To be weightless is to fall, constantly. In 1965, when Soviet cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov exited his spacecraft and became the first human to ‘walk’ in space, he was falling. Right now, as the International Space Station and the humans on board orbit the earth at 17,500 mph, they’re falling. The trick is to fall with speed, to never stop moving.
Former astronaut and ISS commander, Capt. Scott Kelly has spent more time falling than any other American in history. Kelly has devoted over 500 days to the weightlessness of space, 340 of those days in one mission. He’s never stopped moving.
On the night of February 18, UNA welcomed Capt. Kelly on to the campus to be the next distinguished guest in the university’s continuing series. Originally planned to be held in the off-campus Mane Room, the event’s reservations quickly filled up, forcing the university to move the event to Flowers Hall. At the night of the event, over 500 people showed up to listen and be inspired by the powerful story of Kelly’s journey to his year in space.
Since returning to Earth after concluding his 340 days in space in 2016, Kelly has been traveling the world telling his story. Kelly says his goal for the event is for it to be an overall encouragement for those listening.
“[A year on the space station] was hard, it was long, it was challenging and it was one of the most rewarding things I ever done in my life,” Kelly said. “The theme of my speech…it’s about doing the hard, challenging things, not the stuff that’s easier.”
Years before ever dreaming of becoming an astronaut or even a captain in the Navy, young Kelly was a struggling student. Not just in college or with his financial standing, he struggled with his grades in elementary and high school. There was weight that challenged him to learn. At the time, what others saw as just a failing student, Kelly now assumes was some sort of learning disability like ADHD or ADD.
There was a shift in that weight when Kelly picked up a book in college called The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. It’s a book that’s changed lives, it changed Kelly’s life. Stumbling upon it accidently on a trip to the college bookstore that was originally only for a pack of gum, the book caught Kelly’s eye with its patriotic coloring and bold, catchy title. It’s about those few, legendary men who would go on to make up the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts.
For Kelly, the similarities between himself and those in the book were striking, apart from the grades. Kelly knew if he could change just that one thing, he could go on to get his wings as a pilot and maybe even go on to be an astronaut. It was a stretch, but he knew if he was going to fail at something, he’d rather it be something worth failing.
“You know, the people that have zero chance of ever flying in space and being an astronaut are people who don’t apply,” Kelly said. “If there’s something you want to do, you can absolutely guarantee you’re not going to do it if you don’t try.”
As Kelly talked about his life, the crowd was engaged. There were moments of awe, motivating wisdom and hysterical laughter. The show included pictures and videos throughout key moments in the speech, with one image of the earth from orbit catching everyone’s eye. A delicate slither of the earth showed showered in sunlight, contrasting the darkness of the rest of the surface. It was a sunrise like no one had ever seen before. This image alone seemed to highlight the reward of Kelly’s life.
Kelly has always faced a weight, from failing in school to failing his first F-14 Tomcat flight later before becoming a pilot. There’s always been an inflicting force. He didn’t escape it by traveling 250 miles above the earth either. The success of Kelly’s life is seemingly connected to those failures, the times he’s fallen and his embrace of those falls is what makes him weightless today. He’s stayed on his toes.
“We evolved to live in gravity,” Kelly said. “When you take that away, you have some extra forces and things going on that you didn’t evolve to compensate for.”
Capt. Scott Kelly isn’t your normal American celebrity. If you meet him, you can expect a firm-handshake, a humble listening and a genuine laugh. But the attribute Kelly should be most known for is his endurance. It’s what made him weightless.
As Capt. Kelly finished his speech and the university crowd began to rise to their feet in standing ovation, a picture of the earth from the ISS shone bright on the screen, Elton John’s “Rocket Man”