Shuttle, Hubble, Mars and Aliens

by Chris Bergin

Astronaut Scott Kelly might not have been reading from the NASA PAO manual when he took part in a live webchat with UK Shuttle fans. The brother of Mark Kelly – who will fly on STS-121 next month – gave one of the most open insights into being an astronaut.

Organised by Britain’s best selling newspaper, The Sun, moderators picked out the best of what they claimed to be thousands of questions posed to Kelly. The 48 year old Navy Commander is set to command STS-118, currently set to launch with Shuttle Endeavour in mid-2007.

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Kelly noted that he had always aspired to being an astronaut, although he still classes himself as Navy when introducing himself in public.

‘It was certainly something I was interested in as a kid, but I also liked the idea of being a pilot or a doctor or a race car driver,’ said Kelly. Before joining NASA I was a pilot in the Navy. I saw becoming an astronaut as the next challenging step in aviation.

‘If it’s someone I don’t know very well I tell them I’m in the navy. If they quiz me further I tell them I work for NASA. And if they ask me again I tell them I’m an astronaut. Often people don’t believe me when I tell them.’

Searching for the best rates in your state?‘Flying in space exceeded my expectations by a huge amount. It’s one of the greatest experiences a person could ever have.’

Kelly already has a mission under his belt, servicing as a pilot on STS-103 – the third Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission.

‘The Hubble had some troubles with its gyroscopes which allow the telescope to point very precisely. It was our job to fix it. It was a big problem so we were in a hurry to do it. We fixed it over three different space walks. But as a pilot I didn’t actually do the space walk.

‘We were the first shuttle mission to spend Christmas there on the Hubble repair mission. It was nice, we all enjoyed a festive Christmas dinner and listened to some music.’

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In-between answering obvious questions about the feeling of weightlessness and the food that astronauts eat while on board of a shuttle, Kelly mentioned that he’s more nervous about watching other launches, as opposed to his own.

‘It’s nerve-wracking beforehand,’ he noted. ‘But to be honest you’re too busy concentrating on the task at hand to think about worrying. It’s strange because I get more nervous when I’m watching a rocket launch than when I’m directly involved in it.’

Internet Phone ServiceMoving on to the VSE (Vision for Space Exploration), Kelly’s eyes are more on Mars, rather than the moon, even if it’s not going to involve a mission where he’ll actually get to walk on the red planet’s surface.

‘I would love to go to the moon, but I would prefer to go to Mars! It’s the planet that is most like Earth, I will certainly be involved in the next Mars mission but I will probably be too old to actually go there.’

Kelly also believes there’s a very good chance that there’s alien life is out there to be found, although he joked that NASA is yet to supply shuttles with laser guns – in case the Romulan Empire turns up in Low Earth Orbit.

‘The chances are very high. There are millions of stars and no doubt billions of planets surrounding them so the odds of us being the only planet with life on it are extremely slim. I would like to think there are intelligent life forms but I really have no idea and I don’t know how anyone could know for sure.

‘(Laughing) I would get straight on the radio back to Earth mission control and report that we had encountered an alien craft,’ he jokingly added, when asked what the protocol is for bumping into an alien craft. ‘But seriously, there is no protocol in place because it’s not expected to happen.

‘We plan for things that are remotely possible and meeting an alien craft doesn’t fit that criteria. We don’t carry an weapons or lasers on board!’

Interestingly, Kelly doesn’t see the attraction in space tourism, especially the future plans to set up permanent hotels in space and on the moon.

‘A few Russians have spent more than a year in space. As far as people spending their whole lives there, it may happen some day, but I would wonder why.

‘Space is a pretty hostile environment, even within the confines of a shuttle. You have to deal with effects of radiation and you have to deal with the effects of weightlessness.

‘I know people are reserving seats with Virgin Galactic, but they are sub-orbital flights that only last a few minutes.’

Just a few days ago, it was announced that a big budget movie was to be made on the Challenger disaster. Kelly isn’t immune from cringing when Hollywood gets it wrong.

‘I’ve seen a few (space movies). I liked Apollo 13, that was actually quite realistic,’ added Kelly. ‘There are certainly some movies where I’ll sit starring at the screen thinking, ‘that is so unrealistic,’ Space Cowboys is an example of that.’

Kelly’s brother Mark is already in the UK media spotlight, with STS-121 already gaining large UK media coverage – the launch is also confirmed on three major networks for live coverage.

‘Travelling into space is a very unique opportunity for anyone,’ noted Kelly when speaking about his twin brother, ‘and it’s unusual for members of the same family to do the same thing, let alone a twin.

‘It’s great to share the experiences.’

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