Scott Kelly is a retired NASA astronaut who has been to space four times, including a 340-day trip on the International Space Station. He is the author of the book "Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery"
Kelly spoke with Business Insider about his experience in space and shares lessons he learned that also apply to the isolation many are struggling with during the coronavirus pandemic. He also shares his thoughts on the future of space travel. Following is a transcript of the video.
Sara Silverstein: Before we get your tips, as a lot of us are dealing with being cooped up in our own homes after many, many weeks, I don't want to try to compare the two. So let's give a little bit of perspective and how much space did you have while you were living in space, and what limitations did you have as far as diet and water?
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly enjoys his first drink from the new ISSpresso machine aboard the International Space Station on May 3, 2016. NASA/Reuters Scott Kelly: Well, space-wise I actually had more space on the space station than I do in my apartment here in Houston. It's a big place. Now, having said that, it's filled with a lot of stuff, but you have more usable room when you can float above your head, use the space towards the ceiling. But there are a lot of similarities between this situation, being isolated, kind of being cut off a little bit from society, as what I experienced on the International Space Station. And one of them is the fact that we are all part of the same mission now. One thing that makes getting through your time in space easier is recognizing that you're there for a reason, an important reason, a purpose. And that's the same case in this situation. We are following the guidance, the guidelines as best. At least we should be doing that, because that's our job and it's our responsibility not only to ourselves, but to our family, but also to every other citizen of this planet.
Silverstein: And so talk us through some of the tricks you learned to pass the time while you were stuck in the space station.
Kelly: Yeah. So I flew a six month flight, nearly six months, before I flew for a year. And when I did that, as I was getting towards the end, I was feeling a little bit of anxiety, like the walls were closing and I was ready for it to be done. And then when I got home, I had the opportunity to fly in space again, but this time for twice as long. Initially it didn't appeal to me, but I thought about it some more. I wanted to find space again. I wanted it to be different and I wanted it to be more challenging. And I came to the conclusion that this was the flight for me. But I went into it with a lot of thought and consideration for how I could get to the end with as much energy and enthusiasm as I had in the beginning.
So I came up with a plan. And part of my plan was maintaining a very, very rigid, rigid schedule. Easy to do when you're working for NASA and they build your schedule, but taking that very seriously as a schedule that has a variety of activities on it during the week, from work to taking care of your environment, making sure it's clean. We have to do that now. In this situation, I kind of treat the front door of my house kind of like an airlock right now where the bad stuff stays outside, good stuff comes inside. Those two will not cross. So having this schedule that has time for rest, time for work, consistent sleep times, exercise. In this case, in this situation at least we can go outside and get some light and some fresh air, which is important. Couldn't do that in space. But the schedule was important. Having a weekend that's different from the weekends was critical because it gave something for me to look forward to at the end of the week.
I tried not to count the days I was there. I definitely didn't count down. And I think it's important we do that in this situation because this situation is ... Some people think this is over, this is not over. We will be living in this new reality in some form or the other for quite some time. So I look at this like this is my life. This is what I have to do because it's my job, which is following the guidance and the direction that we get. It will be over someday. Not sure when it is, but I am not going to count the days. I could not tell you how many weeks I've been doing this. I can't even tell you what month I started this, I don't think, because it's not the way I look at it, it's not the way I want to look at it.
Silverstein: And how do you differentiate the weekends from the weekdays in space?
Kelly: Well, in space, one of the days you devote to cleaning the place in space, virus and bacteria grow easily. You put your hands on a lot of things, your immune system is suppressed very much like this situation. When you're in isolation, anxiety, fatigue suppresses your immune system. Same thing in space. So on the weekends we clean all house and then we leave Sunday for just rest. So yeah, our weekend days are structured much differently. Now, I understand, I get it. Everyone's not in the same situation. I have advice and some people this advice is not important to because they're worried about when they're going to be able to get some money to feed their kids. I get it. So these are just the things that worked for me. And maybe some people could take some of this advice and have it help them through the situation. But I absolutely recognize that everyone's situation is different.
Silverstein: Absolutely. And you've mentioned before journaling was something that you did regularly while you were in space. Did that help you get through the time?
