Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly), a former military fighter pilot and test pilot, an engineer, a retired astronaut, and a retired US Navy captain. A veteran of four space flights, Scott commanded the International Space Station (ISS) on three expeditions and was a member of the yearlong mission aboard the ISS, the single longest space mission by an American astronaut. In October 2015, he set the American record for the total accumulated number of days spent in space.
Go for Launch: How to Dream, Lead, and Achieve is Scott’s two-hour audio course available exclusively on Knowable. In this candid and entertaining audio course, Scott shares instructive stories from his childhood in New Jersey, his days as a US Navy test pilot, and his year hurtling around the globe at 17,500 mph and teaches hard-earned lessons on perseverance, personal motivation, and the human side of success, drawn from his experiences in the most competitive, extreme environments imaginable. You can find it now at knowable.fyi/scott.
Transcript may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to the Tim Ferriss show where it is my job every episode to deconstruct world-class performers of all different types to tease out the habits, routines, favorite books, who knows what that you can hopefully emulate or apply in your own lives. My guest today is none other than Scott Kelly, @StationCDRKelly on Twitter and elsewhere. Scott is a former military fighter pilot and test pilot and engineer, a retired astronaut and retired US Navy captain. A veteran of four space flights, Kelly commanded the International Space Station, ISS on three expeditions and was a member of the year-long mission aboard the ISS, the single longest space mission by an American astronaut. In October, 2015 he set the American record for the total accumulated number of days spent in space.
Go For Launch: How to Dream, Lead, and Achieve is Kelly’s two-hour audio course available exclusively on Knowable. In this candid and entertaining audio course, Scott shares instructor stories from his childhood in New Jersey, his days as a US Navy test pilot and his year hurtling around the globe at 17,500 miles per hour, and teaches hard earned lessons on perseverance, personal motivation, and the human side of success drawn from his experiences in the most competitive, extreme environments imaginable. You can find it now at Knowable — that’s K-N-O-W-A-B-L-E dot F-Y-I forward slash Scott. You can find him on social Twitter, Instagram, Facebook @StationCDRKelly.
And before we jump into the interview, I want to play you one lesson from Scott’s audio course. The lesson is titled “The Smartest Person on the Mission,” and it really highlights decision-making under pressure, a superpower of his. Also, after the interview ends, I’ll share two more of Scott’s lessons, so stick around.
Scott Kelly [Knowable]: Sometimes in space you get a call from a third-grade classroom that wants to see what it looks like to go to the bathroom in zero gravity. Other times, you get a call from mission control saying there’s a hole the size of a golf ball in a heat shield and you might burn up on reentry. I got that call a day or so into commanding my first and only space shuttle mission. A similar issue had killed seven of my colleagues on Columbia a few years earlier.
We could do a spacewalk to try to repair the heat shield, but spacewalks are extremely risky on their own, and there was always a danger we could just damage the heat shield more while trying to fix it. But if we left the hole as it was, the heat of reentry might tear the space shuttle apart. As commander, I had a lot of say in what our approach was going to be.
It would have been tempting to make a quick decision on my own, but over the years I’ve spent leading and following, I’ve learned that the best decisions aren’t made that way. Instead, I found a good time to take each crew member aside one-by-one, in private. I kept a picture of the heat shield damage and a printout of some analysis from the ground in my back pocket so I’d be able to take advantage of a quiet moment. I made sure I spoke to each of my crew members individually to get their honest opinions. I took this to such an extreme that I asked everyone I could. I even asked the astronaut and Russian cosmonauts who weren’t coming back with us on Endeavour.
Why not call a meeting? Why not make a decision together as a group? Well, I’ve seen what can happen when people try to make decisions in groups. One person will offer an opinion, and if that person is knowledgeable or well-respected, everyone else might go along with what they said. Group think sets in. People aren’t even conscious of doing this sometimes. It’s something we do as a social species to get along, and it’s often a useful instinct. But in a case like this, it could be deadly.
There’s a sign on the wall in a meeting room at NASA, “None of us is as dumb as all of us,” and it’s a lesson NASA had to learn the hard way. It’s part of what went wrong with the Columbia accident and with Challenger before it. People who raise concerns were silenced because group think had taken over.
With the input of my crew and after thorough analysis, we decided, along with flight controllers and leaderships on the ground, that coming back with a hole in the heat shield posed less of a risk than attempting a repair.
Flight controller : …Right, main landing…
Scott Kelly [aboard the space shuttle]: The gouge goes pretty much through the entire thickness of the tile itself is 1.2 inches thick.
We fired the de-orbit engines, and as we came out of darkness and started hitting the atmosphere, the plasma field, the fire outside the space shuttle, continued to build. Pretty soon, we were in a 3000 degree fireball falling towards earth at an incredible speed.
Me and my entire crew were mostly silent as we approached the point where the space shuttle Columbia had come apart. As we transitioned through that altitude, my pilot, Scorch, said “Passing through peak heating.” “Understand,” I replied. I let about 20 seconds go by and added, “Looks like we dodged that bullet,” as we all reflected on the loss of our seven colleagues. About 30 minutes later, we landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
But this kind of decision making can help in other places too, places like a level one trauma center in Tucson, Arizona. When my sister-in-law, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in 2011, I was in space halfway through a six month mission. My brother, Mark, was constantly having to make difficult decisions about her care. He found himself in meetings with many of her caretakers, trauma surgeons, brain surgeons, neurologists. But instead of just hearing out the top doctor or a more experienced expert, Mark would go a step further. He would find one quiet person in the back of the room and ask them who they were. “I’m just an intern,” they might say, or, “I’m just a nurse.”
But Mark didn’t care what the person’s training was. “What do you think?” He would ask? “What are we missing? What are we overlooking?” Even if they hadn’t been there long, their opinion mattered, and he learned valuable information by gathering as many perspectives as he could.
