History-making retired astronaut Captain Scott Kelly talked about what it's like to be on top of a space shuttle as the spacecraft is getting ready to depart. "There's a countdown clock heading to zero, and that's when you start to think, 'Boy, this is a really dumb thing I'm doing,'" Kelly told the audience at University of Houston's commencement ceremony on Saturday night. He went on to explain why he went to outer space and why he ultimately spent almost a year there.
A rain storm swept into town a few hours before the ceremony was slated to start and forced school officials to move the commencement into Hofheinz Pavilion, across the street from TDECU Stadium. About an hour after the ceremony was scheduled to begin, UH graduates filed into Hofheinz Pavilion to the traditional wail of Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance," then settled into folding chairs lined up on the pavilion floor on Saturday evening just as the sun began to set on the ceremony. During the commencement, 9,705 students (the sum of the summer and fall graduates from 2015 and the spring graduates from 2016) were awarded degrees, and about 600 students attended the actual ceremony, the second UH has held.
But before all that formality, Kelly, the guy who just spent nearly a year in space aboard the International Space Station, took the audience away from terra firma to examine what life was like and what he learned during his time floating in micro-gravity 250 miles above the Earth.
You probably already know about Kelly because of his amazing Twitter feed, or the Instagram posts or his Pinterest. Back in January 2015, President Obama told Kelly to make sure he Instagrammed his time in space, and Kelly followed orders. His incredible shots showing the world his view out the windows of the ISS garnered tons of attention and more than 1 million followers on Twitter alone. He became the "year in space" guy, and his social media sharing offered people a fascinating peek into what life was like on the ISS.
"I come in peace," Kelly said, getting a laugh from the audience right off. "Let's get something right out of the way: I'm not Matthew McConaughey. I won't take off my jacket or unbutton my shirt, and I won't talk for 45 minutes," he continued, referring to last year's commencement speaker.
Kelly mentioned the view from space during his speech, describing what it was like to see his first sunrise from the space station, but his focus was on the joy of doing really difficult, challenging tasks, of pushing yourself and doing your best. "It's really nice of y'all to invite me here to speak hoping that I might have something meaningful to say, because I barely made it to college," he said, directing his comments to the students in caps and gowns on the floor in front of him.
He went on to explain that he also barely made it to flight school and wasn't a good pilot in the beginning, noting that his twin brother always says that it's not how good you are at the start that counts, but how good at it you become. "You can start out a bad pilot and end up flying rocket ships to outer space," Kelly said.
Now retired, Kelly became an astronaut in 1996 and during his time with NASA, he traveled more than 150 million miles in space, clocking about 143 million of those miles on his last tour of duty aboard the ISS. His "year in space" mission was designed to give scientists and doctors a better idea of what happens to the human body when it is in orbit for a long period of time, in this case 340 days. He orbited the planet 5,440 times over the course of his stay, circling Earth every 90 minutes, witnessing 16 sunrises and sunsets each day, logging more than 640 miles on the treadmill, conducting about 400 scientific experiments and completing three spacewalks before he touched Earth again.
Space travel is hard on people. The body slowly begins to break down from the effects of too little gravity and too much radiation. Some of the effects are pretty obvious — bones thin, muscles atrophy and the heart even shrinks because in a micro-gravity setting, it no longer has to work as hard to pump blood to the legs. By the time Kelly completed his stint on the space station, his body had stretched itself so that he was more than an inch taller, his heart was enlarged, he was having vision problems and the skin on the soles of his feet was as soft as a newborn baby's.
The studies conducted on Kelly are designed to fill in the blanks about what will happen to the bodies of the first people who travel to Mars. His vitals were closely monitored and he collected samples of his blood, urine and feces to track how his body handled space. Kelly's being selected as the "year in space" guy meant that he also brought something extra to the table — NASA researchers collected the same data on his twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, which helped them to keep an even sharper eye on what happened to Kelly as he orbited Earth.
Kelly was very clear on why he spent almost a year in space. It was to discover something, to be a part of the teamwork that will be required to eventually get astronauts to Mars. "I did it to push the boundaries, to see how space acts on the body and mind," he said, noting that it took thousands of people working together to keep him in space and it will take thousands more to eventually get astronauts to Mars. "This wasn't my mission; it was our country's mission and our country's achievement," Kelly said. "None of us can succeed without the help of others."
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The experience gave him a different perspective on the world. Kelly talked about what it was like to be so close to Earth that he could look out the window of the ISS and watch it pass. He described seeing the planet hanging there in the void, and noticing the changes, the places where the atmosphere was thinner, where pollution was obscuring any view of the land below it.
He urged the audience to think about the Earth and to take care of the planet and of each other, encouraging them to vote, to get involved in their communities, in the local politics, to engage at any and every level they can. "You just need to do what you can to make things in your community and our planet a little bit better," he said.
He closed the speech by talking about the space station, observing that the fact that people from so many different countries came together and built it shows that nothing is impossible. "This is the hardest thing we have ever done. If we can do this, we can do anything. We can go to Mars," he said. "If we dream it, we can achieve it."
Kelly ended the speech there, coming in at about 20 minutes, just about half the time that McConaughey spoke.