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Scott Kelly and Satya Nadella
Astronaut Scott Kelly recounts his space experience at the Microsoft Envision conference while Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella looks on. (GeekWire photo by Kevin Lisota)

Just days after retiring from NASA, astronaut Scott Kelly gave HoloLens mixed-reality technology a boost today at the Microsoft Envision conference in New Orleans – and promised to get the International Space Station upgraded to Windows 10.

It’s been a busy time for Kelly: Last month, he finished up a nearly yearlong stint on the station, which was aimed at learning what will be required for long-duration missions to Mars and other deep-space destinations. Soon afterward, he announced he was retiring from NASA on April 1.

Today, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella brought Kelly on stage to help inspire hundreds of developers attending this week’s Envision conference. “It’s the stories like Captain Kelly and NASA that inspire us in everything we do at Microsoft,” Nadella said. “Our mission is to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more.”

Kelly recalled that when he went over from the U.S. Navy to join NASA’s astronaut corps in 1996, the space shuttle program relied on the 486 computer processing chip and on-paper checklists. “The Internet was something new that I didn’t have a whole lot of experience with,” he said.

“Fast forward 20 years … and the space station is basically operated with a bunch of laptop computers using different types of software. Some of them use Microsoft Windows 7, actually. We’re a little behind there,” Kelly said.

“We’ve got to get the Windows 10 upgrade going into space,” Nadella joked.

“I’m going to call NASA right when we get out of here,” Kelly replied.

Kelly also gave a shout-out to Microsoft’s HoloLens mixed-reality headset, which lets users see 3-D graphics superimposed on their field of view. He checked out the technology in Seattle before his flight, then gave it a workout aboard the space station. NASA is interested in using the HoloLens interface to help ground controllers guide astronauts through complex on-orbit procedures.

Kelly said that before he flew, he was “a little doubtful” that the technology would work in space.

“We have a Wi-Fi network up there that isn’t always top-notch,” he said. “But when we turned it on, I was pretty amazed at how seamlessly it worked with their system onboard the space station, and was very impressed with what will in the future be its ability to help us do our work. On the space station, we’re the scientists, we’re the plumber, we’re the electrician, the doctor, the IT guy. We have to fill all these roles.”

The technology “has incredible applications, not just in space but throughout all kinds of different industries,” Kelly said.

Later, Kelly sat down with Microsoft’s chief marketing officer, Chris Capossela, to talk about the challenges of living in space. “It’s kind of like living in an airplane,” the astronaut said.

He missed experiencing the weather, and being in close touch with loved ones back on earth. But the part of the experience that was most relevant to the techies in the audience had to do with the working conditions. “You’re always at work,” Kelly said. “You never get to leave.”

In a sense, Kelly and his crewmates were the ultimate remote employees. “Being the commander of the space station is not something I took lightly at all. But you are away from your management,” he told Capossela. “No matter what you have done, if they like the job you’re doing, if they don’t like the job you’re doing, you’re not getting a visit from your boss. So it’s important to stay connected.”

Even though Kelly was working more than 200 miles up, he did occasionally hear from the guy at the top – President Barack Obama – and Kelly’s recollection of the exchange was one of the highlights of today’s chat. It started out like this:

Apollo moonwalker Buzz Aldrin chimed in as well:

Far from freaking out, Kelly was tickled by the tweets.

“I was just blessed that I got cyberbullied by Buzz Aldrin,” he recalled. “Now I can tell that story for the rest of my life.”

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