I learned as much as seeing from how he handled Gabby’s care as I did from anyone I flew with in space. The smartest person in the room, I’ve learned, is usually the person who knows how to tap into the intelligence of every person in the room.
Tim Ferriss: Scott, welcome to the show.
Scott Kelly: Thanks for having me, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: And I wanted to start not with space, but with West Orange, New Jersey in, I suppose, the ’60s and your mom specifically. Could you please speak to your mom’s experience with joining the police force?
Scott Kelly: Well, that’s a good place to start with my mom, because we all started with our moms. And really this, this all happened kind of in the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s where my dad was a cop in New Jersey and he was in my hometown of West Orange. He was one of those stereotypical Irish cop guys you’d see on TV. And my mother was a secretary and a waitress, various jobs she had at different times. And about the time my brother and I were becoming teenagers, when she could spend more time at work, she decided that she wanted to have a career like my father’s and was going to attempt to become a police officer in our hometown that never had a female police officer before.
And at the time there were very few in the State of New Jersey and it was a challenging thing for her. Especially the physical part of it, because at that time the physical fitness test was really designed for the men that were trying to become policemen and firefighters, the civil service exams that included a physical fitness portion. And it was a challenge that for her was not easy, but I saw her work really, really hard at this. And my dad helped her by setting up this obstacle course in our backyard. And when she first went out there, she was not very successful. And I was a little bit skeptical. I remember thinking, “Is she going to really be able to do this?” But she had a goal that she wanted to achieve, a plan to get there, and she was successful. And it was the first time in my life that I saw the power of having this goal you think you might not be able to achieve, a plan to get there and then working really, really hard at something. And I always wanted to thank my mom for giving that lesson to me and my brother Mark.
Tim Ferriss: Is it true that the family, or she built a mock up wall in the backyard to practice climbing over in preparation for the police exam?
Scott Kelly: Yeah, like I was saying, my dad helped her and he built all the activities she would have to do in our backyard, including a wall that was seven foot, four inches tall. He actually built it an inch taller without telling her, so she thought he was practicing on a seven foot, four inch wall. And she was practicing on one that was an inch taller. My dad thinking that might help her on the real day when she had to scale this thing that she would be overly prepared.
And yeah, the first time she went to climb over that, she probably got her foot a foot high then fell off, fell back into the dirt, but I can remember her picking herself up, brushing herself off. And just saying, “I’m going to just try to touch the top for now. And then once I can do that, I’ll see how long I can hold on for. Maybe someday, eventually, I’ll be able to do a pull-up and quite possibly at the end of the summer, perhaps be able get over this wall.”
Some of the other tests was she had to drag a 130 pound dummy 100 feet. And we just happened to have a long backyard. I happened to at the time weigh 130 pounds and also fit the role as a dummy, because I wasn’t particularly good at school. So with my help and a summer of really hard work on her part, and when she went to take that test, she actually did better than a lot of the men did and became the very first female police officer in my hometown, one of the first in the entire state.
Tim Ferriss: She was off to the races. You just mentioned school, and that’s where I want to go next. I think that many people listening have a certain, I suppose, archetypal narrative that they would impose on astronauts in terms of life story. And they see star students knocking it out of the park, knowing from the age of three they want to be in space, et cetera. You mentioned you weren’t necessarily the best in school. My understanding is you graduated in the bottom half of your high school class and had various misadventures along the way. What happened in terms of course correction, if there was a particular course correction? Was there a point at which you learned to study? Was there a catalyzing event for you that reoriented your focus?
Scott Kelly: Yeah, so most people would think as an astronaut, you must have been the smartest guy in the class, the overachiever. And that is certainly the case with a lot of my colleagues. I mean, I know folks that I’ve worked with that saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon when they were little kids and decided right then and there, that’s what they were going to do. And they did the best at everything from there on out until they became an astronaut and were flying in space, which is great. I wish I could have done that. I think it’s kind of a boring story though. I think it’s much more interesting when it’s someone like me who couldn’t pay attention in school, spent probably the first 13 years of my education staring out the window, whining, “When is this going to be over so I can get out of here?” And it felt like it was impossible for me when I was a kid to pay attention.
It’s not like I didn’t want to. I always went into the new school year with the intention of doing well. And three days into school, I’d be three days behind. And then the rest of the year was just basically on autopilot, not really learning much, not paying attention a whole lot, not getting good grades. I think back then it seemed like it was easier to do that than I think what I’ve noticed with my kids today. I don’t think you’d be able to get away with the amount of effort I put in then, but I can just remember it being impossible for me to pay attention. Basically having the feeling that if you would have held a gun to my head, to force me to pay attention, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. That’s how I felt. And I think I probably have ADD or ADHD never diagnosed.
So, that’s probably why I had such a hard time and it wasn’t until I got to college and I was still struggling, didn’t know how to study, really didn’t do well. Eventually I’m not even going to class anymore, or at least much. Basically, on the fast track of how a lot of kids experienced their first year of college. Basically one and done, one year and you’re done. And then I was just walking across the college campus, just happened to walk into the bookstore, not to buy a book. It was probably going there to buy gum or some other non-educational related thing. Maybe they sold beer there. I don’t know, who knows?
But I remember seeing this book on the end of the aisle, where they highlight the stuff that they’re trying to sell. I think it’s called the end cap or something of a bookshelf. And there was this book that had this very patriotic, red, white, and blue cover, a cool title. Caught my eye, made me pick it up. Wasn’t a big reader at the time, so it was kind of unusual for me to actually buy a book like that then, and read the back, found it interesting, looked through the first three pages, took my gum money or my beer money or whatever it was and bought the book, walked back to my dorm room and then opened it up. And basically didn’t get out of my bed for the next few days, just reading the stories of the fighter pilots, military fighter pilots, and test pilots that became the original Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts.
And the book was The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. And something in that book just really sparked my imagination. I think it’s probably partly his creative nonfiction writing style that just really caught my attention and my imagination. It was the fact that I felt like I could relate to the people in the book, the guys that he was writing about, they were all guys at the time, not anymore. There obviously a lot of female astronauts now, but back then there was only men and felt like I had something in common with them. And with regards to like risk-taking and just putting myself in challenging and risky situations, the adventure of it really spoke to me. But then I realized I am not a good student.
And these guys, most of them went to the military service academies. I think Pete Conrad went to Princeton. I mean, they were very accomplished students before they were pilots. But I thought to myself, “If I could just fix that one thing about me, if I could learn how to pay attention and study and do better in school, perhaps I could change colleges, change majors, get an engineering major,” the place I was at wasn’t quite working out for me, “and get a commission in the US Navy and go fly fighter planes off of an aircraft carrier. Maybe become a test pilot, maybe quite possibly an astronaut someday.”
So, that inspiration, I think, is important. And that’s what I tell kids that, also a lot of parents, if their kids are struggling, I think you can tell them all you want that they have to do better, but you really have to show them why they need to do better. There has to be that thing, that inspiration, that spark, that just provides inspiration to get people moving in the right direction. And that’s what Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff was for me.
Tim Ferriss: And later, you shot him an email from space with a photograph of yourself with that book, if I am getting my facts straight, which just is such an incredible full cycle return to the origin in a sense and incredible prose writer, as you noted, just a wonderful craftsman of nonfiction. What happened or what did you change after that inspiration? Was it valuable because it aligned your academic focus in a way where you were simply choosing courses that were more oriented towards that path, and that is what helped you to then find a different vector of progress? Despite your difficulties with attention, was it just doubling down because now you had a better reason? What changed?
Scott Kelly: Well, let me just comment first on you were you mentioning that email, which his response was so Tom Wolfe-like, in that he had words in there that were not really words and outrageous punctuation, so it was a pretty cool email to get back from him. But in my case, it wasn’t really focusing on new subjects that were more in line with being an engineer or a pilot, because those were really the subjects I had the most challenge with, like math as an example, I wasn’t really a great math student. Or actually, I wasn’t great at anything. But for me it wasn’t necessarily a change of course, or like you said, a vector, doubling. It was more the doubling down on the fact that no matter how hard I’ve tried in the past that didn’t work.
And I just have to try a lot harder to force myself to learn how to learn, really, was the first challenge of the next year after I read Tom’s book and I decided that this is what I’m going to do. I just had to do it kind of brute force method by myself. I think today you would have a lot more help, especially if you have diagnosed ADD or ADHD, there’d be ways to get support and assistance. But for me, strictly the brute force method, chain myself to my desk, don’t move until I can figure out how to do this pre-calculus problem. I remember that being a big struggle with the school I was at. But eventually, like many things, what I’ve always found in my career, whether it’s in the military, in the Navy, flying airplanes, whether it’s at NASA and that is, how good we are when we start something is not related at all to how good we can become at anything.
Tim Ferriss: When did you first, and maybe you just had the confidence from the get-go after reading Tom’s book, was there a point after you chain yourself to the desk, you double and triple down with this brute force method, was there a particular point where you thought to yourself, “I can actually do this. I believe that I can forge a path that will take me to where I want to go?”
Scott Kelly: Yeah. Well, I don’t know if confidence is the right word. I’ve always felt that I’m kind of a below-average guy performing at an above-average level. And I think that’s a good place to be. Because if you get too confident, I think you get lazy. And in my case, once I figured out what I needed to do, I always felt like I needed to work harder than other people, because maybe I didn’t have as much natural smarts or talent or ability. So there was never a moment where I ever got confident. There was kind of a turning point from a learning and education perspective, and that is, eventually I figured out how to study well enough that I was able to change schools.
I changed majors. I became an engineering major, but now I’m starting my freshman year all over again, but still haven’t really cracked the code on what it takes. And it was coming up on Columbus Day. I went to a school called the State University in New York, Maritime College, it’s in the Bronx. It’s a college that has a military regimental system, which I felt like I had to have that. So that was the primary reason I went there. The other reason was it was really one of the few places I could get into because I had such bad high school grades, and my first year of college grades weren’t all that great, but I needed that kind of discipline and structure. I felt like I did. My brother, who was on a completely different trajectory once we went into high school, was at the US Merchant Marine Academy. And ask me a little bit later how he became upon a different trajectory, because it’s actually kind of a funny story.
But he was across the river, actually the Long Island Sound at the US Merchant Marine Academy. And he wound up a year ahead of me because I took that first year mulligan in college. But we were coming up on Columbus Day weekend. So it’s kind of the beginning of the school year almost. And I call my brother up and I say, “Hey, some of our friends are having a frat party at Rutgers, some of our high school friends.” And I was thinking of going there for the whole weekend, leave on Friday, come back on Monday.
And I called my brother and said, “Hey, you want to go with me?” And he’s like, “No, I got some work to do. I got some tests next week,” and then he goes, “Hey, have you had any tests yet? Like a calculus test?” That was my first year of calculus, and I said, “No, we have one next week.” And then he immediately cursed at me, yelled at me, and basically said, “What the hell are you doing? I mean, you’ve never been good at this. You have this motivation to like, change your path in life. And you’re thinking about going to a frat party and spending the weekend at a frat house?” And I go, “Yeah, well, the test’s at the end of the week, I’ll study when I get back.” He goes, “You should be doing every single problem in every chapter, multiple times, basically until you can’t stand it anymore, because that’s what it’s going to take.”
And I remember thinking to myself, “I’m not too sure I’m going to listen to him.” I actually really wanted to go to this frat party. But I decided, you know, he had gotten good grades through high school and was doing very well where he was in college. And I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll listen to my twin brother,” after he was yelling and cursing at me on the phone. And I did what he said. And then at the end of the week, I took the test and I got 100. And then from then on, I basically knew what it took to do well, and that is for me, what has always taken for me is just know as much as you can about anything you’re doing. And then even if you fall a little bit short, you’re still not going to fall so far that you’re failing or doing poorly.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. That story also makes me think of someone I know named Jerzy Gregorek. He’s a Polish-born Olympic weightlifting champion, has a few world records. And his expression is, “Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.” I mean, flashing back, choosing to do those problem sets three, four times, instead of going to the frat party, I mean, it seems like sort of a defining example of the hard choice, at least the emotionally hard choice.
I’d like to ask you about failure and how you, in some sense, relate to failure. So I’m going to take a left turn, because I know you’ve spoken a lot about space. This doesn’t have to be space specific. It could be related to it, of course. But how would you say a failure or apparent failure has set you up for later success? In other words, do you have any favorite failure, in retrospect, that in some respect kind of planted the seeds for a greater success later?
Scott Kelly: Well, failure is an option. I think. It’s something that we all probably experience and, hopefully, we learn from it and move forward. Certainly my early education was one big failure after another. I’m not proud of that. I wish I could have a do-over. It’s actually one of the greatest regrets of my life, and that is sitting in class for 13 years not paying attention. Talk about a colossal waste of time. And I wish I could have a do-over on that.
But other failures that would set me up for success, the first time I qualified to land an F-14 Tomcat on the ship, I disqualified. My first landing, the hook of the airplane, the tailhook, actually hit the back of the aircraft carrier, the stern, the part that goes down towards the water. And I was one and done on that, sent home, and had a stern talking to. I was given an option of actually going to fly a cargo plane that the commanding officer thought, well, maybe that would be easier for me because my first experience on the ship was so ugly.
But I was given another chance and, in this situation, I just thought to myself… I’d never flown a big airplane before, didn’t even know if I could do that. But I thought if I’m going to fail at something, I might as well fail at something that I think I might not be able to do rather than something that’s easier because, at least, this way, you kind of know where you stand, what you’re capable of. And I always feel like if we’re not always moving that bar higher and risking failure, then we’re not really reaching our potential.
And the people I’ve come across not only at NASA and the military and industry are… The people that are really successful are the people that are willing to take the risk of failing. And oftentimes I’ll come across kids or adults that they don’t want to do something because they think they might not be able to do it. But what if they are able to? They would never know.
So, to put yourself out there, to expose yourself to failure, I think is something that everyone should strive for because if they don’t, they’re never going to be able to see what they could possibly achieve. Now, hopefully, the risk taking I’m talking about is not something that would get you killed. It almost got me killed on a number of occasions. But, hopefully, it’s not those kinds of risks, but career risk, other kinds of risks, and putting yourself out there for maybe getting a degree you don’t think you’re capable of, applying for a job you think you might not get. Those kinds of risks are something I think people should be be challenging themselves like that all the time.
Tim Ferriss: It makes me think of this quote from Larry Page, one of the co-founders of Google, but I’m paraphrasing here, but he often observes that something that’s easy to miss is that if you aim really big, it’s quite difficult to fail completely. Now there are examples certainly within the context of flying where that does not apply. But in a lot of these other areas, like you mentioned career decisions, et cetera, even if you fail, meaning you don’t reach your objective, there can be a lot of benefits that you don’t get if you aim really small.
But let’s go back to the F-14 Tomcat. How fast are you moving when you land such a plane? I know it’s variable because it’s changing as you’re on the approach, but what’s the range of speed as you’re… My understanding is the F-14 Tomcat is about 50 feet wide, and how wide is the aircraft carrier or the landing portion?
Scott Kelly: I’m not sure how wide the landing area is, but it’s not much wider than the airplane. You don’t have a whole lot of margin. The airplane lands… It depends on the weight, what weight you’re landing at, but it’s somewhere around 150 miles an hour, not the fastest landing. On the ship, you have to land relatively slow. The T-38 that we flew at NASA would land at 170 knots. So the F-14 is a little bit slower.
But the thing about the Tomcat or any airplane that’s landing on the ship is not only are you trying to land on this very small runway, but that runway is constantly moving up and down, heaving up and down. It’s pitching bow to stern. It’s rolling left to right, and it’s moving away from you because the deck is angled as the ship is going forward. And then sometimes it’s dark, so you can’t really see anything either. So it’s a pretty challenging piloting task.
Actually, it’s harder than landing the space shuttle, believe it or not. Difference with the space shuttle is you’re not feeling well, you’re dizzy. You might be nauseous. You don’t have a second chance in that it’s a glider, a big glider with very poor flying qualities, and you’re only going to get to do this once or twice in your life. Everyone’s watching you, so it’s a lot of pressure, different kind of pressure than the F-14.
Tim Ferriss: Aside from your own books, what are the books that you’ve given the most as gifts to other people and why? Do any come to mind that you’ve given to more than one person?
Scott Kelly: I’m looking at my bookshelf in my office here, certainly The Right Stuff. I’ve given that to people. Alfred Lansing’s book, Endurance, which is partly where the name of my book, Endurance, comes from because that book about Ernest Shackleton and his voyage with his crew of Endurance, the ship, to the Antarctic in the beginning of the last century was really one of the greatest examples of leadership in a very challenging and dangerous environment that I could ever imagine.
I mean, it’s just extraordinary what Shackleton, as the leader of that expedition, was able to do when their ship, Endurance, got stuck in the ice, eventually crushed. And they spent, I forget exactly how long, but it was almost two years saving themselves that involved living on ice packs and transits of hundreds and hundreds of miles in lifeboats in the Arctic, a crossing of South Georgia Island in the winter that no one had ever done before. But Shackleton and a small team of his guys did that as at the end of them trying to save themselves. And he was able to do that, and no one died. None of his crew members died. Everyone survived.
So that book is a very meaningful book for me that I have actually given it to other people. Hemingway fan, certainly The Old Man and the Sea is a favorite. And I’m also looking at Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. I think I’ve given that book to other people.
Tim Ferriss: What is The Good Earth about?
Scott Kelly: Yeah. So it’s about… Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth… It’s brilliant. It’s about this farmer in China, this peasant farmer that… I haven’t read it in a long time, but I think his name was Wang Lung. He goes from peasant farmer and survives all these famines and eventually becomes a major land holder. Really a great book, incredibly well-written, and a great example of what life was like in that time during China before the revolution and when they had many, many years of famine and having massive numbers of people having to migrate as a result. Highly recommended, one of my favorites of all time.
Tim Ferriss: That is a nonfiction or fiction?
Scott Kelly: It’s nonfiction.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about scientific literacy for a few minutes.
Scott Kelly: Oh, boy. Oh, boy.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So I am not a scientist. I support a lot of science. I have a basic level of, I would consider it, scientific literacy. There is a lot of froth and noise out in the world today, certainly magnified by social media and so on in many respects. Could you speak to what happened with respect to Steph Curry and the moon landing, except this may be an entry point for discussing how people can develop the greater ability to separate fact from fiction?
Scott Kelly: Well, tell you what, I’m not a scientist either although I do play one on TV occasionally and in space. A lot of people think, hey, you’re an astronaut, you must be a scientist. No, I’m not a scientist. I’ve done a lot of science. I think I’m a science-minded person. I know what science is. I know what it isn’t.
And, unfortunately, I think in today’s society a lot of people have kind of lost reality in some ways where, all of a sudden, in our society, science is now opinion or politics. It’s not. It’s objective observation. It’s evidence. It’s experimentation. It’s critical analysis. It’s peer review. It’s always evolving, but it is the truth as we know it at that particular time. And the science deniers we have in our society now are dangerous.
I used to kind of goof around with the flat earthers. Now I don’t even acknowledge their existence. I probably shouldn’t even have brought them up because I don’t believe that they should even be given any kind of acknowledgement because it’s just so absolutely outrageous. It’s almost like if you’re a flat earther, well, why don’t you just deny that the sun is in the sky? I mean, the earth is round. I mean, you can go up in an airplane and look out the window and see that it’s round. You got to look pretty closely because you’re not very high. But if you do look closely, you can see we live on a curved planet, not to mention that thousands of years of science has determined that the Earth is round and of course I’ve seen it from space and it is pretty round. It’s not flat. And if it was flat, wouldn’t the edge be like the most popular tourist attraction on Earth? I would just go set up a taco truck and make a billion dollars with my edge of the Earth tacos. Yeah, so I generally don’t give those kind of folks any acknowledgement because I just think it’s so outrageous. And I know some of them do it kind of as a goof and they think it’s funny or it’s cute or whatever, some people really believe it. The danger is if you’re willing to believe that the Earth is flat, what else are you willing to believe? That vaccines don’t work? That we are not living in a pandemic where people by the thousands are dying every day around the world? That climate change is a hoax? So it’s a risky thing.
With regards to Steph, Steph is an awesome guy. I think he’s a smart guy. I think in his situation, he just kind of got caught up in a thing where he said, he just agreed with somebody about the moon landings probably with not even giving it a whole lot of thought. And then he got a lot of heat for it and I felt bad for him because I like him. I’m a fan. So I just reached out to him and I said, “Hey, if you want to talk about the moon landing, I’d be happy to share what I know with you.” And he was very happy to have that conversation and to take back what he said about that because, and he wasn’t doing anything malicious. He was just kind of agreeing with the guy, a guy who said that. And then he was kind of onto the next thing, but a lot of people gave him a lot of heat for it. So we had a little talk about it. I think he understands now.
Tim Ferriss: If we look at the spectrum of, let’s just call it scientific, maybe not scientific thinking, but sort of a detached, on some level rational skepticism, et cetera, the ability to navigate the world and to the best of our ability separate fact from fiction. It does seem to me that there are people out there who are not, let’s just say Flat Earthers, right? Or people who are trying to convince you of God knows what that is just it seems clearly at face value ridiculous. To the people in the middle who really don’t know how to best discern what is true and what is not. And I think vaccines are a great example in the sense that I have many friends who I would consider in many, many domains to be very smart, high-performing effective people who do not even know where to begin with vaccines, just in terms of claims from friends, certainly different sites on the-
Scott Kelly: You mean they are Facebook friends that are claiming to be experts on this stuff?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, or those Facebook friends link to a site that seems to have citations and they just, I mean, I will just say these people I’m talking about, they’re not people I would consider broadly stupid people at all. So how can someone who wants to become more discerning and capable in sifting through the noise become better tuned? Do you have any suggestions for how they can cultivate that?
Scott Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’m not an expert on many, many things. And there are things that I know a lot about, things I don’t know a whole lot about, but when I don’t know about those, I asked the rocket scientist of whatever that thing is. I get my information from trusted sources, government agencies that are the authority on the pandemic like the CDC, the World Health Organization, these kinds of places, media outlets that have been there for a long time and that have a reputation. Not your crazy uncle on Facebook, not people you’ve never heard of. So it’s just shocking to me that people will just discount things that are the truth without even trying to go find out what the real story is and just saying, “I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that.” Yeah, you don’t have to be a scientist to understand science. And even if you don’t understand it, find the person that’s the expert and believe them because they’re the experts, right?
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s talk about something that you are, I mean, I would think, very qualified to comment on and that is possible future missions to Mars. I would love to just hear your thoughts on the feasibility or attractiveness of future missions to Mars in part because there are many diverging opinions here. For instance, you have Elon Musk on one side of the spectrum, you have then also people like Jeff Bezos, who I believe have publicly said, “The last thing you want to do is have to deal with gravity and the environment on Mars.” Once you get into space, you want to build communities in space as opposed to on another planet for a host of different reasons. And if you, you mentioned Shackleton, so if you like the idea of being on Mars, you should try living in Antarctica for a few months and then let me know how you feel since that’s pretty temperate and forgiving compared to the ecosystem on Mars or the climate at least. How would you suggest people think about, or how do you think about missions to Mars?
Scott Kelly: Yeah, so a few things come to mind. One is, and I’ll quote my brother and give him credit for this because he said it and that’s the only place I’ve ever heard this. And he says, “Going to Mars is not about rocket science. It’s really about political science because we know much of what we need to know technically about how to do it, but if we’re going to really do that someday, put people, put boots on Mars, it’s really more about having the money, the political support and the public support. It’s going to take people to vote in to office science minded people that feel like this is important.” And I do think we can do it. We could probably do it pretty soon. There are some challenges, I think our life support systems probably need to be a little bit more robust. We certainly have to protect the crew from radiation, whether we have some protective materials or we just get to Mars quicker so they’re not exposed to radiation for that long, but it’s something that we’re absolutely capable of doing. And I think we should do.
I don’t think though, we need to look at Mars as a lifeboat for planet Earth. Now I say that having been wrong about things that Elon has said before. So, when he was going to land the first stage of the Falcon rocket on a ship and reuse it, my initial thought was he’s crazy. But then he went and did it, and then he did it again and again and again and again. So I will never say Elon’s crazy again, but I always think it will be easier to live on Earth regardless of what bad thing might happen to it. And I also think it’s important that we need to recognize that really this is our home. We need to take care of it. We’re not going to move the whole planet to Mars.
I think it’s important to go to Mars and establish a foothold. It’s great that we’ve had a foothold in space. We’re coming up on the 20-year anniversary of having people in space continuously. So kids that are alive today have never been on planet Earth with everybody else. And I think we should continue to do that. I think we should go to Mars someday. I think we should have people living on Mars, but I don’t look at it as a-
Tim Ferriss: Plan B.
Scott Kelly: … necessary as a planet B kind of thing. Yeah, I do think this planet could be pretty well destroyed and I don’t think we should do that, but it could be, and it would still be easier than living on Mars, living here.
Tim Ferriss: What are the most compelling arguments for the importance of getting people to Mars, or more simply asked, why do you think it is important? Because it would involve, of course, very significant costs.
Scott Kelly: Yeah. So, yeah, I think going to Mars is, it’s going to be expensive, but that expense is paid with very high paying jobs that recently there was this NASA study that talked about the return on investment. So NASA is a moneymaking prospect in that it generates more tax dollars than it uses. A mission to Mars would be the same thing. A mission to Mars would develop technologies that we may not have today. Maybe it won’t, I don’t know. It may, it may not. It’ll definitely push our envelope of what we are technically capable of doing. I think it would be a great way to cooperate internationally. We have a lot of conflict here on Earth, but we’ve been flying on that Space Station with the Russians for the last 20 years.
And it gives countries that are sometimes in conflict with each other a place to work on something that is peaceful, that benefits everybody. I think that we’re explorers. I think it’s in our nature, our DNA. I don’t think we would have developed to be the species we are today if we didn’t explore. I think it’s part of who we are and we should continue to do it. And then, I think if everything I said was wrong, the fact that that kind of mission, that going to Mars, going to the moon, the Space Station, the space shuttle, the space program in general, it inspires kids, not only in the United States, but around the world to be better students, to study math and science and STEM careers, to be better in those areas of study that are so, so important to our economy.
Because all those people, all those kids around the world that are so inspired by NASA, they’re not going to work for NASA. I mean, some of them will, but all of them aren’t. They’re going to go into other fields that contribute to our economy, our society and our way of life. And if that’s all we got out of it, that’s worth every penny. I mean, if the six or whatever billion dollars we spend a year on human space flight, if the only thing we got out of that is that kind of inspiration for our kids, which I don’t think it’s the only thing we get out of it, but if it was, worth every cent.
Tim Ferriss: Hear, hear, thank you for that answer. Let’s talk about Go For Launch: How to Dream, Lead, and Achieve. This is your two-hour audio course on Knowable. Why did you produce this audio course, and what do you hope people will gain from it?
Scott Kelly: I think my life story has a lot of lessons in it that I think will help other people and inspire other people that they can do things that maybe they didn’t think they were capable of. They can take risks, they can challenge themselves. I’m hoping that people will look at this as a way to find maybe more success in their own lives. And I’ve done that with the public speaking I do, I’ve done it with the books that I’ve written, and this is just a new way of doing and reaching a different audience. I really didn’t know much about Knowable before I was approached to do this. But when I learned about it, I was like, “Hey, that’s a really good idea.” People like to listen to books on tape now, especially, a lot more recently and why not listen to something that is not a book, but has particular lessons from different kinds of people. So for those that don’t know, Knowable, it’s a new app that gives exclusive audio courses from different types of experts. Chris Paul is one of them, Alexis Ohanian, me, a bunch of other people. It’s basically kind of like listening to Spotify, but it’s for learning something. And hopefully people will learn something that will help in their lives from the audio course I was able to put together.
They can find this course on knowable.fyi/scott. At least that’s what they told me where you can find it. And I hope I said that right. And yeah, I hope people enjoy it. There’s some humor in there, I tell a couple of jokes every now and then and I hope people find them funny and I hope they enjoy it.
Tim Ferriss: And we’ll link to that also for everybody in the show notes and sets that’s heavily trafficked at tim.blog/tim. So we’ll link to everything, including knowable.fyi/scott for folks. Just maybe two more questions, and then we can bring this round one to a close.
Scott Kelly: Wait, round one? There’s a round two?
Tim Ferriss: I like saying round one. I could say this conversation, but if it gives you more anxiety that you enjoy, I could say this is round one of 17 for the forthcoming indefinite series with Scott Kelly. No, this is the end of the conversation.
Scott Kelly: Right.
Tim Ferriss: So I always like to say round one, just in case there is a round two.
Scott Kelly: I almost hung up on you right there when you said round [crosstalk 01:27:20]. I’m out.
Tim Ferriss: Understandable. Two questions. The first is, and these are sometimes dead ends and I’ll take the blame if they are, but we’ll give it a shot. So the first is, if you could put anything on a gigantic billboard, this is metaphorically speaking, to get a message or a question an image, anything out to billions of people, what might you put on that? Something non-commercial.
Scott Kelly: Right now I’d say something like, “Science is real, believe it.”
Tim Ferriss: Science is real, believe it. Yeah, what a world we live in.
Scott Kelly: Yeah, right? We have to. Imagine Galileo coming or Newton coming to this world now. They would lose their minds.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I saw a cartoon at the beginning of the pandemic which featured this guy clearly that’s sort of the husband and wife couple, and the husband’s sitting at his computer and he says, “Honey, it’s amazing. Last week all of my friends on Facebook were constitutional lawyers. And this week they’re all epidemiologists.”
Scott Kelly: Yeah, right.
Tim Ferriss: So search for the signal folks. All right. The second question is, and this might seem like a bizarre question, but I’m curious, when is the last time you cried tears of joy that you remember?
Scott Kelly: This might be an answer you’re not expecting or weird, but I don’t think I ever have maybe.
Tim Ferriss: Ever?
Scott Kelly: Yeah, I don’t think so. Tears of joy? No. I’m not much of a crier. There’s no crying in space.
Tim Ferriss: No crying in space, no crying in baseball, people. All right. Well, Scott, is there anything that you would like to say just as closing comments, any recommendations or asks of the audience that you would like to add before we close?
Scott Kelly: Well, certainly I think having this platform and an opportunity to speak to your viewers and that is, we’re living in some really crazy times right now. And I’ve had the privilege to people work in some really challenging environments in things that are very risky, things that you might not even believe is possible. And we’re able to be successful. Success requires teamwork and I think our country just needs to realize that we just have to start working together. I mean, we can’t live in this divided society where people are in conflict with one another, because we have some serious challenges and the way you meet those challenges is with teamwork. And that has been my experience my whole career at NASA. And just wish more people would just kind of come together, identify problems, do it in a thoughtful way, believe in science, solve those problems and then move on to the next thing. And I’m just very hopeful that we can get there and hopefully get there soon.
Tim Ferriss: Science is real, believe it. And this is a great place to end. Well, Scott, thank you so much for taking the time today. I know this is a long form conversation and I appreciate you carving out the time to have a chat and to share your life lessons and to answer my sometimes obvious, sometimes peculiar, sometimes in the middle questions. So thank you very much for carving out some space to do this.
Scott Kelly: Hey, thanks for having me, Tim. I very much enjoyed it. Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: And to everybody listening, you can find show notes, links to everything we’ve discussed, tim.blog/podcast. You can find the Knowable course at knowable.fyi/scott, and until next time, thanks for tuning in.
Scott Kelly [Knowable audio]: I’m grateful that throughout my 20 years at NASA, I had the chance to work with a wide variety of people from different backgrounds. I flew in space with a French engineer, a school teacher from Idaho, a Swiss astrophysicist and more Russian cosmonauts than I can count. He spoke different languages, believed different things, problem solved in different ways. And when you’re trying to do something as challenging, as flying in space, you need as many different strengths as you can get. And then I met Cady.
When I was preparing for my first long duration space flight, I was slated to overlap for a majority of the 159 days with Cady Coleman. Cady was a military officer in the Air Force, a chemist. She was a veteran of two space shuttle missions just like me, but Cady and I were as different as two military officers can be. In fact, some of our colleagues were seriously concerned that we might kill each other. For months, we would have to cooperate and live together in a space the size of the inside of a 747 filled was stuff. So when Cady first arrived, I could see why people had been worried. Cady didn’t entirely live her life by schedules and I would often find her in the little window filled module called the Cupola looking at the earth and playing her flute at 3:00 in the morning.
Throughout the workday, I always knew what Cady was working on because she would leave experiments and projects half done, or there would be scraps and remnants of her activities just floating around. I used to call it a Cady Trail. But whatever else she needed to do, Cady always made time to speak with people on the ground, especially schoolchildren, even beyond the many events that NASA schedules us for.
Cheikh [a live Q&A participant]: Hi, my name is Cheikh, and my question is, how do you dispose trash on a space station?
Cady Coleman [responding in the live Q&A]: Cheikh, you have an excellent question for exactly this week. It is very difficult. We can’t just—
Scott Kelly [Knowable]: She made time for art and music, even playing the first earth space duet on her flute with the founder of the band, Jethro Tull.
There was one more aspect of our personalities that couldn’t be more different. I had always seen the public relations part of my job as a nuisance. It needed to be done because the public has a right to know what’s being done with their tax dollars and to feel involved in the space program, but I’m not a newscaster or a YouTuber and I didn’t really enjoy being pressed into [inaudible 00:02:38]. I felt that my job was to command the space station, carry out the many complex procedures and experiments I was tasked with, to run a tight ship, to keep my crew safe, and obviously to keep everything from exploding. One day we had a standard public affairs interview. Here’s what I sounded like answering questions in my factual straightforward, are we done yet, tone.
We got up here about a little over a hundred and something days ago. Not that I’m counting, but felt like I picked up just where I left off last time.
