One of the perks of being a spaceman (besides, you know, going to space) is apparently being on a first-name basis with a dude who only needs a first name.
"I actually talked to Bono last week—he sent me a quick email," the astronaut said, flipping through his iPhone before realizing my prying eyes were desperately trying to catch a glimpse of his A-list address book.
Mark Kelly is undoubtably one of the most renowned and respected astronauts of the modern-era, and last month I had the pleasure of catching up with him at the NYC Explorers Club after a lengthy Q&A Forum hosted by our friends at Breitling. So blast off with me (...not like that) into the life and mind of a professional Space-traveler, one of the golden few who truly exude the "Right Stuff." Needless to say, he's OUT OF THIS WORLD (sorry).
"The space shuttle is still an experimental vehicle. Even though it flew over 30 years, it only flew 135 times. As a test pilot I get that. I know there’s incredible risk involved...At the end of the day, NASA said it was a one in 57 risk of dying and losing the vehicle in every space shuttle flight. The numbers kind of show that. It’s almost as dangerous as storming the beach at Normandy on D-Day."
Despite the odds, Mark made it clear that the benefits reaped from his missions were well worth the lingering potential for disaster, in his mind.
"You evaluate the risk and the reward. For me, it’s not really the reward for me personally, but what does it do for our country, for our space program, for society. I think the reward is pretty incredible."
On aliens and Area 51...
"UFOs. Buzz Aldrin said he saw something.... If there are aliens out there, we certainly do not want them to be visiting us because it usually doesn’t work out well for the less developed society... I think there’s probably life all over the universe, but it’s probably green and in a pond. Probably a lot of it is what we call pond scum. I mean, I’m not too worried.
And on the infamous Area 51, from someone who has been in space (and the Air Force, too): "I’ll tell you, Area 51— I know what goes on there, and it has nothing to do with aliens."
NASA said it was a 1 in 57 risk of dying in every space shuttle flight.
On his twin brother, Scott (also an astronaut) and the greatest practical joke that never was...
You thought the Manning brothers had killer genes? Mark and his twin brother Scott were set to become the first relatives in space simultaneously, until Mark's mission to the International Space Station (where Scott was Commander) slipped. History aside, it was probably for the best, as the Kelly bros had a devious plan up their puffy, pressurized space-sleeves...
"I was going to shave off my mustache. We were going to have a fake one for him. We were going to switch shirts, and then I was going to get back into the space shuttle. NASA mission control was going to think that we switched. I tell you, it would have created chaos."
On Richard Branson and the future of commercial space travel...
"I know Richard well...the guy’s a visionary...People were somewhat critical of Richard Branson because [Virgin Galactic] seems like a joyride for rich people up into space, people that have a lot of money....That’s not why he’s doing this. He did not start a space tourism company just to take people up 60 miles and straight back down....We really need people like him to do these kinds of hard things and push the envelope. If we don’t take chances and we don’t risk things and we don’t explore and we don’t push the envelope, we don’t advance. We’ll just be where we are today, 50 years from now."
Area 51—I know what goes on there, and it has nothing to do with aliens.
Kelly himself is involved in a "near-space" tourism company, World View.
During our talk, a woman who may or may not have been over-served, asked the question she was afraid to ask in front of the crowd: has anyone ever had sex in space—and is it even possible, without gravity?
"I really don't think anyone has. Of course there are rumors, with both men and women being up there together for long period of time, but there's not much privacy. I do think it would be possible though, I don't see why not. We learn, and adapt to everything up there."
On George Clooney and Gravity...
"I thought Gravity was really good—but one of the things that makes no sense is George Clooney. Almost everything he said sounded wrong. And I don't dislike him as an actor, but he's a horrible astronaut. He was the commander of the Space Station, and right at the beginning of the movie he asks Sandra Bullock (his crew member) where she was from, and if she had any kids. They would have been working together for years! I knew every crew member's kids, the name of their parents, where their kids were going to school, where they had went to school...I think he was a better Batman than an astronaut."
On speaking with Pope Benedict...
"He asked, 'Space flight, what you guys are doing up there in space, how does this affect people on Earth, specifically human beings hurting each other? Is something that you’re doing up there, does this have a positive effect?' It was kind of a hard question, but I immediately went into energy...If we could take what we learn about solar energy and apply it more in other countries, I think we could reduce violence."
I really don't think anyone has [had sex in space]. I do think it would be possible though.
Typical Pope-Astronaut convo...am I right?
On performing on-stage with U2, from space...
During U2's 360 tour, Kelly (via satellite from the ISS) appeared on stage with the Irish arena-rockers/sunglasses-at-night-wearers before they played "Beautiful Day."
"Yeah they flew those signs up to me for that; it was actually very difficult to do—I almost had to say I couldn't do it. They would just float away, too quickly. It was hard to stay on point."
If we don’t explore and we don’t push the envelope, we don’t advance.
Kelly dedicated each performance to his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, who was severely injured during a shooting-spree at an Arizona supermarket in early 2011. The Congresswoman continues with her recovery.
On what you're allowed to bring in space...
Unsurprisingly, the rules for bringing things into space are even more stringent than the rules about bringing food into your local Multi-Plex. Kelly confirmed that space-travelers were not allowed to bring any items (books, currency, etc.) into space, because "they" (it's always "them") didn't want astronauts selling items that had been in space for OUT OF THIS WORLD (sorry, last time) prices.
"I was able to bring my Grandmother's Bible, which they made an exception for, and several sports jerseys belonging to notable athletes , including Eli Manning and Lance Armstrong, which I returned to them after we landed."
Wil Fulton is an Editorial Assistant at Supercompressor who didn't manage to get Bono's email. He has high-fived Bruce Springsteen on multiple occasions, though. Follow him @WilWithOnlyOneL