"Space is our future," says astronaut Scott Kelly. And he would know; he spent 340 consecutive days at the International Space Station in 2015 and 2016. His book, "Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery," will bring him to Seattle's McCaw Hall May 23.

Share story

There aren’t a lot of people who dream so big, they end up leaving the planet. Astronaut Scott Kelly is one of them.

“I was a kid who couldn’t pay attention or do his homework and found some inspiration in ‘The Right Stuff,'” he said of the 1983 film about the inner lives of a group of astronauts, based on the 1979 book by the recently departed Tom Wolfe.

“I believed in it, believed I could be one of those guys,” said Kelly, who will speak at  Seattle’s McCaw Hall on Wednesday, May 23. “It helped me focus and forced me to be a better student. I think my story is a pretty good example of someone who wasn’t a good study or didn’t have the ability to do what he did.”

Kelly and his twin brother, Mark — also an astronaut, and married to former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona — were the sons of two New Jersey police officers who didn’t conjure any sort of magic to make their sons what they are.

“They encouraged us,” Kelly said, “but they also subscribed to this term I heard recently, this ‘free-range parenting.’ That kind of was the case with me and my brother.”

So free-range that the brothers, now 54, both found their way to NASA, and part of a record-setting mission that compared the genetic effects of spaceflight.

Scott Kelly spent 340 consecutive days at the International Space Station in 2015 and 2016. During that time, he completed 5,440 orbits around the Earth and conducted three spacewalks before returning home in March 2016.

Back on earth, Mark Kelly served as the “ground control subject” for research into how the human body reacts and adapts to the environment of space.

NASA found that seven percent of Scott Kelly’s genes changed their expression during the mission — and were still altered after six months back on Earth.

He also came back two inches taller.

“I stretched a little bit,” Kelly said. “I think that basically happens in the absence of gravity; your spine elongates. I was back to my normal height 30 seconds after I got back.”

There were other physical struggles once Kelly returned to Earth: Stiff joints, fatigue, swelling in his legs. Rashes and hives on his skin and flu-like symptoms.

“My feet hurt, my neck hurt, my back hurt,” he said.

He retired from NASA not long after, wrote a book called “Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery” and started speaking all over the country.

His McCaw Hall talk is titled “The Sky is Not the Limit,” and promises to “bring you to the edge of your seats with transcendent insights that inspire and challenge you to dream big, test the status quo and ‘choose to do the hard things.’ “

“My messaging is doing stuff that challenges you, why that’s important and how you can do it,” he said. “And I have an inspiring finish to the story where I hope people can start the next day a little more energized.”

What seems to be gaining energy — and money — is the ever-intensifying race for space.

In the 2018 budget, for example, President Trump asked for more than $800 million in funding for NASA moon missions.

“It’s not enough for what they’re proposing,” Kelly said of the expenditure. “On one hand, I appreciate the administration’s interest in going back to the moon or Mars. But it doesn’t sound like a real program because of the commitment.

“I think it’s a little bit of a fantasy.”

It’s harder to say that about venture capitalists, whose overall investment in space startups reached a record $2.8 billion in 2017. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk are making plans to send tourists into space, colonize Mars and — in the case of Tokyo-based startup ispace — land rover vehicles on the moon by 2020.

(“What’s going to happen next is a kind of land grab,”  ispace C.E.O. Takeshi Hakamada told Bloomberg. “It’s going to be first-come, first-served.”)

“They’re dreamers,” Kelly said. “But they put their money where their mouths are.”

And yet, no matter how many millions some invest, there are international treaties that prevent any kind of “land grab,” Kelly said. “You can’t put a flag on the moon and say you won it.”

Still, he said, “Space is our future. Jeff Bezos is a brilliant guy. If he says that storing stuff in space will save the Earth, I believe him. I wish the government and the taxpayers had more money that followed the enthusiasm for what we do. I also understand that our country has competing priorities.”

Kelly may be retired from NASA, but made it clear: “I’m not retired from life.”

His book has been optioned by Sony Pictures, and he is writing the screenplay. He serves on a couple of boards. And next month, he will marry his fiancée, Amiko Kauderer.

Things continue to look up — something Kelly does every day; reflecting on the time he spent as a former free-range kid, now a man, floating in the night sky.

“I think about the experience, the people, the work,” he said. “How I lived in space for a year. It seemed something like science fiction. It was a privilege to be able to do that.”

But he also thinks a lot about the view of the Earth from space.

“I think about how beautiful it is, and the atmosphere,” he said. “Most people would be more environmentally conscious if they could see what I did.

“We have a great planet down there,” Kelly continued. “We need to take care of it but we also need to be better to each other. Our species has the capacity to do incredible things, but there are still kids washing up on the beach from the Mediterranean while we have a space station in the sky.

“That kind of stuff is not lost on the people who fly in space. At least, not this person.”