'Shocking' Apollo 11 Success Stands Alone in Modern History, Astronaut Scott Kelly Says

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon in July 1969.
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon in July 1969. (Image credit: NASA)

The former NASA astronaut who notched the longest U.S. space mission said he still remembers clearly the historic moment when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon on July 20, 1969.

"I can remember my parents bringing my brother and I downstairs," Scott Kelly told Space.com. His twin brother, incidentally, is Mark Kelly — also a former NASA astronaut.

"Mark doesn't have a recollection of this — he was a little sleepy. [For me], even as a 5-year-old, it was a moment that was inspirational. Unfortunately, it didn't inspire me to work harder in school, and I still struggled," Scott Kelly said. 

Related: Apollo 11 at 50: A Complete Guide to the Historic Moon Landing

At around age 18, Kelly picked up Tom Wolfe's famous book "The Right Stuff" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), which covered the early days of NASA's human spaceflight program. The book convinced Kelly that being an astronaut might be fun. He ended up flying four times in space, including an 11-month mission on the International Space Station with cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, staying aboard from March 2015 to March 2016. Kelly retired later in 2016.

"Now, 50 years later, looking back on Apollo, it's clear how that was probably the single most significant historical event in modern times," Kelly said, "and it really shows us and the world what you can do if you work together and you work hard, keep to the plan, and plan your mission out step by step all the way to the moon. I wish we could do that today."

Kelly added that it's "shocking" that NASA was able to send people to the moon less than a decade after President John F. Kennedy's challenge to a special joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961.

"I know the difficulty of doing anything in this huge government bureaucracy," said Kelly, who worked at NASA for 20 years. As NASA matured, working on big projects got more difficult, he added. "Our organization and bureaucracy has gotten so large, it would be hard to do that today. But we still do incredible things."

In particular, Kelly pointed to the International Space Station, which he visited three times. "It's the most complicated thing we've ever done, probably more complicated than going to the moon, due to the international partnership and putting a million pounds of payload into orbit."

But Kelly added that NASA faces planning issues because the agency's directions change every time a new person enters in the Oval Office: "We can still achieve things if we work hard at it and don't change the plan, but part of the problem is we change the plan every four years."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace