When Mark Kelly was in high school, his goal was to become the first person to walk on Mars.
“I didn’t make it,” he deadpanned Thursday at the University at Buffalo.
But oh, did he come close. And in terms of time spent in space, his brother Scott came even closer
The Kellys gained fame through NASA’s Twin Study, designed to test the effects of long-term space travel on humans. As twins, the Kellys have nearly identical DNA. Since they’re the only twins who are astronauts, the brothers provided NASA the ideal opportunity to run a comparison: Beginning in March 2015, Scott Kelly spent nearly a year (340 days, to be exact) aboard the International Space Station, orbiting Earth 16 times a day.
His brother Mark, meanwhile, stayed on Earth as the control subject. Both Kellys’ bodies were tested to measure the effects of gravity on everything from eye shape to stomach bacteria, providing NASA information it needs as the space agency works toward its goal of reaching Mars by 2035.
The Kellys, who are 52 and both retired as astronauts, shared their experiences as part of UB’s Distinguished Speakers series. They also met with a small group of engineering students and children from the Boys & Girls Club, where they answered questions about space travel.
“For me, the most challenging part of being in space for a year is you’re in space for a year,” Scott Kelly told the smaller student group. “You go to sleep, you’re at work. Wake up, you’re at work.”
The brothers were sitting on a small stage in UB’s black box theater, wearing matching royal blue NASA jackets. They talked about their Navy backgrounds – both were captains – and their approach to goal setting.
For Mark, that conjured up memories of that high school dream of walking on Mars, and some advice for the students: Have a sequence of plans in mind to pursue your dreams, he said, then added, “I also think it’s important to re-evaluate your goals over time.”
They’ve both done that.
During their speech inside Alumni Arena, the brothers took the audience through their journey: growing up as the sons of two New Jersey police officers, finding their way as Navy pilots, getting accepted by NASA in 1996, and dealing with the 2011 shooting of Mark’s wife, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
They threw in some localized Buffalo Bills-ribbing humor, too.
“We were not the first choice for this twin study,” Mark Kelly told the Alumni Arena crowd. “The first choice – the twins that they originally wanted – were Rex and Rob Ryan. But from what we heard they were too busy ruining your football team.”
As the crowd erupted in laughter, he added slyly, “Don’t tell them I said that.”
Earlier in the day, during a small-group interview with mostly student reporters, the brothers sat at a table chatting. Both of them bald, with slight smiles and watchful eyes, they were distinguishable only by their outfits – Scott in a gray box-plaid jacket; Mark, jacketless with a white button-down and striped blue tie.
They spoke at length about what it’s like to look at the planet from above – “detaching” from Earth, as Scott put it.
Did it change their perspective? Make them want to come back and do even grander things?
“Absolutely,” Scott said. Before he continued, Mark jumped in. (They possess that brotherly ability to expand on each other’s thoughts.)
“I still think about that a lot: How do you top that?” Mark said. “You did that. It’s motiving. It’s something I still think about today.”
As Scott listened while tinkering with a black pen, trying to balance it atop a Sharpie, Mark spoke about the possibilities of space travel. He named several of the private companies working – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – on space travel. Mark Kelly, who’s an adviser for one of those companies, SpaceX, predicted “more innovative successes to come.”
“There’s space tourism that seems to be on the horizon,” he said. “People start thinking about this as, ‘Hey, this is something I can do in my lifetime.’ So they become more interested in it.”
That’s part of the brothers’ new mission. As they write (Scott is working on a book right now), speak and get politically active, they’re also pushing the power of space travel. Sometimes it’s direct. Other times, like when Mark took the stage in July at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, it’s implied.
“From orbit I saw our planet as a perfect blue marble just floating there in the blackness of space – but I also saw receding glaciers and shrinking rainforests,” Mark Kelly said at the convention. “At war and in space I saw the awesome extent of American power and capability. But it was so frustrating to return home and see how we struggle to address some of our greatest challenges.”
From there, Kelly lauded Clinton as being ready to “take on one of our country’s greatest moral failures” – gun violence – “that is tearing so many of our communities apart.”
And then he introduced the woman who is his personal example of it: his wife Gabby Giffords, who nearly died in a 2011 shooting at her “Congress On Your Corner” event in Tucson. After a long recovery, Giffords regained her ability to speak and walk. But six people near her that day didn’t make it at all; they were shot and killed. Since then, Kelly and Giffords have formed a political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions, which urges “common-sense protections from gun violence” while supporting the Second Amendment.
In their UB speech, the brothers repeatedly advocated the value of doing what’s hard. When talking about coming home from his year in space, Scott Kelly said, “The best thing about this whole experience, coming home, is I had just finished the hardest thing I will ever do in my life. Because of that, it was the most satisfying experience I ever had.”
But they subtly push the value of humor, too. The Rob-and-Rex quip was a public example, but it came up in private too. Before their speech, someone asked Scott Kelly about the zero-gravity backflips he performed at the end of nearly every TV interview and video chat from the International Space Station.
“It just looks cool,” he said.
“When people don’t do it, it’s kind of like they left something out,” Mark said.
“You could say, ‘Is that guy really in space?’ ” Scott added.
Mark tossed in a clarifier: “You don’t do it when you’re talking to the pope.”
“I probably would,” Scott said.
“I didn’t,” Mark added softly.
Yeah, he just talked to the pope. From space. It’s not exactly walking on Mars. But it’s getting there.