Kelly: Well, I did that mostly because I felt like I might want to write a book after it and I wanted the experience and the thoughts and ideas to be fresh. So I decided to write them in my free time on the space station. But I also found that it was kind of a cathartic thing. When you're dealing with a challenging situation, especially if you have no one to talk to about it, it's important, I think to admit that it's hard and you write that down. By writing it down, I think you're admitting to yourself that this is challenging because this is, this is a very challenging situation. And I'm sure a lot of people are scared, whether it's getting the virus or how am I going to pay my bills, what's going on with my job? If you have a job, will I lose my job? I mean, this is scary stuff. Understandable. Flying in space was scary. There were scary things about it.
What I've learned flying in space four times is the fear sometimes allows you to focus, but if you dwell on it, it will prevent you from making the right decision and doing the right thing. So I always to kind of tamp down the fear, I would focus on the things that I could control, which was the spacecraft, my job, what I was doing, ignoring the stuff I had no control over. Like is the thing going to Is the rocket going to blow up for no reason that I had any ability to prevent it from happening? So same situation here. I mean, there's stuff we can control and stuff we can't, knowing what that is.
I think also one thing NASA was good at was always thinking about what is the next worst possible failure? And I think people need to be considering that. What actions do I take if one of my family members get sick, who do I call? What do I do? If I lose my job if I can't pay my rent, where can I get relief? I mean, even if you don't need it, you need to be thinking about, well what if I do need it next week or the week after, so you're prepared.
Silverstein: And you were there for the entire time with your Russian counterpart, Mikhail, and it sounds like you two have a pretty good friendship. Did you ever have disagreements while you were out there together, and how did you deal with that?
Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko spent 340 days at the International Space Station together. NASA Kelly: Yeah, so over the course of the year I was there, Mikhail and I were there for the whole time, and we had 13 other people come and go. I have never had an argument with Mikhail ever about anything.
He is just like one of the nicest guys in the world. I can't see him getting into an argument with anybody. I have had disagreements with people in space and a lot of times those disagreements can be avoided if you bring up issues early. I think in this situation, we're living in maybe close quarters and just spending a long time in the same place with people that you generally don't spend that much time in a single place with. There can be opportunities for conflict, and one thing they teach us at NASA and that I've always practiced myself as much as I could is if there are things that are bothering you with your crew members or if something that I'm doing is bothering other people, you'll need to recognize it's better to talk about it early rather than it to develop into a bigger issue.
My wife was telling me, I guess the other day she kind of got a little bit frustrated with what I do with the dishes and I think I do the dishes. I certainly put them in the sink, I put them in the dishwasher sometimes, I take them out sometimes. But what I wasn't doing was following the approved system, which was her system, which is actually a really good system. The only thing is she never told me what the system was. So I did it a different way and it turns out it bothered her. But at least eventually she explained to me what it was. And I was like, "If I would've known that 10 years ago, it wouldn't have bothered you for the last 10 years because I would've just did it how you did it." Because it makes sense to me. It's just, it was never explained to me.
So I think it's important that people share their thoughts and feelings, understand we're all different. We all have different skills in this kind of situation. Help each other out. I always found that on the space station, the facility you're living in is a shared space. So you're all kind of responsible for keeping it clean and so I always felt like if I just did a tiny bit more than was expected of me, and if everyone always just did a little bit more of what's expected from them, that made everything run very smoothly. You don't want someone doing all the cleaning and the other person sitting on the couch, that's not good for anybody. Even the person sitting on a couch because it's not going to last. It'll create conflict. So I think always trying to contribute just a little bit more than you think you should is a good approach.
Silverstein: Well, I think that's very relatable to a lot of us right now. And I have to say, I'm listening to your book right now, "Endurance." And one of the things that struck me about it was that you were not a very good student early in your life and you became an astronaut. And right now it seems like a time that school is being rethought. Is there a way to make school more either rewarding or appealing to people like you that will one day turn out to be overachievers but are not recognized by the traditional school system?
Kelly: Yeah. So for me it was impossible to pay attention. I always had the best intentions to do well. The start of the school year, I'm like, "Okay, this is the year I'm going to get straight As." And three days into it, already three days behind on homework, wasn't able to pay attention in class, game over. Try again next year. And I was always smart enough that I could get by Cs without doing anything, without even paying attention in class. Or maybe it was just easier then. I think if I was in school today, I probably would have flunked out, but it seems harder now. But what I found was for me it was impossible to pay attention until I found something that I wanted to do so badly that I had to force myself to become a good student.