This was not my favorite part of the day. Later, Cady confronted me. She said, “If you don’t sound excited about what we’re doing up here, no one else will be either.” She was right. I learned a lot by watching Cady. By the time I flew a year-long mission on the space station, you could certainly hear the difference.
Interviewer [live interview with space station crew]: And you actually packed a gorilla suit in your gear, which is incredible.
Scott Kelly [in live interview]: It’s interesting when you vacuum pack something, it doesn’t take up a whole lot of room. And for one, when you try to get kids attention and teach them about science and math and engineering and things like that, the first thing you have to do is get their attention and nothing gets people’s attention like a gorilla in space.
Scott Kelly [Knowable]: By this time, I’d figured out Twitter and Instagram, I’ve been building up the Year in Space hashtag, I did a Reddit AMA. I showed off the first flower we grew in space. I played water ping pong and had a Super Bowl party three for one. I juggled fruit, which is still impressive, even though the fruit just kind of hangs there. I also explained how I had to clean up a gallon sized ball of urine and acid. I explained that space smells like burning metal and that my favorite David Bowie song is not Space Oddity, but probably Under Pressure.
It wasn’t what I thought I had been trained for, but this kind of work was able to bring all kinds of people into the experience of our mission and bring them closer to science, engineering, and the amazing things we accomplish when we all work together. But it was Cady with her flute and her always positive attitude that made that possible.
We all learned a lot from each other up there and training to fly on the Russian spacecraft, I spent a lot of time in Russia getting to know the culture and learning to speak the language. Not very well, I might add. I’ve had the chance to get to know Russian literature and history in a way I never expected. There’s always potential for conflict and challenges, particularly with the Russians. Our countries are not always the friendliest. I guess you could call us frenemies, but in space you set all that aside because we rely on those cosmonauts and they rely on us. Space is a great place to do that because no one owns it. It’s a common ground where peaceful scientific collaboration can occur.
I’ve learned from my colleagues who grew up in different cultures, practiced different religions and were born with different sexual orientations. It’s only been very recently that NASA has recruited astronauts who openly acknowledge the same sex partner. And I hope to see a transgender astronaut in my lifetime. I have a transgender son who is one of the smartest and kindest people I have ever had the privilege of knowing and it would be a loss to NASA if they didn’t choose to include people like him among the ranks someday.
In retrospect, I think the people who told Cady and me we would kill each other in space underestimated both of us and overlook the power of our differences. I try to keep this in mind when I see people who seem very different working together, and I want to encourage them to see their differences as strengths and what we referred to in the military as a force multiplier. Cady and I are now lifelong friends and when I think of the mission we flew together, I hope she remembers as fondly as I do the times I’d find her playing her flute and the Cupola and couldn’t help but tell her, “Cady go to sleep. It’s a school night. I don’t care if you’re friends with Jethro Tull.”
Scott Kelly [Knowable]: Sometimes people are incentivized to dodge blame or even cover up their mistakes, and I’ve seen this in action as well. The Russian Space Agency has a very different way of managing and compensating their cosmonauts then NASA does its astronauts, and part of that has to do with how blame is distributed. Both astronauts and cosmonauts are paid extra when they are flying in space. In the case of the cosmonauts, they get a significant bonus of somewhere between 350 to 700 US dollars per day, depending on how experienced they are. So for someone like my friend Gennady who has spent 879 days in space, that can really add up. By contrast, American astronauts are paid the government per diem rate $5 per day. But our salaries are much higher to begin with, which means we are less dependent on that bonus for our livelihoods than the cosmonauts are, which is where the problem comes in.
Cosmonauts are given higher bonuses for their achievements, like a successful spacewalk, and lower bonuses to reflect mistakes, for flipping the wrong switch, missing a step in an experiment, or similar everyday human errors. And you might not believe this, but there’s actually a real person in Russian Mission Control whose only job is to track the mistakes of cosmonauts. And when each cosmonaut comes back to Earth, they have to sit in a room with the mistake tracker and an accountant to determine what their bonus is going to be.
I’ve experienced firsthand. The way this sort of negotiation is supposed to work. When I was preparing to fly on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, I trained with my crew mates in a simulator much like the simulators I’ve trained on in Houston to fly the space shuttle. After our final simulation flights in Russia, we would have to answer to a panel of Russian Space Agency officials about our performance, kind of a public stoning I would call it. It took me a while to understand that we were actually expected to create an elaborate excuse matrix about how we hadn’t done anything wrong, how everything was somebody else’s fault, and that no blame should be attached to us. I came to think of this practice as blamesmithing, and some people were quite skilled at it. Bending the narrative of events to always move the blame away from you and towards some other poor bastard.
I was terrible at this but that was fine with me, and I think it annoyed the Russians that during the public stoning when it was my turn to make an impassioned speech about how I didn’t flip the wrong switch, I’d just say, “Yep, that was me.” Now once we were in space, the question of blame got real for my Russian friends. They were always dealing with the possibility of losing their income to the smallest mistakes, so I’d tell them to blame me. As far as I could see it, it was a win-win. They wouldn’t lose their bonus and their control center wouldn’t spend a day trying to figure out what went wrong because they were avoiding responsibility. Real teamwork means it’s crucial for everyone to admit their mistakes. If you want to solve problems, move fast, and make sure everyone’s doing their best, you can’t punish people for speaking up. That’s true in space, but it applies anytime, anywhere.
In my experience as a space shuttle crew member, and later as commander of the International Space Station, I learned how important this was. On the space shuttle, if I had actuated the wrong switch at the wrong moment, always a possibility with 2000 of them, I might’ve caused a 100 people in Mission Control to spend hours or even days trying to figure out why their data looked funny and not focusing on what is important. It’s so much better to just be honest and move on. And if that doesn’t work, you can always say, “The American did it.”
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