Capt. Scott Kelly headlined the Richmond Forum's first lecture of its 33rd season, talking about his time in space as an astronaut on the International Space Station to a sold-out crowd at the Altria Theater on Nov. 17.
Kelly began his presentation with a quip about wishing a good evening to all of the non-alien audience-members, which set the tone for his lighthearted remarks throughout the event.
A retired U.S. Navy captain, Kelly had a lot to speak about. In addition to breaking the record for the longest time spent in space by an American astronaut, Kelly also participated in NASA’s “Twins Study.”
Kelly started his lecture with the proclamation that he was “a very bad student in school" and that his parents, both police officers, had been the largest influences in his life. His mom was the first female cop in their town, and the determination she showed to tackle that seemingly impossible goal made a lasting mark on Kelly’s worldview, he said.
Kelly spoke about his probable ADD diagnosis that hindered his focus throughout his academic career – he even explained that he applied to, was accepted at, and attended the University of Maryland’s Baltimore County campus, all while thinking he was enrolled at its flagship College Park location.
Kelly said he had come across a copy of "The Right Stuff" by Tom Wolfe as a college freshman. The book detailed the journey of young men from naval test pilots to astronauts and inspired Kelly to follow that path, he said. Once he became a test pilot, he began the application to be considered to be an astronaut just two days before the deadline. He said he had filled it out anyway, because he would rather try to achieve something impossible, knowing he might fail, than not try at all.
Once accepted to be an astronaut, almost 18 years to the day after he read "The Right Stuff" at age 18, Kelly had much success with NASA. He traveled into space on six separate missions. Beginning as the only first-timer on his first mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, Kelly served as mission commander on his next flight to repair the ISS.
Kelly spoke in detail about his record-breaking 340 days in space, especially regarding his partner in his journey, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. During their stay, they collected their own blood, urine and saliva samples as well as a slew of other information about their physical and mental well-being, especially tracking their sleep and radiation exposure. The goal of the mission, he explained, was to test the effect of long-term space travel on the human body, mind and preparation of resources.
The results of the research on their travel will prove invaluable as NASA and other space programs look to visit Mars, Kelly said. Kelly estimated that it would take around seven months to reach the Red Planet, which is at an average 140 million miles from Earth. He mentioned that nothing in space could be done without teamwork and diversity of opinion, background and experience. Kelly said he thought everyone should be able to see the Earth from such a view to truly understand humanity, work together and learn how to take care of the planet.
The event concluded with a conversation to address audience questions that spanned from Kelly's religious and spiritual experiences in space, to deliberations of the benefits of travel to Mars, to the more controversial topics of Elon Musk’s SpaceX program as well as President Trump’s Space Force proposal.
Kelly’s remarks in this portion of the programming took a more personal turn, as he spoke about the vulnerability, responsibility and loneliness one feels in space. He was also adamant that, as much as he had hoped to, he had not seen any signs of alien life, joking that all of the aliens had been placed in Area 52 after Area 51’s cover was blown.
When asked what the most difficult challenge he had faced in space was, he responded that being away from his family and Earth itself had been far more trying than any immediate problem that had arisen, especially when his sister-in-law, politician Gabby Giffords, had been critically wounded in January 2011. Referring to a more recent space trip, he also told an amusing story of his daughter calling under the guise of an emergency to reach him because she was lonely.
Kelly gave his final thoughts about his change in career, commenting that his next goal was to “see a lot of the world up close,” after gazing at it from space, as he “wanders around with [his wife] to see what’s going on.”
After the event, Kelly said a few words to The Collegian.
“Work hard and never stop dreaming," he said. "You will be most successful when doing what you love.”
Junior Robbie Kent was invited to attend the event on behalf of the University of Richmond.
“After reading Scott Kelly’s book, 'Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery,' I was prepared to hear him speak of his immense accomplishments, but I could never be prepared for his otherworldly public speaking skills," Kent said. "He spoke with such unwavering confidence -- it was truly inspirational to see first-hand. It was an amazing night.”
Contact senior news writer Isabella Dumitrescu at firstname.lastname@example.org.