A veteran of four space flights, Scott Kelly made history as the first American astronaut to complete a record-breaking year-long mission aboard the International Space Station. He has traveled 200 million miles in space and orbited Earth 8,300 times. He even managed to grow a garden while aboard the International Space Station.
In a wide-ranging conversation with GBH News’ Jared Bowen, Kelly described how being in outer space literally changed how he looked at the Earth. “When you’re able to look at the Earth from space, you understand just how fragile the environment is. Our atmosphere looks like a film over the surface, almost like a contact lens over somebody’s eyes, that’s how fragile it looks.”
Kelly noticed the fragility in other ways, such as seeing the progression of environmental destruction.
“You’d see the rainforests in South America. I noticed over the course of my time in space, you know, every time I flew, it seemed to get worse and worse, you know, more cleared fields, more burning fields. You see parts of the planet that are always, almost always covered in pollution, parts in Asia and Central America.”
Kelly did observe that not all environmental hazards are visible from outer space. “The United States is one of the biggest polluters in the world, but it’s the type of pollution you can’t see. It’s not particulate where it would obscure the ground.”
While Kelly saw the toll that modern human life is taking on Earth, he also saw the human condition in a new way, “You also see the planet with no political borders like we’re used to seeing on a map, so it makes you think, ‘Hey, we’re all in this thing together called humanity.’ We got challenges around the world.”
Space travel also influenced Kelly’s travels on Earth. He described how the beauty of Earth from outer space compelled him to experience these vibrant patches of the globe in person. “There are some places that really, really catch your eye from space. The Bahamas is such an expansive area of blue. It is just incredibly beautiful. I’ve been there a few times since I’ve been back.” Kelly added that parts of New Zeland that he saw from outer space along with the colorful lakes north of the Himalayas are places he’s also finally visited.
Not all of Kelly’s earthbound travelling is inspired by what he saw from outer space. It was actually those geographical and political borders that he couldn’t see from afar that compelled him to take a humanitarian mission to Ukraine.
Kelly, who has some Ukranian-American family members, said he’s been an advocate for Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion last year. “I feel like the war in Ukraine is not only a threat to Ukrainian sovereignty, but also a threat to just the idea of liberty and democracy, freedom around the world.”
Last fall Kelly met with President Zelenskyy, who tapped Kelly to be the ambassador of Ukraine’s fundraising platform, UNITED24. “The Ukrainian people are some of the most resilient people I’ve seen. It seems to me like the more Russia attacks them, just the harder they’re going to push back.”
Kelly, who retired from NASA in 2016, still wears the NASA pin. Bowen asked if this was Kelly’s way of signaling that he is ready to answer the call of a space mission at a moment’s notice.
“I’d go back in space if I could. Not forever. I wouldn’t do the one-way mission to Mars. Not interested”.