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Astronaut Scott Kelly on why failure is one of life’s greatest lessons

April 20, 2022
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I’m from the generation of kids that grew up captivated by the space program, especially by the exciting Apollo missions to the moon. We were glued to the black and white images beamed back from the lunar surface as we imagined what it might be like to follow in the footsteps of giants. Some kids grow up to find the courage to pursue a dream like that while the rest of us look on and wonder “How did they do it?”

The man that holds the record for the most cumulative days spent living and working in space says he falls into both categories. His new book is full of lessons he learned as a record-setting astronaut that he says anyone could apply to life on this planet.

Scott Kelly is a former military fighter pilot and test pilot, an engineer, a retired U.S. Navy Captain and retired astronaut that commanded the International Space Station on three missions. He spent a record 340 consecutive days orbiting Earth in zero gravity on the ISS in 2015 and 2016.

Kelly has followed up his 2017 memoir “Endurance” with a book geared toward young adults that keys in on 10 pivotal moments from his life and how the mistakes he made and the challenges he faced kept him reaching for the stars. “Ready for Launch: An Astronaut’s Lessons for Success on Earth” is a quick but captivating read that revisits some of the stories shared in his earlier book that Kelly uses to illustrate how setbacks and challenges can become the catalyst for greatness if we’re willing to learn from them.

Scott Kelly’s identical twin brother, Mark, is also a retired astronaut and a U.S. Senator in Arizona.

Kelly says he is very concerned about the war in Ukraine and wanted to do what he could to help the Ukrainian people. Last week, he launched an art project called “Dreams Out of This World,” consisting of 3,333 NFTs (non-fungible tokens) displaying images of Kelly in space. The entire collection sold out in hours raising more than half a million dollars for Ukrainian relief.

“I tweet a lot in Russian to try to inform Russian speakers what is really going on,” Kelly said. “I used these NFTs to raise money but also to inspire with artwork that has very specific messaging.”

During an interview with The Maine Edge, Kelly, 58, says he became interested in the space program during the Apollo years but that he was “such a poor student” he never dreamed he could part of it until he read a book that altered his course.  

Scott Kelly: I couldn’t pay attention in school. I’d sit in the back of the classroom daydreaming or looking out the window. My grandmother was a special education teacher, and she gave up trying to teach me how to read after the second lesson. So when I became an astronaut, it was a big surprise to a lot of people, including myself.

The Maine Edge: You write that after you squeaked your way into college, your trajectory changed after you read “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolf. What was it about that book that helped set you on your path?

SK: The way he wrote that book and the stories he told helped me really relate to the guys who were the early test pilots and astronauts. I felt that I had something in common with them in spite of the fact that I wasn’t a good student. I thought that maybe if I fixed that one thing, maybe I could graduate from college with an engineering degree, maybe even fly planes for the Navy. If not the Navy, maybe the Air Force, that’s generally easier, I think. That’s just a little joke for the Air Force guys. Almost 18 years to the day after reading Tom Wolf’s book at age 18, I was flying into space for the first time.

TME: One of the big takeaways from your book is that none of the things you accomplished could have happened if you hadn’t first risked failing. Failure was an option and you experienced it a number of times. You write “Move to achieve big dreams or stand still and stay small.” Could you share an example of that?

SK: A lot of times I’ll talk to young kids and they’ll say “I can’t do that” or “I’m not smart enough,” “I’ll fail,” “I won’t get accepted,” “I’m scared,” a lot of excuses like that. The first time I tried to land an F-14 Tomcat on an aircraft carrier to qualify to be an F-14 pilot, I almost crashed. I failed and they sent me home. They gave me the option of flying an easier airplane, but I thought if I don’t give it another shot, if I don’t risk failing again, I will never know what I’m capable of achieving and I will always have that regret. I’m a big believer in that the greatest lessons in life are the lessons we learn from failing, not succeeding. What’s the lesson there? Oh, I’m great? That’s not a good lesson.

TME: About 15 years ago, you were diagnosed with cancer. What kept you from walking away from NASA at that time?

SK: I flew two flights for a total of 20 days in space, then I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. They test us for everything at NASA, so we see guys sometimes diagnosed with things we generally only see in older people. Why didn’t I quit? I thought I was still capable of doing the job and I didn’t think my diagnosis should hold me back. I challenged both NASA and the Russian space agency to find a way to medically qualify me and I went on to fly another 500 days after having cancer. Just because you’re diagnosed with something that’s scary or potentially life-threatening, it doesn’t really need to hold you back from pursuing your dream.

Last modified on Wednesday, 20 April 2022 07:01

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