Mark Kelly

A group of students, staff and children — some of who weren't even born when Capt. Mark Kelly was in space — gathered for some one-on-one time prior to his presentation Wednesday night at Allegheny College.

The retired NASA astronaut shared his thoughts and personal experiences of his four missions from 2001 to 2011 at Allegheny's observatory Wednesday afternoon. He also talked about his time on earth while his twin brother spent a year at NASA's International Space Station.

Mark and Scott Kelly are the world's only set of identical twin astronauts. Their relationship gave NASA the perfect opportunity to study the long-term effects of zero-gravity by comparing the brothers.

Kelly spoke of the results of that study when asked about the time required to readjust after a mission in space. 

"It's difficult to readjust," Kelly said. "It takes about the same amount of time to get back to normal as the time you spent in space."

Kelly said his longest period of time in space was 16 days. 

"It took about two weeks before I felt good," he said. "It took my brother about a year after his year-long mission to get back to normal." 

Kelly said his brother lost muscle mass, bone mass and 2 percent of his heart mass. 

"In zero-gravity your heart never pumps up hill," he said. "You get weak."

The students took advantage of the chance to ask Kelly what Earth looks like from the space station. 

"I always looked at our atmosphere as a big thing that was over us," Kelly said. "Looking at it from orbit, it looks more like a contact lens on an eyeball. It's really thin."

"The sun is so bright without the atmosphere to protect you," Kelly said. "You would get sun burned in a couple seconds."

"The stars are brighter but they don't twinkle," he said. "Looking out the window of the space station, you feel like you're floating over a fish bowl of stars."

As an advocate for continued space exploration, Kelly was asked what the U.S.' next steps should be. 

"Having a robust program is important," he said. "I've seen different approaches from different presidential administrations." 

Kelly said he was not in favor of former President Barack Obama's efforts to outsource some NASA work to private companies. 

"I didn't agree initially but it's been a good move," he said.

Kelly was asked what the U.S. would gain if it went to Mars. 

"I don't think we'd have these if we hadn't gone to the moon," he said as he held up his cell phone. "Designing machines for space exploration led to the creation of small electronics."

"So who knows?" he said. "If we go to Mars, maybe we'll solve some radiation problems. Maybe with long-term missions in space, we'll learn how to repair DNA."

"In this country, we spend more money on dog food than we spend on NASA," he said. "It's a good return on our investment."

Kelly is the husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman who was shot in the head and severely injured outside a Tuscon, Ariz., supermarket in 2011. He presented a free program titled "Endeavor to Succeed" at Allegheny's Ford Chapel Wednesday night. He was being honored as Allegheny Student Government Gator of the Year.

Lorri Drumm can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at lorrid@meadvilletribune.com.

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