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340 Days Spent 250 Miles Above Earth: Astronaut Scott Kelly Shares Lessons at Chicago Humanities Festival

Image thanks to Scott Kelly

When former astronaut Captain Scott Kelly took his first flying test for the U.S. Navy, he nearly crashed when he landed. His instructor asked, “are you sure this is a career for you?”

Kelly spoke with host Peter Sagal of NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me” at Francis W. Parker School for Chicago Humanities Festival’s “Fall Fest” lecture series this past Wednesday, and he’s nothing if not humble. “I’m a below-average guy with an above-average job,” he reminded us more than once as he spoke about his experiences in orbit and his new book, Endurance.

Kelly is a veteran of four space flights, which includes commanding the International Space Station (ISS) three times. He served on the ISS for a year during his mission in 2015, his last before he retired. That’s 340 days spent 250 miles above the earth.

Though that record has since been broken, his record for total accumulated number of days spent in space by an America astronaut, 520, remains unsurpassed. He admitted the astronaut title can be intimidating, but he said became an astronaut by taking “smaller, manageable steps” after finding inspiration in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff that he bought instead of bubble gum one fated day at the convenience store.

But what does spending all that time in cosmic radiation have to do with the humanities? Peering at our blue and green planet put Kelly “more in touch with our humanity.” Though he admitted being a data-driven, science-focused thinker — “that’s just how my brain is wired,” he said — Kelly’s time in the ISS prompted him to think about life, death, the universe, and humanity’s potential to work together on Earth.

His time spent in space wasn’t without its close brushes with death. Or, more specifically, close brushes with space debris and Russian satellites flying near the station at more than 15,000 miles per hour. But as he worked in space suits outside the station with other astronauts who came to ISS from all across the world, Kelly is convinced humans can achieve anything —from curing cancer to addressing climate change.

He made several obvious jabs at the current government, but his unchallenging jokes aside, he charmed the audience, and Sagal was a sober interviewer who was quick to quip. Fall Fest is ending but you can find more information on Chicago Humanities Festival here, and you can find Kelly’s book here.

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