Scott Kelly is someone you might call an outspoken guy. The retired NASA astronaut and US Navy captain, who once held the American record for the longest time spent in a single off-world orbit, takes a no-holds-barred approach to Twitter, where he's spent the last several months not only expressing his support for the people of the embattled Ukraine, but even sparring directly with the markedly unhinged and since-departed former Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin. (And in between all of that, Kelly's still managed to challenge Neil DeGrasse Tyson's scientific qualms with "Top Gun: Maverick.")
Kelly's support for Ukraine goes further than just getting into Twitter tussles. The spacefarer has also put a decent chunk of change — and even an ambulance — towards Ukrainian defense efforts, and was recently named an ambassador for United24, a wartime fundraising platform launched by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this year.
We caught up with Kelly to ask him about the United24 program, whether NASA actually asked him shut up about Russia, and what he missed most about Earth during his time off world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Futurism: Can you tell us a bit about United24? How did you get involved?
Scott Kelly: I became familiar with United24 fairly recently — I knew that Mark Hamill was doing a fundraiser in cooperation with the Ukrainian government, but it wasn't until I was asked to be a part of it that I realized that this was a charitable fundraising organization. A few weeks ago United24 reached out to me and asked if I would be an ambassador, and I of course said "absolutely." I'm in 100 percent.
This cause is really important to me. I think it should be important to every person on the planet that believes in freedom and democracy, not just Ukrainians or people that have direct ties. With Ukraine, I actually do have some ties — my brother in law came from Kharkiv when he was 10 years old and my longtime Russian teacher at NASA is Ukrainian from Kharkiv. Her mother and sister lived there until a couple of months into the war, and I helped organize what was almost like a rescue mission, because she's 85 years old. I have other Ukrainian friends, and I also have some Russian friends that are on the side of Ukraine. They're being affected too, though obviously not nearly as bad as Ukrainians are. So I do have personal connections, but like I said, I believe in in freedom and democracy. If we can allow a country like Russia to just roll through a democratic country in Europe, who's next? I think we all need to do whatever we can to help put an end to this as quickly as possible and to provide whatever support we can.
My fundraising will be put towards providing medical supplies, particularly ambulances. I was an EMT and was always a crew medical officer on my flights. I actually wanted to be a doctor when I was a kid, but that didn't quite work out. I wasn't a good enough student.
It's pretty easy to go on social media and declare support for Ukraine. But you've gone a step further, locking horns with figures on Twitter including the former head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin. Why?
Well, Roscosmos produced a video that showed their space agency leaving behind an American Crew member that they were responsible for. And I just thought, "if no one's gonna say anything about that, then I am," and I did it intentionally in a way that would get his attention: just being very, very rude to him in Russian. And it worked. And now he's gone. I'm not taking credit for being gone. But yeah, he's gone. Hopefully the new guy is more reasonable. I haven't heard much about him or from him, so I would imagine he's keeping quiet.
You said previously that NASA had told you to tone down the Russia talk, but you've thrown a few elbows at Russia since you got that memo — has NASA doubled down on that request at all?
You know, I don't think they ever asked me not to say anything. I think that was a little bit misconstrued by the media. What I was told was, "hey, please understand that when you're in a fight with the head of Roscosmos, it makes our job harder." And I said, "okay, blank receipt," basically.
So I did lay off of Russia for a while, because these are my colleagues, my friends, and their jobs are now harder because of something I'm doing. But when I thought it was appropriate for me to speak up, I would still speak up. No one ever asked me not to say anything, they just wanted me to understand their position better.
Speaking of Twitter, you've expressed support of SpaceX founder and new Twitter owner Elon Musk in the past. He surprised everybody about a month ago when he took to Twitter to call for Ukraine to give into certain Russian demands, and given his given his power and influence — both in your field and on the world stage — how do you feel about him doing that?
