Captain Scott Kelly held up two tiles from the 2007 Endeavor shuttle to Cornellians, a souvenir from his decades-long career in space that highlighted the lessons he learned aboard.
The tiles — which protected the outside of the 172,000 pound spacecraft from thousands of degrees of heat during reentry of the Earth — were found faulty by the astronauts aboard during a routine check. And while the minor chips on the tiles caused no further damage, this discovery was a test of faith for the astronaut.
“Failures are a part of life,” Kelly said in the Q&A session hosted by the Cornell University Program Board. “They help us see what we’re really, really capable of doing.”
Kelly underscored the importance of compartmentalizing his thoughts and emotions during his various space exploration missions.
“Know what you have control over and focus on that and avoid anything else,” Kelly said. The lesson was particularly important during launches, as the shuttle would reach speeds of 17,500 miles per hour in under nine minutes.
Before becoming an astronaut, Kelly served as an aviator for the Navy, where he learned aircraft flight and landing skills that prepared him for his work at NASA. He has completed more than 250 landings on aircraft carriers to date.
Kelly’s career as an astronaut began with the 1999 Hubble mission, which was followed by his Endeavour mission in 2007. Kelly also traveled to the International Space Station on multiple expeditions.
In 2012, Kelly was chosen to be part of the year-long mission to the International Space Station. The Soyuz TMA-16M launched in 2015, with Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko aboard — a mission that studied how prolonged time in space affects the human body.
Kelly spoke about pacing himself during the year-long space mission on the International Space Station and following a schedule that structured weekends differently than weekdays. When he returned to Earth, Kelly underwent various tests administered by NASA to gauge how his body had changed.
The results of the trip became part of NASA’s Twins Study, in which researchers compared the differences between Kelly and his twin Mark, who was also an astronaut but did not take part in the year-long mission in space. One surprising discovery resulting from the study was that telomeres, the caps of human chromosomes, grow longer in space.
But Kelly’s many missions also took a toll on his physical health. Returning to Earth after a year in space, Kelly said his ankles swelled when he stood up after sitting, and got hives and rashes when his skin grazed against anything.
While research underlying the causes of the rashes is preliminary, longer space missions are helping biologists understand the function of skin barrier and its role in fluid retention that reflect the common sensitivities astronauts experience when they return to Earth.
Regardless of the sacrifices, Kelly advocates for the importance and the relevance of space exploration.
“It’s who we are … We’re explorers,” Kelly said. “We develop technologies that we wouldn’t otherwise have when we try to do really challenging things.”