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10 life lessons from an astronaut

Scott Kelly, who spent a year in space, answered questions on maintaining physical and mental health, finding inspiration and remaining curious while in isolation.

On Friday, April 24, 2020, the Natural History Museum of Utah hosted a free hour-long live Research Quest Live Q&A with astronaut and author Scott Kelly. More than 10,000 people from around the globe tuned in to hear what Kelly had to say, and they were not disappointed. The man who spent a year in space answered apropos questions on how to maintain physical and mental health, find inspiration and remain curious and committed to learning during social distancing. Here are the highlights.

Responses edited for length and clarity.

NHMU’s top 10 life lessons from Scott Kelly

1. Rely on what you’ve learned

I recognize that this pandemic is a challenging experience for everybody involved. In my career at NASA, there are always opportunities to be anxious. There were opportunities to be even frightened by what I was getting ready to do, whether it was launching on a rocket or doing a spacewalk, and coming home in a spacecraft certainly can be a scary moment. But what I always found that made me and helped me get through that is that when I focused on the things that I had control over—my job, my knowledge and my education—it prepared me for what I was trying to do, a certain level of attention to detail. When I focused in on those things, it caused me to be less scared, less anxious. I think we’re kind of in a similar situation where we’re all, probably for the first time in my life, engaged in one singular event as a species fighting this pandemic. This is our mission and we need to focus on it.

2. Good advice is good advice, for kids and adults

I encourage the kids out there to focus on the stuff they have control over: Taking care of their environment, listening to their parents and learning. What a great opportunity it is to learn when you have very little else to do. Be engaged. Follow the rules, the guidance. Do your very best. If we all do that, we will get through this together.

3. Teamwork makes the dreamwork

One of the things that NASA looks for in astronauts are people that demonstrate teamwork. Teamwork is so important. When you are trying to solve complex problems, you don’t do it as an individual. Rarely is that an individual act. Most often it is things that are challenging and difficult are done as part of a team, so someone who has demonstrated good teamwork, leadership, attention to detail. When I was on the selection board, I always liked the people that had a great work background.

4. Chase your challenge

I think there’s a misconception on the public about why people think flying in space is so great: Things like launching on the rocket, looking out at planet Earth, floating, which is fun but makes most things very challenging to do. All of those things are great—we like to ride the rocket or come back in the capsule or the space shuttle. But we fly in space because it’s an incredibly complicated, challenging thing to do. We are doing something that is extremely complicated and we are doing it in a cooperative way and it has serious consequences if we don’t all follow the guidance and do our jobs well. Again, I encourage people to look at our collective experience right now in dealing with this pandemic as our shared mission.

5. Find your inspiration

If you find inspiration, that inspiration can make you focus. When I read the book “The Right Stuff,” I recognized that there were traits that these guys had that I felt deeply that I had in common with them, with only one exception: I was not a great student growing up. I never really had the opportunity to make a recovery until I got to college and found some inspiration, but you have that opportunity now. Look for inspiration wherever you can find it. As a kid, I thought, “If I could just become a good student, it would just open up the whole world to me and maybe I could be a pilot in the military. Maybe even a Navy pilot. Maybe possibly a test pilot. Long shot: Maybe even an astronaut.”

6. Human connection is everything

The best part of this work is that we get to do this work with people that are dedicated, that are smart, that are great teammates—not just the people you’re with but the people on the ground as well. These people are motivated to work on something in a collaborative, cooperative way, with a common goal and serious consequences if you don’t do your job properly. That’s what I always liked about it—the people involved.

7. Everyone gets lonely: reach out

I know some people do get lonely. But I never felt lonely. I felt very connected to people on planet Earth through technology. We had a phone. We had email. We had video conferencing capability. So even though I was in space for 340 days, I was never by myself. I was never lonely and it’s because I took the opportunities that I had, and used the technology I had to stay connected with people of Earth.

8. Find the silver lining

I think we can stay connected now; at least most people can. Again, not everyone’s situation is the same. I’m sure there are people out there that are by themselves and have very little technological capability to connect with others, and I feel for those folks. But if you do have that ability, use it. I found that you always want to find the good parts in things that are bad, and one of the good things I found about this is having the time now… because I am in quarantine, which is similar to the quarantine we do at NASA before we launch into space. I have a lot more time on my hands to connect with friends and family around the world.

9. Celebrate whenever you can

Birthdays in space were big ones. We would often give each other presents. I flew some wrapping paper for birthdays and Christmas and other holidays in part of my gear. In some cases, I was thoughtful enough to bring some presents. I remember I gave Valeri Polyakov, a cosmonaut who spent more days in space than any other human—and a fantastic guy—a U.S. Navy hat with Navy wings on it that I brought up. Sometimes you might not be as thoughtful. I’ve flown in space with a lot of people and maybe you don’t recognize you’re going to be there on somebody’s birthday. You think about it. But sometimes you may just give them something as simple as their favorite dessert: You just wrap it up.

10. Stay humble and grateful

The kind of dedication I saw in the engineers, technicians and scientists at NASA is the kind of dedication I see today, but not in the neutral buoyancy laboratory where we learned to do spacewalks. It’s at the grocery store. It’s from people that are public servants, the people that are the front lines of this pandemic. You just see how absolutely dedicated they are. Some of these people are often overlooked before this and I hope we never overlook them again because without them we wouldn’t be able to survive.

So many words to live by. Thank you, Captain Kelly!

Watch the entirety of NHMU’s live Q&A with Scott Kelly here.

Learn more about Research Quest, Research Quest Live, livestream and on-demand content and Q&As here

This blog was originally posted here.