The famous American astronaut Scott Kelly visited Ukraine in the last days of November. It is in his role as an ambassador of the United24 fundraising platform that he helps and supports Ukrainians at international level to receive support and assistance. Kelly is involved in raising money for generators, ambulances – something the country desperately needs right now.
During his visit, he visited Okhmatdit, the specialist children’s hospital in Kyiv and Irpin, a suburb of the capital. The astronaut saw with his own eyes what kind of so-called “peace” Russia brought to Ukraine.
Kyiv Post also met with this legend of the space industry. In the interview, Scott Kelly explained why he decided to become an ambassador of Ukraine, how his Russian friends reacted to this and whether he is ready to develop the Ukrainian space industry.
On Sunday, Nov. 27 President Zelensky warned about new Russian missile attacks. Last week was difficult for Ukrainians and the energy system because of rockets. So, why are you here?
I’m here for a few reasons. One is to raise awareness for the fundraising effort to find these ambulances that are needed to save people. My understanding is that Russia destroys 10 of them a week, so we need to replace them. The other is President Zelensky’s new initiative to raise money for power generators for hospitals.
And also, I’m the technical advisor for a company called StemRad (an Israeli-American start-up company that develops and manufactures personal protective equipment (PPE) against ionizing radiation). It makes belts that protect radiation workers. Like if there was, God forbid, a nuclear accident, this device will save the lives of first responders.
It will allow them to do their jobs better, because they will not feel like they are going to die from it. If they had belts in Chornobyl I think it would have saved 97 percent of the people that died at Chornobyl.
Why did you agree to be the ambassador of the United24 platform?
This war is personal to me for a number of reasons. One is that I have Ukrainian family members. My brother-in-law moved when he was 10 years old from Kharkiv. His kids, my niece and nephew, are Ukrainian-American. I have friends from Ukraine. My Russian language teacher at NASA is Ukrainian. She has been my teacher for 20 years.
She’s from Kharkiv. Her mother and sister were there at the beginning of the war. I helped them get out of there. I actually hired a company to take her to Germany. She is 85 years old.
I believe, above everything else, in democracy and freedom, and the right of free people to determine their future and their destiny. So I think that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is also an attack on democracy.
And anyone who believes in democracy I think has an obligation to do whatever they can to push back against Russia and support Ukraine. So that’s why I’m doing it.
How did your friends and family react to the fact that you’re now a Ukrainian ambassador?
The kids were like…. Isaac and Sasha were shocked. They also held a fundraiser, they made T-shirts.
My wife helped, and her mum, her sister, helped kids to design the T-shirts with the Ukrainian word for love – kokhannya.
I was actually working with a kid Ilya from Kharkiv, he designed one of these shirts – with President Zelensky as Captain America, but Captain Ukraine instead.
Really cool. So we were selling those. We raised $6,000. I also raised $500,000 by selling these non-fungible tokens for a Ukrainian fundraiser and gave all the money to this organization called the Global Empowerment Mission. And they are using that to provide food and humanitarian supplies to people that need it.
What about your Russian friends? Were they shocked or not?
I have five, or I would say six. One of them lives in the United States now, and he basically hates everything about Russia. But the five that still live in Russia, all but one of them feel exactly the same way I do about this.
With one exception – they are really embarrassed over it. Because it’s their country doing this. So they have this deep level of embarrassment. One of the five people I talk with fairly regularly is completely brainwashed, out of his frickin’ mind.
The stuff he says to me is not even comprehensible. This guy that I have spent time and space with say to me: “We are just defending ourselves. We had no choice, because the nazis and NATO were going to destroy Russia”. I was like: “You’re fucking crazy!”
But it shows the power of disinformation, how you can affect people’s thinking. We’ve seen it in the U.S. actually, when you get 30 million people following a guy who is basically a cult of personality that has no business being the President of the United States (Donald Trump).
You spent a lot of time with Russian astronauts in space. Did they really use Russian propaganda all the time when you spoke with them?
One of them – yeah. But another couple – don’t. They feel like this is wrong, it’s immoral, it’s illegal. They’re embarrassed for their country.
We have obviously seen using propaganda in space, like with the flag pictures that they had taken (On July 4, U.S Independence Day, Russian astronauts on board the International Space Station took a photo with the flags of the LPR and DPR, two Russia-controlled and dependent enclaves in Ukraine’s Donbas.). You know, it’s hard to understand if they did that willingly or were just told to do it.
It’s quite possible they were willing participants, it’s also quite possible they had no choice.
Do you believe that the Russians are guilty that their government started the war against Ukraine?
It’s a tough question, I think. I had some really good friends, that… One is a medical doctor, another is a chemist, they are in their sixties.
I’m like: you guys need to do something about all this. And they were like: what can we do? We will be thrown in jail!
I said: you need to stand up to your government. And he goes: are you suggesting civil war? That hasn’t worked out well for us in the past.
I think some of them are honestly good people, they want to do something but they don’t know what. They don’t know how. Because the threats of prison and violence are too much for some of them. But I think there are probably other people in Russia. I noticed that Russian mothers signed the petition on Russian Mother’s Day, to end the war.
So you see that there are people who are starting to speak out again. Hopefully, over time, they can feel that they can make more of a difference.
You know when you get a lot of people together, it’s kind of hard to throw 50 million people in prison. I guess Stalin tried to do it (laughs).
So, Russia is spending crazy money on the war with Ukraine. For example, the missiles that Russia fired at Ukraine in November cost over 9 billion dollars. What could have this money been spent on in the space industry?
In the space industry? I don’t think the priority for Russia is… One billion dollars is a lot of money. They should probably spend it on other social programs, trying to get people jobs, get them off the vodka. It’s a major problem there, right?
What do you know about the Ukrainian space industry?
I don’t know a lot. But I know that some of the high-tech hardware that Russia uses and some of the military hardware, some of the stuff, came from Ukraine. And it’s stuff that Russia has a hard time making themselves.
I know you had a Ukrainian cosmonaut Leonid Kadenyuk who passed away, unfortunately, a few years ago. I think you should have another one.
Find some guy and send him up to the space station soon! Another Ukrainian cosmonaut! I’m going to suggest that to my brother.
Maybe you want to stay in Ukraine and help develop the space industry?
You know I live in the U.S., but certainly want to come back and still be involved.
Do you want to help?
Absolutely. I think you need people to come and help. Because over time I think it’s human nature to get fatigued from things, and people have short memories and they move on to something else.
People that have some kind of influence and can get attention and awareness need to maybe work even harder.
Did Zelensky ask for your help in the space industry in Ukraine?
Not yet. I’d be happy to do that.
If you could choose between life in space without wars here on Earth, or life here on our planet but never flying to space, which would you choose?
Earth wins every time. Space is cool, it’s fun, but I wouldn’t want to live there forever. Because Earth has everything. In space you get a good view, you float around, the job is interesting and challenging, but everything that is important to me is here on Earth.
I know it’s a little bit cold right now, but this air, after a year in space would be the freshest air you’ve breathed in your life.
You don’t have any of that in space, you don’t have the people you love, your friends, your family. Earth always wins.
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