A Nasa astronaut who holds the record for the longest space mission by an American said projects like the UAE’s Venus mission would inspire the next generation of scientific explorers.
Scott Kelly spoke to The National during a visit to Expo 2020 Dubai, where he interacted with visitors and toured the exhibits at the US pavilion, including a model of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Moon rocks and Martian meteorites.
The UAE announced on Tuesday it had set its sights on Venus, in addition to exploring the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter in 2028.
A veteran of four space flights, Mr Kelly told The National that countries such as the UAE were right in recognising the value of “not only what you learn, but how you inspire”.
“If you can inspire a generation of kids to be scientists or engineers, they are going to do really important work that is important to the country’s economy and national security,” said the retired US astronaut.
“What I like is other countries around the world recognising the importance of space flights and dedicating resources to it, because not only will the UAE benefit, it will benefit the whole world.”
Mr Kelly spent 340 days at the International Space Station (ISS) during 2015-2016. Only Russian astronaut Valeri Polyakov has lived longer in space, after he spent 437 days on the Mir space station in 1994.
As one of the world's most experienced cosmonauts Mr Kelly had a few words of advice for UAE astronauts Hazza Al Mansouri and Sultan Al Neyadi.
The Emiratis are currently in training at the Nasa's Johnson Space Centre in Houston.
“I would tell them to appreciate every moment of it,” Mr Kelly said.
“Be careful, be safe, be deliberate, don’t guess because the consequences when you are operating in that environment could be very, very serious.”
Mr Kelly is currently filming a reality television show where contestants go through challenges to become Arab world's most eligible future astronaut. The show will be broadcast next month.
As a former commander of the ISS, Mr Kelly has had his share of challenging situations, and he vividly recalled several of the risky moments of his space journeys.
In the summer of 2015, a satellite travelling at 35,000 miles an hour narrowly missed hitting the station.
“We couldn’t move the space station out of the way,” he said.
“It was going to get within half a mile of us … and basically we were preparing for the potential of it hitting us. Fortunately it didn’t.”
After a total of 520 days in space, Mr Kelly's eyesight, height and his health were dramatically affected by zero gravity.
His heart shrank by 25 per cent, and after one year aboard the ISS, Nasa researchers found he had grown five centimetres, and was taller than his identical twin brother Mark, who is also an astronaut.
But Mr Kelly is not concerned about the changes to his body - instead he worries about the depletion of the Earth’s resources.
"I still have some genetic changes but nothing serious," he said.
“But when you see the atmosphere, it looks like a thin film over the planet.
“Over the course of my 17 years of flying in space, rainforests in South America looked much different in 1999 than they did in 2016 and certain parts of the planet – despite being beautiful – are almost always covered in pollution.
“So we need to take these things more seriously.”
A supporter of space tourism, he believes it will give people a new perspective about climate change and make them more responsible about protecting the planet.
In his bestselling book, Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, he wrote about watching fires and storms engulf regions while orbiting the Earth.
“Climate change is probably the most serious thing that is going to affect our future,” Mr Kelly said.
“It will affect food production, there will be more natural disasters. We need to take more serious action.”