate count of the total number of stars. They discovered that there are more stars in the observable universe than grains of sand on every beach and desert on Earth.
The wonder in Kelly’s voice at that discovery and his role in it were clear.
He recounted his laughter after getting trolled online by legendary Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. President Barack Obama tweeted at Kelly, asking if he ever got “freaked out” when he looked out the window. Kelly responded, saying that he only freaked out when the president tweeted at him.
Aldrin, unimpressed, tweeted that Kelly’s achievements seemed easy compared to going to the moon.
— Buzz Aldrin (@TheRealBuzz) August 2, 2015
Additionally, Kelly recounted his fear during a near miss with a satellite on an unavoidable trajectory less than a mile away from the station. He clearly remembered his Russian companions’ nonchalance, happily eating lunch, content with the odds as he scampered to close hatches in the event of a partial collision.
Kelly briefly mentioned his sadness and worry when he heard his sister-in-law U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who is married to his astronaut twin brother Mark, was shot in an attempted assassination.
He said several times that he experienced an enhanced feeling of responsibility as he looked at the “thin and vulnerable film of atmosphere” surrounding the Earth and added that he thinks of the environment more often now. One day, when China shut down several of its largest power plants, he recalled being able to see several cities for the first time because of the reduced smog.
“It proved to me how quickly we can clean the planet up – if we really try.”
The key to progress based on Kelly’s experience, he said, consists of four things. From watching his mother apply to the police force to his own achievements in space, he said the first step is setting specific goals. Then, incremental goals are necessary to make constant progress. Next, calculated risks are necessary to find the limits of your ability. Finally, Kelly said to never accept the status quo.
“The thing I learned that sticks with me is that if we can build and operate the international space station, we can do anything,” Kelly said. “If we want to go to Mars, we can do that. We can cure cancer. We can solve any problem on Earth.
“If we choose to take risks and make mistakes, if we choose to do the hard things,” he said, “then the sky is definitely not the limit.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Gabrielle Giffords is senator. She is a member of the U.S. House of Representative.
Top image: NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly shared his story with the Trinity community about his year in space. Photo courtesy of Trinity University.