INTERVIEW – Astronaut Mark Kelly Discusses Role Deciding Inaugural Roddenberry Foundation Prize

Commander Kelly and his fellow judges will be awarding five prizes totaling $1 million dollars to individuals and/or companies that are trying to make the world a better place in February.


Commemorating Star Trek’s 50th anniversary with a year-long celebration in 2016, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum held a screening of “The Man Trap” on September 8th (Trek’s de facto birthday). With the evening’s festive backdrop in place, Rod Roddenberry threw down the gauntlet for his #BoldlyBetter campaign, announcing that the Roddenberry Foundation was seeking individuals or companies that are working to make the world a better place.

Retired NASA Astronaut Commander Mark Kelly has been selected as one of seven judges to decide which innovations deserve one of five prizes totaling $1 million dollars – a $400,000 grand prize and four $150,000 awards.

“Rewards in science, invention, and innovation take a long time,” Commander Kelly explained. “The Roddenberry Foundation prize is going to help people bring their projects to fruition. It’s a great thing for the legacy of Gene Roddenberry, who was a forward thinking individual and helped propel humanity into the future.”

Photo Courtesy of Nasa

Photo Courtesy of Nasa

Boldly going where mankind has never gone before is something Commander Kelly has accomplished in the past – he served as commander or pilot on four NASA Space Shuttle missions, including Endeavour’s final flight in 2011. However, his career in space exploration is not the only reason he makes such a terrific judge for the Roddenberry Foundation prize. He also has an engineering background and served as a captain in the U.S. Navy.

“It’s obviously a good cause for me,” the Commander stated. “I am somebody who is really into science and technology. It’s a good fit, but also kind of fun. I am really looking forward to reviewing these packages and scoring them.”

Among some of the accomplishments of Commander Kelly’s four missions are delivering experiments to be tested in the vacuum of space, evaluating new equipment to be used in future space flights, and installing the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (a particle physics experiment to hunt for cosmic rays and evidence of dark matter). However, none are as unique as the extraordinary opportunity he and his twin brother, astronaut Scott Kelly, presented NASA with after his space career ended. The brothers participated in a study to see how flying into space changes the genetics of the human body.

Photo courtesy of NASA

Photo courtesy of NASA

Now earthbound, Commander Kelly finds himself concerned with what he cites as the biggest threat to humanity – climate change. Luckily, his selection as judge allows him to see what some of the top minds are doing to halt and counter the damage being done to the environment.

“We are one of the biggest consumers of energy. Clearly we have to get our emissions under control and use natural gas instead of coal. There are villages in Alaska that might go away because of global warming. The North Pole is 30 degrees warmer today than it was last year at this time. We obviously have major challenges dealing with climate change and have so much influence in the world with other countries. The agreements President Obama made has put us in the right direction.

“I’m hopeful there will be some inventor out there that can ultimately utilize engineering to help deal with climate change. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone out there to find an engineering solution? Maybe it’s one of these 600-plus applicants.”

Commander Kelly is quick to note that the winners could also come from art and culture, not just science and technology. However, since he has been among the stars, it makes sense that he might look beyond Earth’s atmosphere for the next innovation to benefit humanity.

Commander Mark Kelly and crew prepare for Endeavour's final mission. Photo courtesy USA Today.

Commander Mark Kelly and crew prepare for Endeavour’s final mission. Photo courtesy USA Today.

“Recently, Elon Musk’s taken the first stage, landing his rocket on a barge so he can reuse it. It has changed rocket science for the better and is such a major innovation in the field of rocketry. It’s going to change the future. It drives down the cost to access space and will be a fraction of what it has been historically.

“Space exploration has always been a small population. Yet, in my 15 years, we flew a lot more people into space than the first 15. With companies like Worldview, Virgin Atlantic, and Blue Origin, we are going to see more people have that astronaut experience, more small/private companies reach low orbit. Maybe some time in the next few decades we will send someone to Mars.”

The Commander quickly points out that a mission to Mars would be of great interest to him only if he can return to Earth. “I’m not interested in a one-way trip.”

The prize application closed in November and will be awarded this February. Joining Commander Kelly as judges will be Majora Carter (Peabody Award winning broadcaster and urban revitalization strategist), Dr. Helene Gayle (CEO of McKinsey Social Initiative), Erik Hersman (technologist focused on impact and application of technology throughout Africa), Leah Hunter (writer of the human side of technology), April Reign (social media activist), and Sonal Shah (executive director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University and director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation).

“I grew up in a town in West Orange, N.J. that has Thomas Edison’s laboratory. Here’s a guy who has changed the world for the better. There are certainly other people out there with the ability to do the same.”


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“There are villages in Alaska that might go away because of global warming. The North Pole is 30 degrees warmer today than it was last year at this time.” One grim statement, there. Sobering.

I got the chance to work with Scott Kelly this summer. Such a great guy and really funny. He’s SUPER sarcastic. If you didn’t know him you would think he was an ass.

That’s going to be my favorite factoid this weekend :)

OK – So when is Terry O’Quinn going to play this guy on screen?

O’Quinn would get to be in a double role! (Kelly has a twin brother.)

“Is he an Evil Twin?”