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It’s ‘rocket science’: Astronaut Scott Kelly on how to combat COVID-19 (+podcast)

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly speaks during a press conference in Houston on Friday, March 4, 2016.
Pat Sullivan, Associated Press

The following is a transcript from the latest episode of “Therefore, What?” It has been edited for clarity.

Boyd Matheson: The coronavirus pandemic has challenged global leaders and individual citizens on many levels. Focus, resilience, endurance and leadership are traits critical to survive and thrive in the midst of uncertainty.

Astronaut Scott Kelly shares his strategies for navigating the extreme challenges of long-term spaceflight, isolation from loved ones, the pressure of high-risk situations and the mental toughness to take on challenges beyond your control. Gravity-defying wisdom grounded in earthly insight for our times all on this episode of “Therefore, What?”

We’re very pleased to have Scott Kelly join us. Scott is a former military fighter pilot, test pilot, engineer, retired astronaut and retired U.S. Navy captain. A veteran of four spaceflights, he commanded the International Space Station on three expeditions and was a member of the yearlong mission to the International Space Station, as well. In October of 2015, he set the record for the total accumulated number of days spent in space, the single-longest space mission by an American astronaut. Scott, thanks so much for joining us on “Therefore, What?” today.

Scott Kelly: My pleasure.

BM: Obviously, we’re going to start with this very interesting time that we live in with the coronavirus and a lot of challenges there — if there was one lesson from space that you learned that could help our listeners today, what would it be?

SK: You know, I think it’s important to have the right perspective on this. And that is that, this is our mission, all of us, to be a part of this very challenging battle against this virus. And there are things that we need to do collectively that will help us get through this as quickly and safely as possible. I think it’s important for us to have that perspective that this is a challenge for all of us.

Don’t try to count the days, either. People are hoping this is going to be over, you know, today. I don’t think it is. And I think it’s important to just kind of take this day by day and not think about when this might be over. But it will be over someday. And you know, hopefully at that time, we can look back and think and know and believe that we all made the right decisions for what was best for not only us as individuals, but our species.

BM: One of the things that you have written about in your book, “Endurance,” is a lot of the lessons that you took from space. What are some of the key traits that that you learned in terms of endurance?

SK: I named my book, “Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery.” I use that word endurance for a few reasons. One, and the original reason, was that this was a long mission, the longest by an American, and when you’re doing something that’s long and hard and challenging, it takes some endurance.

The other reason was I am a big fan of Ernest Shackleton. And for those that aren’t aware, he was an Antarctic explorer that has just an incredible story of survival and perseverance and leadership in the early part of the last century in Antarctica, where his ship, Endurance, got crushed in the ice and the crew lived for over a year on the iceberg and then made this harrowing journey to a small island, St. George’s Island in the South Atlantic Ocean.

It took over two years and no one died. So, you know, I always look to him for inspiration in my situation. I always felt like, hey, if things went south on the space station and it got so bad I started feeling sorry for myself, I would just pick up a few pages of his book that I took with me in space twice and read it. So that was the second reason.

The third reason was, after I wrote my book I realized my life has kind of been a mission of a guy with a lot of endurance and never giving up, because I started out in kind of a bad spot as a bad student, and eventually was able to find some inspiration and overcame that and went on to fly in space for a year or so.

Now, you know, I think my story has a bunch of lessons there in this idea of never giving up and perseverance and endurance.

Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA disembarks at Ellington Field, Thursday, March 3, 2016 in Houston, Texas, after his return to Earth.
AP

BM: It’s such a vital skill and trait for our time and in so many different things, whether it’s in work, whether it’s in family relationships, community, nationally and internationally, it definitely is a critical trait.

I wanted to ask you in particular, space travel is not low risk or for the faint of heart. And what is it that enabled you to have the kind of confidence you needed to execute? If you’re hesitating, if you’re vacillating, I would assume you’re gonna make some bad choices in space. Tell me about the mental preparation there to have that level of confidence to be able to execute.

SK: Well, I think confidence is about preparation and knowing what your job is, having all the information that you need to execute your job. You always have to balance that with with the fear you have in a situation. I understand that this situation can be terrifying for people. I mean, it’s easy for me to say, you know, keep a schedule, don’t count the days, this and that. But I understand people are losing everything they own. They have no money for food or rent. So it’s a scary time.

But I’ve always found in my life’s career flying airplanes, being a test pilot, carrier, aviator astronaut, that there are things that you can be scared about. But if you focus on the stuff you have control over and ignore the stuff you have no control over, then that helps alleviate some of that fear. And I think in this situation, there are things that people can control and things that they can’t. I know it might be hard, but try to focus on the stuff you have control over, and maybe that’ll make you feel a little bit better.

BM: When you’re on the space station you’re incredibly isolated, but you’re also in really close quarters with a few folks.

SK: You know, it’s a bigger place than I think people might imagine. It’s like a really, really big house. But also you can use all the volume because you’re floating. So any space over your head that you don’t use in your house is useful volume. At least on my yearlong flight I never felt like the walls were closing in on me. I did actually on my six-month flight when I was getting to the last third of it, I felt a little bit more irritability, fatigue, the walls closing in a bit. And I think it’s just because I went into that yearlong mission with a different mindset and perspective, a plan on how to get to the end with as much energy as I had in the beginning.