That was inspiration I had, I found in Tom Wolfe's book, "The Right Stuff." Inspired me to be a fighter pilot, a test pilot, and even an astronaut. And I guess my point is all kids are different. They all need inspiration and they learn in different ways. So I think it's kind of ... There's some good that can come out of this and, and one good thing maybe recognizing that education is going to look different and it could look different in a way that makes it better. And I don't know what that is. If it's going to school a few days for the social interaction, and then doing it at home online. Maybe that's good for some kids, maybe not for others, but trying to have it evolve, and cater to all different types of learners, because kids learn in different ways.
Silverstein: And what do you think about the commercialization of space travel? Do you think that it's a positive, it will get us further faster? And do you still think that astronauts should be overseen or regulated by the government?
Kelly: No, I think it was a positive thing. I think it's great when you have companies that are investing their own money in something that I feel is very important and, and strongly about. Yeah, I think it's a great thing. We need to do it with the appropriate amount of attention to detail and safety. There will be significant risk in the beginning, but as we get more experienced with it, it will become safer. Kind of like commercial aviation was in the early days of aviation. It was expensive and it was risky and that's what what space flight is going to be. But yeah, I'm all behind any commercial space flight. I think it's great. Flying in space is one of the greatest things I've ever done in my life and I wish everyone had the opportunity to do it. I'm not selfish. Let everyone go to space.
Silverstein: I would love to go to space. When do you think we'll get to Mars? Can you give me an estimate?
Former NASA astronauts Mark Kelly (left) and Scott Kelly (right) speak during the 2017 Breakthrough Prize at NASA Ames Research Center on December 4, 2016 in Mountain View, California. Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images Kelly: I've never been able to give that estimate. We can go to Mars. I'll quote my brother, give him a bone here, but he always He's got a good quote and he says, "Going to Mars is not rocket science. It's political science."
We have the technology to do that. We have to learn some other things a little bit. How to take care and protect the crew from radiation as an example, but it's more of an issue of investment and a desire, investment, money available. Before this pandemic and the resulting economic impacts we've had, I'd probably, if you would have pushed me on it, I probably could have given you a number that is probably not the same number I would give to you today.
But I still think it's important. I think we will one day get there. I hope I see it in my lifetime. I think it's going to be a great adventure for not only the people that are involved, but for the people that are watching on their couch. And I hope there's some kid out there today, probably not watching this show, but probably alive and wondering what they're going to do in their life, having no idea that it's going to be walking on Mars someday, and that's going to be a great moment.
Silverstein: And one of our viewers wants to know, do you think it's a good idea to have a space station on the moon?
Kelly: Yeah. The moon is an incredible place. It seems like it was built there just for us to experiment on. And I would love to see a lunar base, but again, I think it's a priority that would ... A financial investment that would be in competition with going to Mars. So we have to just make some tough choices. And if building a base on the moon would take away from being able to go to Mars someday, maybe it's not worth it. I don't know. It's a hard decision and I think a lot of people have to put a lot ... A lot of people that are smarter than me have to look into this and decide what the best thing to do is.
Silverstein: And I saw that Tom Cruise is planning to shoot a movie in the International Space Station. What do you think about that?
Kelly: I think Tom Cruise is a great actor. I've probably watched most of, if not all of his movies, and I'd watch that movie.
Silverstein: And before I let you go, I need to know, just based on the way that you write about your life and this quest for risk, what is the next adventure for your life?
Kelly: Hey, though about Tom cruise though, right? So I think what he really needs to realize is this is not a movie. I'm sure he realizes that. And it is really, I mean the highway to the danger zone because launching on a rocket is pretty risky. They sometimes blow up and kill people. So as long as everyone understands that, that that might happen, then I think it'll be great. It'll be interesting to see how he films a movie without his normal crew of probably 100.
Kelly: But what was your last question?
Silverstein: And what is the next adventure for you?
Kelly: Right now I'm just navigating my way through this new reality. My primary job was as a motivational public speaker, so I would travel around the country and the world talking in person to large groups of people in small rooms. And that is going to happen again, I'm just not sure when. So I've been doing a lot of stuff like this. One thing we're really excited about is we're building a house and we're moving to Colorado. So building a house is normally ... I'm not building it with a hammer, I've got a contractor. And that's normally a tough job, but it's even tougher now because of this pandemic. So we're spending a lot of time doing that. And then once this whole situation is past us, and I think hopefully we can look back on it and it's going to be not a whole lot of good that's going to come out of it, but maybe we can look back on it and we learned some things and we're better for those things that we've learned. I'll find some other exciting things to do with my life.
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