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Astronauts talk perseverance, teamwork and what it takes to go to space during Yakima visit

Astronaut James H. Newman waves during a spacewalk preparing for release of the first combined elements of the International Space Station. (NASA/TNS)

Astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly think humans should head to Mars. But it will take many resources, a lot of money and an ambitious group effort, they said.

It’s not impossible — that’s what was required to create and operate the International Space Station where Scott lived for more than a year.

“We’re all on this Earth together. If we want to accomplish things that are complicated … we need to work together as a team,” he said Wednesday in a news conference before joining his twin Mark on The Capitol Theatre stage for their Yakima Town Hall talk.

“I’m the older twin” by six minutes, Mark said with a grin in kicking off nearly an hour’s worth of friendly banter, peppered with fascinating facts and sobering recollection of individual and shared challenges.

Scott countered with his 500 days in space compared to Mark’s 50 days. “It’s great to be here. It’s great to be anywhere with gravity,” he said to laughter from the Town Hall’s usual full house.

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Careers in space

Both U.S. Navy fighter and test pilots before they joined NASA, the Kelly brothers built remarkable careers. Mark commanded both the space shuttle Endeavor and the shuttle Discovery, and Scott Kelly lived a record-breaking year in space. During that year NASA performed its groundbreaking twins study, which monitored Scott in space and Mark on Earth, in an unprecedented experiment to understand how space affects the human body.

The brothers are credited with having helped lay the groundwork for the future of space travel and exploration.

Now retired from NASA, the brothers talked about being inspired as children by their mother, who was one of the first female police officers in the area of New Jersey where they grew up. Their father was a detective, and she worked as a waitress and a secretary before joining the force.

“We saw the power of having a goal and a plan. It was from our mother that we learned the power of hard work,” Mark said.

Both brothers were average students — “I wasn’t a very good student,” Mark said, and Scott graduated from high school in the bottom half of his class — but big goals put them on their path to space. They faced major challenges, such as Navy flight school (and landing on aircraft carriers), along the way.

“How good you are at the beginning … is not a good indicator of how good you can become,” Mark said, stressing practice and persistence.

Scott’s dreams took flight when he bought a copy of “The Right Stuff” in his college bookstore. Inspired by Tom Wolfe’s bestseller, he concentrated on his studies and did better in school, he said.

Visiting Yakima

Among those in the audience Wednesday was a youngster who is already focusing on becoming an astronaut. Diego Bastida and his friend Jeremiah Elmore, both 12, attended the news conference with Diego’s mom, Jeni Stewart, to get a closer look at a hero.

“He’s already written a letter of intent to MIT,” Stewart said of her son, who wants to join the Air Force. Diego has been invited to get involved in the Civil Air Patrol and wants to earn his pilot’s license before he learns to drive.

“Do you still have the 2 inches you (gained in height) in space?” Diego asked.

Scott “shrunk back down,” he told Diego before signing T-shirts for the boys a few minutes later.

Living on the space station is “a really hard thing to do,” Scott told the crowd. While mostly physical, some challenges were mental. And getting used to gravity again was difficult.

“It took me about eight months before I felt normal,” he said.

He was in space when his sister-in-law, Gabby Giffords, and 18 others were shot during a public meeting in 2011, while she was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Mark recalled the utter shock of that phone call, and rushing to her side. During his trip from Houston to Tucson, news reports erroneously reported her death, compounding the horror.

“My wife risked her life serving our country,” he said.

Amid such sobering stories, the brothers talked about life beyond Earth — human and otherwise — and the need to keep looking to the stars.

Scott is skeptical of alien visits to Earth, he said during the news conference.

“I personally don’t think we have intelligent aliens visiting the Earth. The distances are so great,” he said. “I do think there’s life in the universe.”

At some point, humans will need to grow beyond their home planet, the brothers said. Humankind’s diversity can help make that happen.

“Diversity is really a strength, definitely a strength,” Scott said. “We are all in this experience together, the experience of humanity. We need to work together.”

At the same time, people must remember their terrestrial responsibilities.

“We’re both believers in going to Mars, but we’re not all going to Mars. We need to take care of this planet,” he said.

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© 2019 Yakima Herald-Republic (Yakima, Wash.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.