Astronaut Scott Kelly: Testing Limits in Life and in Spaceflight

If you have a plan, a good team, work hard and are willing to change, you can accomplish any goal. That was the message astronaut Scott Kelly delivered March 5 to a full Loeb Playhouse.

Kelly, who spent 520 days in space on four missions, presented “What IF the sky is not the limit?” as part of Purdue University’s Ideas Festival, the centerpiece of the University’s Giant Leaps Sesquicentennial Campaign. Kelly spoke to the festival’s theme Giant Leaps in Space. The event was sponsored by the Purdue Honors College and Purdue Polytechnic Institute.


Discovering He Had ‘The Right Stuff’

Kelly, a 20-year NASA veteran, related his somewhat unlikely career as an astronaut.

Astronaut Captain Scott KellyA self-described “bad student,” he graduated from high school in the bottom half of his class. He went to college but didn’t feel he was on the right track — and eventually quit going to class. But one day at the college bookstore, he randomly bought a copy of “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction account of the first 15 years of America’s space program and the Mercury astronauts. It inspired him.

“I went into the bookstore to buy gum. But I noticed this book, and I used my gum money to purchase it, and then I spent days in my dorm room reading it. I felt like I had some things in common with those astronauts, despite being a bad student.

“Now, when an 18-year-old student reads a book and decides to become an astronaut — that is a giant leap,” he said with a smile. The appreciative audience laughed and applauded, and Kelly deadpanned: “But I decided that I would work really hard at it.”


Journeying into Space

Work hard Kelly did. He changed his attitude and eventually earned an electrical engineering degree from the State University of New York Maritime College. He joined the Navy, became a pilot, then a test pilot. Eventually, he applied to NASA and was accepted into the astronaut program.

Kelly’s first trip in space was as the pilot on the Space Shuttle Discovery mission in 1999 to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, and in 2007 he was the commander of a mission to the International Space Station. In March 2015, he and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko were launched into space for a yearlong mission, returning in March 2016.

“Why did we spend a year in space? Because we might want to someday go to Mars,” Kelly said. “It takes a long time to get to Mars, and once you get there you have to wait over 500 days to come back. It’s not easy to live in space. You lose muscle and bone mass, and you get a lot of radiation. So that’s why we did it.”


Testing Physical Limits

The year in space took quite a physical toll on Kelly. After he returned to Earth, his genes were compared with those of his twin brother, Mark, an astronaut who had stayed on Earth. While Scott’s DNA did not change, the tests showed a 7 percent change in Scott’s gene expression, which remains today.

“I felt pretty bad at first,” Kelly said. “I could barely stand up, and when I did, I could feel all the blood rush out of my head, and my ankles swelled up like water balloons. I had hives and rashes on my skin whenever I touched anything. My skin had not touched anything with any kind of pressure in a long time.

“I was nauseous, dizzy, and I was very tired because I lost a lot of blood volume. You get it back,  but it takes several months to regain the red blood cells that you lose.”

Amanda Rudolph, a first-year graduate student in the planetary science PhD program at Purdue, was surprised to hear this.

“I’d never heard anything about how space affects the gut and the brain. Hearing an astronaut’s perspective was great ­­­­­— ­­­and very interesting,” said Rudolph, who also attended a panel discussion on Mars, in which Kelly participated, earlier in the day.


Travel to Mars

Kelly believes that one day there should be a manned spaceflight to Mars.

“I’m a big believer in travel to Mars, but I don’t think humans will ever live on Mars,” he said. “Sometimes people say, ‘how about that nearest Earth-like planet. Why don’t we go there?’ “ he said. “The closest one, if we go as fast as we possibly can, would take 80,000 years to get there. The crew that left would be a different species than the one that arrived.”

Joking aside, Briony Horgan, assistant professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences at Purdue and a scientist on NASA’s Curiosity and 2020 Mars rover missions, agrees that going to Mars will not be easy.

“One of the things you have to understand about Mars is it’s very far away,” said Horgan, who participated in the panel discussion with Kelly and also attended his talk at Loeb. “It will take 235 days, more than six months, to get there. Once you get there, you have to wait 516 days before you go back to Earth. So, it will be over 900 total days in space to get to Mars and return to Earth.

“Mars is very cold because it has a very thin atmosphere. It’s much smaller than Earth and it’s losing its atmosphere into space. I think it will be a while before humans can live on Mars.”


The sky is not the limit

Kelly said we can still learn much and benefit greatly from space travel.

“The space station is the hardest thing that we’ve done. It was built by an international coalition of 15 countries,” he said. “Most of the work putting it together was done in space suits. And the environment in the space station is very challenging. If we can do the space station, we can do anything.

“Whether it’s a challenge in our lives or a challenge to our country, I firmly believe that if we build a team, have a plan and work hard, the sky is not the limit.”

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