Well, I think Elon is an incredibly gifted person in certain areas. SpaceX has just done amazing, amazing things. I have a lot of respect for him as a tech guy and as an engineer.
He is in a position of power in that he's the wealthiest man on the planet. And I guess that gives you a lot of attention, and people will listen to what you have to say. Having said that, I don't think it's anyone but the Ukrainians' place to decide what their fate is, right? They're a democracy, they need to decide their future. It's not for me. I don't think it's for our government. It's not for anyone else. It's for the Ukrainians, and if we believe in their democracy and their freedom, and if we're freedom loving people, I think we should support them. So I would not agree with what Elon said, trying to suggest to Ukraine what they should do. That's up to them to decide.
Back to Russia, do you think there's a clear path forward for Roscosmos, without cooperation with the US? What's the future of ISS without Roscosmos?
You know, the International Space Station is a complex question, because we made a choice early on in the program that we put Russia on this critical path to operating it. They provide propulsive attitude, control and attitude changes. The US can do that in a small way with these very efficient control moment gyroscopes, but over time, you need thrusters to desaturate them, to give back some of the energy of momentum that they need to operate. So, without that system that the Russians provide, it would make operating the space station very challenging. Maybe impossible. It's hard to say, you know, we don't really I don't think we know for sure.
Personally, I think NASA does amazing things, and I think, if given the time, we could figure it out. I also think that Russia will never leave the space station program voluntarily. I think it gives Putin credibility with his people and countries around the world that might be in his sphere of influence. He can say, you know, "if they're still cooperating with us in space, we can't be all that bad, right?" And I think it also gives him some credibility at home. So anytime Russia threatens to leave the space station, I just kind of laugh it off — they're not gonna leave.
I think the future of the Russian space program is pretty bleak, actually. Unless Putin leaves and we have a trustworthy international partner in Russia, I don't see the United States or Europe or any of the other ISS partners cooperating with Russia ever again beyond the space station program. What would be the point? So I think their future is very, very limited. They get a lot of their money from international investment, launching other people's payloads and satellites. They're not gonna have that anymore. And I don't have any insider information, but I would imagine there are things that Putin and Russia could do that would cause us to end the partnership. I don't know technically how that would evolve, but I do think there are things that they could potentially do that would cause us to just kick them out.
What excites you most about the upcoming NASA moon missions?
Spaceflight is really hard. It's challenging shit, bad things can happen, but I'm fairly confident that we'll have a successful flight. And then the next one will be with people around the Moon. And then the one after that, the plan is to land. So very exciting to be able to go to the Moon — the 60s and 70s inspired people around the world, showing that we can challenge ourselves and do incredible things if we put our mind to it, work cooperatively, and never give up. I think Artemis is going to be a great example for the people in this century that we're not done doing those kinds of challenging things, and it's worth every penny of the investment. Hopefully, it'll be a new age in spaceflight, where we have regular flights to the surface of the Moon, to a smaller space station near the Moon in lunar orbit, and then someday to Mars.
Yeah, I think there could be a wave of kids who really want become astronauts after potentially growing up in a new Golden Era of exploration.
All those kids will not become astronauts. But what many of them will do is study harder in science and math, technology, STEM subjects. Those kids will go on to do other things that are really, really important to our future. Solving problems like climate change, working on the next pandemic, making our healthcare systems better and more efficient and improving our quality of life... if that's the only thing we got out of these billions and billions of dollars of investment, to inspire kids — not only in the United States, but around the world — to be scientists and engineers, that's worth every single cent.
As someone who spent a very long time in space, what would you say was the biggest thing you realized you'd taken for granted back on Earth?
I think when you're in space, you just realize how precious our planet is. You miss everything about it. The people, the culture, the weather, the wind, the Sun, the rain, the nature.
It's not until you're removed that you really can truly appreciate it, at least in my case. I don't know about anyone else, but you really appreciate what this planet means to us when you're living in a space station for nearly a year.
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