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To the Heavens and Back

NBAA's Interview With Astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly

Oct. 9, 2017

Astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly share their insights on a variety of topics, from the future of space exploration to recruiting the next generation of aviation professionals.

Identical twins Mark and Scott Kelly have served with distinction as U.S. Navy aviators and astronauts. The brothers realized their lifelong dreams to participate in the space program when they joined NASA in 1996 following military careers that included deployments in the Persian Gulf and attending the U.S. Naval Test Pilots School.

Each brother has flown four space missions in low Earth orbit, with Mark spending more than 50 days in space, including a service mission to the Hubble Space Telescope and flights to the International Space Station (ISS) onboard the space shuttles Discovery and Endeavour.

Scott spent a combined 520 days in orbit, including a historic 340-day “Year in Space” mission aboard the ISS to measure the physiological effects of weightlessness during long spaceflights. Both brothers participated in NASA’s Twins Study, in which scientists compared Scott’s in-orbit test results with those of Mark, who served as a groundbased control subject.

NBAA is pleased to welcome these accomplished aviators and astronauts to 2017 NBAA-BACE as featured speakers at the second-day Opening General Session on Wednesday, Oct. 11 in Las Vegas, NV.

Recently, Business Aviation Insider had the opportunity to talk to Mark and Scott Kelly about their storied careers, the lessons they have learned from their experiences as aviators and astronauts, and some of the critical issues facing business aviation.

What motivated you to become pilots, and was it a conscious decision to both become naval aviators and astronauts?

Mark Kelly: We were born at the beginning of the Apollo program, and it was the summer before we started first grade when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. That definitely spurred our interest in the space program, like lots of kids growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, but I really started thinking more seriously about it once I was in high school. I wanted to be a kid from New Jersey (the brothers grew up in West Orange) who’d flown on a spacecraft, and the best route for me to accomplish that began with flying aircraft in the U.S. Navy. Separate from being an astronaut, I wanted to be a military pilot and accomplish the most difficult flying task imaginable – flying off an aircraft carrier.

Scott Kelly: I distinctly remember the Apollo 11 moonwalk. I was not a good student growing up, which challenged any aspirations I had in that direction. But that changed in college when I came across The Right Stuff. Reading that book (about the original Mercury 7 astronauts and the lesser-known U.S. Air Force space program) motivated me to do better in my studies, so I could fly planes in the Navy and ultimately become an astronaut.

Your career paths have been strikingly similar. As you progressed through the ranks, how did your common experiences and support for each other help you succeed?

Scott Kelly: Mark was a year ahead of me in the military at first, and he offered a lot of advice about the courses I’d be taking and what airplanes I’d be flying. We had several conversations about flying formation in the [Beechcraft] T-34, with Mark carefully reviewing with me the steps necessary for maintaining position next to another airplane. Later, I got into Test Pilot School a little earlier than I expected, which put us at essentially the same point in our careers. We’d then compare notes and consult with one another about our progress.

Mark Kelly: Scott entered flight school in 1987, and I called him regularly to discuss things that had helped me through the program. I remember those conversations about formation flying, and I also offered whatever advice I could on other aspects of the program that had taken me a while to figure out myself.

Flying in low Earth orbit with multinational crews and living aboard the International Space Station requires coordination between crewmembers from different countries who are living in close quarters for extended periods of time. What lessons did you learn from your experiences on the space shuttle and space station that business aviators can use to ensure better crew coordination in the cockpit?

Mark Kelly: Scott’s experiences in close quarters, particularly during his one-year mission aboard the ISS, were drastically different than mine. That said, we both trained at NASA to understand differences in culture, and I flew with crewmembers from Russia, Germany and Japan. I came to understand that one crewmember’s culture and motivations may be very different from another crewmember’s, even though we’re all part of the same mission and working toward the same goals. Techniques such as crew resource management and use of standard operating procedures also help to smooth over any personal differences.

Scott Kelly: Truly, the greatest success from the space station is its “international” component. I’ve worked with astronauts of different ethnicities, sexual orientations, service backgrounds and a host of other differences, and that diversity strengthens the team as a whole and helps us all do a better job. Crews are matched well for extended missions, and we used conflict management skills to resolve issues. We also had the advantage of training together for as long as a year and a half ahead of a mission, including several exercises in living with others in stressful environments, such as winter camping in the mountains.

Although retired from NASA, you both remain active promoters of space flight. What do you believe will be the most important steps in the future exploration of space, both near term and long term?

Scott Kelly: The next few years will primarily involve continuing missions to the ISS, but there’s a lot of excitement in that area. Private companies like SpaceX and Orbital ATK are already flying cargo to the station, and it will be exciting to see manned spacecraft (currently under development by SpaceX and Boeing) flying astronauts from U.S. soil once again.

Mark Kelly: The development of commercial space vehicles reminds me a lot of our country’s aviation industry throughout the 1930s. The Douglas DC-3 was one the first commercially viable, cost-effective passenger-carrying aircraft, offering the reliability necessary for airlines to start making money flying people. We’re seeing a similar model now in space, with SpaceX’s successful recovery and reuse of its capsules and booster rockets. Blue Origin’s future also looks very promising.

Scott Kelly: Longer term, we must keep expanding. We must never stop exploring space. My hope is that we’ll continue on to Mars and beyond. We’re already building the technology and infrastructure to support those missions.

The world has changed dramatically since you began your careers. What does the aviation industry need to do to inspire and attract the next generation to careers in aerospace?

Mark Kelly: We must encourage young people to get into aviation and fly. There needs to be a thoughtful plan to get the costs down to get a license and build the hours necessary to move forward in an aviation career. We must also look toward the day when some of these aircraft will be flown without pilots. We’re already seeing this in military, and that will likely expand to unmanned cargo missions and, ultimately, passenger flights. But first, we need to train pilots to fly today’s airplanes.

Scott Kelly: I agree that there needs to be a more cost-effective solution that gets young people into this industry at lower expense. The military services are increasing bonuses to attract and retain pilots, and we’re seeing the same within commercial aviation and business aviation. The industry is expanding, and we just can’t keep up with the demand.

Business aviation is facing its most serious existential threat in recent memory as legislative efforts to privatize the ATC system are moving forward. How do you see this playing out?

Mark Kelly: I think our government has done a reasonable job maintaining the air traffic control system. I also think there’s too much focus on throwing money over the fence to have contractors assume oversight in such roles as prisons and the military, to some extent. Our ATC system can be categorized as a strategic asset, and it’s not necessarily wise to turn that over to a private entity.

Scott Kelly: I agree with Mark. There have been times when government oversight has been identified as the best way to retain safety, consistency and reliability throughout the program. It just seems inconsistent to me that we’d now take all of these government employees, who are at the very tip of the spear on the safety of our nation’s skies, and turn them over to a contractor.

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This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Business Aviation Insider. Download the magazine app for iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.