Out of this World

As pioneers of space exploration, twin brothers Mark and Scott Kelly have learned a great deal about overcoming challenges—both in space and on their home planet.

By Roshan McArthur

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In 2016, astronaut Scott Kelly described launching into space on board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft as being like “going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but while you’re on fire. When you realize it’s not going to kill you, it’s the most fun you’ve ever had.”

And he should know. Kelly has been on four space missions, most famously in March 2015 when he took off for a roughly yearlong stay on the International Space Station (ISS).

During those 340 days, he orbited Earth 5,440 times at 17,500 mph, chalking up more than 100 million miles. He was confined to a vessel the size of a 747, with neither fresh air nor gravity. Without gravity, bodies stretch, bones become brittle, the heart doesn’t beat as efficiently and eyeballs even change shape. When the descent module brought him back to Earth, it re-entered the atmosphere at 25 times the speed of sound. It’s hard to imagine a more challenging experience physically or mentally.

The mission was undertaken in preparation for manned journeys to Mars, with the aim of finding out more about the effects of long-term space travel and microgravity on the human body and DNA. It was a remarkable undertaking, even more so because Scott’s identical twin brother Mark—also an accomplished astronaut—was serving as the control element back on Earth. While Scott performed tests on himself 229 miles above the earth’s surface, Mark was doing the same in labs closer to home. Multiple research institutions around the world are now studying the results.

Aiming high
Mark and Scott were born six minutes apart in February 1964 in West Orange, N.J. It was the era of the Apollo space program, which culminated with the moon landing in 1969.

Every little boy wanted to be an astronaut, and Mark was no different. “I remember thinking about what an unbelievable experience that would be,” he says. “While I was in high school, I thought that maybe if I got lucky and worked hard enough, I’d get to be the first person to walk on planet Mars. Well, I’m retired, and Mars is probably 10 to 20 years in our future, so that didn’t work out!”

It took Scott a little longer to come around to the idea. “I didn’t get the memo on school,” he laughs. “I wasn’t a very good student, so it wasn’t like I ever considered [being an astronaut] an option until I read this book called The Right Stuff when I was in my first year at college. I was basically on a trajectory to nowhere, and that changed my motivation level and my life.” The book, written by Tom Wolfe and published in 1979, told the story of the pilots who became the first NASA astronauts.

Mark concedes that the odds of one of them becoming an astronaut, let alone both, were slim. “I have no idea how many twin brothers have ever applied to be astronauts,” he says, smiling. “And every selection period, it will probably be a class of 10 people out of 18,000 applicants.”
But in 1996, Scott and Mark, both test pilots in the United States Navy, were selected to join NASA. Mark went on to complete four space shuttle missions to the ISS. His final mission, on board the Endeavour, was all the more notable as it followed the attempted assassination of his wife, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in 2011—an event that turned his family’s lives upside down.

On his return, he retired, and he and Giffords now work to promote responsible gun ownership. He is director of flight crew operations at World View Enterprises, a private American near-space exploration company headquartered in Tucson, Ariz., that plans to elevate high-altitude balloons 20 miles above the Earth for tourism and scientific purposes. He has also written a number of books for children and adults.

Scott retired in April of 2016, having spent longer in orbit than any other American—more than 520 days. He is currently working on a memoir, Endurance, which is due out later this year.
Upon returning from space, he says, “My feet hurt for a really long time. And people have mentioned [that] it seems like I’m a little bit more sympathetic to the world. I think you get a different perspective on the planet when you’re not there for a long time. I think seeing it as a spectator gives you a different appreciation for what we have, and what we have to lose.”

Dealing with risk
Over the years, the Kelly brothers have learned much about managing risk. It goes without saying that space travel involves a great deal of it, and data have shown that the longer you spend in space, the more that risk accumulates. Without Earth’s atmosphere to protect them, astronauts are exposed to large doses of radiation, and there is a constant threat from space debris that could cause lethal depressurization on impact.

The right stuff—Mark Kelly (right) stayed on Earth while his brother Scott (left) spent a year on the ISS as part of NASA’s Twins Study

“It’s a pretty incredible experience getting to climb into a rocket ship,” says Mark. “The odds of losing your life in a single event—there’s probably nothing that compares to it. You’re constantly balancing the risk and the reward.”

Mark admits to worrying about not making it back from a mission, but he says there was another fear: the fear of failure. “You train for a long time; you spend a long time in a space shuttle simulator, and in other ways practicing,” he says. “You spend two years preparing for something that’s going to last two weeks. And before your first mission, one of your greatest concerns is: Am I going to be good at this?”

Over the years, he learned to manage anxiety in the way NASA approaches risk. “You look to see what the data is telling you,” he explains. “When we deal with complicated situations at NASA, we’re not driven by public relations or politics, or somebody’s beliefs that aren’t backed by science. We’re driven by data.”

A successful astronaut, he believes, is someone who can assimilate a lot of information at once, react to it, and keep track of it—without making mistakes. It’s important, he says, to have good judgment and be able to evaluate a situation quickly and pick the right path.

Mark applies the same principles to his work as an entrepreneur. “You do the research; you do the math,” he says. “You evaluate the risks based on data and try not to be emotional about things.”

Scott agrees. “You have to be pretty emotionally grounded and be able to deal with difficult living conditions and being around other people for long periods of time,” he says. “It’s important to be someone who can look at risk from a cost-benefit analysis. There’s a lot of risk, with pretty low personal benefit. You have to look at it with a broader perspective. It’s not just about what you’re getting out of it; it’s what we get out of it as a society.”

The brothers also have learned the importance of teamwork. “It’s taught me that the person in charge, even if it’s me, is not the person with all the answers,” says Mark. “You’ve got to trust the ability of the other people you’re working with. You’ve got to try to create an environment where people will question your decisions. I find that very important. When I’m in charge, I want the other folks to question my decision. That doesn’t mean I don’t have confidence in myself, but I think that is the best way to be successful.”

“In space, it’s very much situationally dependent what kind of leader you are,” Scott adds. “Sometimes you have to be the dictator. When there’s a fire and you need to just make a spot decision, you start yelling out orders. At other times, you can let the group decide.”

“Sometimes you have to be the dictator. When there’s a fire and you need to just make a spot decision, you start yelling out orders. At other times, you can let the group decide.”
—Scott Kelly

Scott has worked closely with 40 different people in space and has learned to be adaptable. “As leader of a very diverse group, you have to realize that everyone is not going to be like you,” he explains. “You don’t always have a say in who you’re leading. To be a good leader, you have to recognize how you get the best out of your people, how to harness things that they are good at and use that to your advantage.”

NASA’s Twins Study was the ultimate exercise in teamwork, taking place on the ISS with international crew members, and fueling research around the world. It also required the collaboration of two brothers with almost identical DNA, their own unique skills and a remarkable bond.

To date, Mark and Scott are the only siblings to have left this planet. “It’s a privilege us both having been in space,” admits Scott. “Although we have never been in space together, it’s an experience that we do share. To have something like that … that you both experienced and can talk about is really unique.”

Roshan McArthur is a writer in California.