But you know, the space station is pretty comfortable. When I say comfortable, as far as the size is concerned. There’s other reasons that it’s not comfortable, you know, having to do with microgravity and fluid shift to your head and the amount of carbon dioxide. But from a space perspective, it wasn’t that bad.

BM: You mentioned the differences between your six months up there versus the year. You talked about how you were a little more irritable, a little more of that anxiousness in the six-month flight. What what was it that you learned, or what was it that you did different going into that second yearlong mission from the first?

SK: Well, it was a bunch of things. Part of my mission was to be there for a long time. So I recognized and I wanted to when I looked back on that experience know that I did the best job I could. It was my responsibility to be there for a long time. And I think there are parallels here and that this is a mission for all of us to follow the guidance, to do what the right thing is not just for us as individuals or families but also society as a whole. I understand it’s hard to balance those.

Having said that, though, I came into it also with a plan. I wasn’t going to count down the days. I think it’s important in this situation. If you ask me how many weeks I’ve been in quarantine, I couldn’t tell you. And it’s because I don’t look at it that way. I look at what I’m doing tomorrow. I look at what I’m doing on the weekends. I have a schedule during the week. It’s a much different schedule than on the weekends. The weekday schedule is taking care of myself, taking care of our living environment, doing work, if you’re lucky enough to work. But you need to balance that as well because you’re basically living in your office now.

But take time for exercise, time to get outside. Exercise is very important to our mental health. It’s important to our immune systems. Take time to connect with friends and family. That was important for me in space; it made me feel like I wasn’t so far away. Hobbies, something that’s a complete distraction from the the daily routine is important for me. On the space station I read, I wrote. I think journaling can be a very cathartic process, especially if you have no one to share your feelings with. You might be isolated by yourself. Writing them down as a way to, you know, at least admit to yourself that this is challenging and help you think through how you’re going to deal with it.

BM: I do think taking that time to just put pen to paper and write some things down can really be an important part of that process.

SK: You might write something amazing that you can use later and write a book and maybe contribute it to something else. If you don’t do anything with it, at least you have a good souvenir from what will arguably be one of the most historic events of our lifetime.

BM: As you’re heading out into space, and while you’re in space, you’re very dependent on a whole host of people doing their jobs with excellence. Trust has got to be a big factor in terms of all the people back on the ground. Tell me Little bit about that experience. What did you learn about trust through this process?

SK: You have to trust people to do the right thing, to do their jobs, to be good teammates. If we were all just doing what’s right for us, it’s not going to work. And so I was lucky enough to work for an organization, NASA, that was professional, that was thoughtful, that was always prepared. Because what we were doing was so, so complicated. You have to be able to trust your leaders to make informed decisions, not decisions based on emotion and politics. So I think we need to consider that. We need to consider who our leaders are, for one, and then have people that will make their choices and their decisions that affect their lives in a profound way based on science and fact.

BM: During your yearlong mission, what surprised you the most? What did you learn in that process that was a little surprising to you?

SK: One thing I’ve learned in all the time I’ve spent on the space station is that it’s just a remarkable piece of engineering and human triumph, that you could build this million-pound structure in space while flying at 17,500 miles an hour in a vacuum and in extremes of temperatures plus or minus 270 degrees built by an international partnership of 15 different countries with different languages, different cultures. That’s the hardest thing I think we’ve ever done — harder than going to the moon. And if we can do that, build the space station, go to the moon — we can do anything if we put our minds to it and work together and approach problems with logic and science and do it in a very thoughtful way. We can do amazing things.

In this Oct. 8, 2010 file photo, U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly, a crew member of the mission to the International Space Station, left, accompanied by his brother, Mark Kelly, also an astronaut and husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, right, walk to the rocket ahead of the launch of the Soyuz-FG rocket at the Russian-leased cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
Associated Press

BM: As you look at the future for space, for NASA in particular, what do you see as the next frontier? Do we have another moon shot in us? Do we have a Mars shot in us? What do you hope for for the future of space travel?

SK: Oh, of course we do someday, right. And my brother, Mark, who is also an astronaut. I’ll quote him, steal his quote. He says going to Mars is not it’s not about rocket science, it’s about political science. It’s about having a will, the political support and the money to do it. We have some challenges, some technical challenges, but really our biggest challenge is the desire by the part of our government.

I think I find generally the public support is there, but it often doesn’t translate into voting for your elected representatives that have similar feelings. So it’s going to come down to us wanting to do it someday and then being able to afford it. After this COVID-19 pandemic, money will certainly be scarcer, harder to come by. But I still hope that spaceflight is a priority because I think everything that we put into it we get back more at a higher rate of return on investment.

BM: It is always a leadership issue. We always say whether you’re asking for $1 or $1 billion, it’s still a leadership issue in the end — someone who can parlay that vision and get people to buy in and go for it.

What’s the “Therefore, What?” for you? What do you hope people think different? What do you hope they do different after listening today?

SK: This issue is becoming very political, right? And it shouldn’t be. It’s about science. And one thing I’ve learned at my 20 years at NASA is that everything we did was not rocket science. But some of it was rocket science. And when it is, you need to get your information from a rocket scientist, not a politician, not your Facebook friends, not some media source that isn’t trusted. We need to go to trusted sources for information and advice, follow that advice and we will get through this quicker.

I do, having said that, understand that everyone’s situation is different. It’s easy for me to say that because I’m not worrying about how we’re going to pay for food tomorrow. But this is a science problem. This is not a political problem, and we need to follow the science and make our decisions based on rocket science.