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Opinion | Scott Kelly: How Tom Wolfe Changed My Life

“The Right Stuff” helped me, a terrible student with severe attention problems, find purpose and become an astronaut.

On Feb. 18, 2016, I woke up in my crew quarters on the International Space Station for the 328th day of a yearlong mission, the longest ever flown by a NASA astronaut. After breakfast and a conference call with the ground, I got into my work for the day: conducting a physics experiment, taking a sample of my own blood for a NASA study, performing routine maintenance on life support equipment, and answering questions for an elementary school in Arizona via live video uplink.

When I finally had a few free moments to myself, I opened up a laptop and typed out an email. I spent longer writing that email, and proofread it more carefully, than anything I had written in a long time.

I had decided to reach out to the author of a book that had meant a lot to me, something I had never done before. I was writing to Tom Wolfe, and I wanted to tell him that the reason I was spending a year in space, the reason I had flown three earlier missions to space and had flown high-performance aircraft in the Navy before that, was all because I had come across “The Right Stuff” as an 18-year-old college freshman.

In 1982, I was on my way to flunking out of school, with no particular ambition but to party with my friends. I was in line at the campus store one day when a book cover caught my eye — I picked up the book while I waited in line, and by the time I reached the cash register I was so engrossed I bought the book and took it back to my dorm. By the next day, I had finished it and had found my life’s ambition: I was going to fly military jets off an aircraft carrier, become a test pilot, and maybe even become an astronaut.

I had known these pursuits existed before, of course, but Tom Wolfe’s prose brought them to life in a way that spoke to me as nothing else had before. As a terrible student with severe attention problems, I was a poor candidate to achieve any of these goals. But I had achieved them, and I wanted to thank Tom Wolfe, who died on Monday at the age of 88, for the part he had played in my life by sending him a photograph of myself holding the book in the space station.

Later the same day, I received an email in reply.

Dear Commander Kelly,

::::::::::::::::::::::::::: Santa Barranza! I can’t believe it! “The Right Stuff” itself has made it into space! And now have I photographic evidence to prove it!

Most exciting of all is your account of the part it played in your rise to where you are today … which is to say, on top of the world. I choose to believe all of it. At last I can point with extravagant pride at what I have done for the U.S.A.

Mainly, I must thank you for going to the trouble — considering all you have on your hands — of writing this earthling way down below. Sometime when you’ve returned, I would love to talk to you about your adventures.

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::Meantime, keep ’em orbiting!

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::Tom Wolfe

I was excited to have received a response, but more than that I was excited that it was written in classic Tom Wolfe style. There could be no mistaking who had written this lavishly punctuated letter.

He and I arranged to talk on the phone a few days later. (The crew of the space station can call people on Earth using voice-over-internet software, but they can’t call us back.) Once I got through to him and explained the strange voice lag that makes it sound as though an awkward pause follows each line, we talked for over an hour as the space station completed two-thirds of an orbit around the Earth. I told him about my journey to the space station on a Russian Soyuz rocket, a collaboration that would have been unthinkable during the time of the events in “The Right Stuff.” He asked what I had been doing that day, what kinds of foods I could eat, and how often I got to talk to my family.

When it was my turn to ask questions, I asked Tom how he writes his books. He started to explain that he gives himself a quota of words per hour he tries to meet on a writing day, and that he uses an outline to give him a sense of structure and direction.

When it was my turn to speak again, I said, “I actually meant — how do you write? Like, physically. Do you use a laptop?”

“Oh,” he said. “I use a pencil.”

“A pencil,” I repeated. I couldn’t imagine writing an entire book by hand.

When I turned the subject to “The Right Stuff,” I asked him about the title. It’s hard to think of another book title that has become so widely used — not only when we talk about astronauts but when we talk about almost anything. Everyone knows what it means, even if they’ve never read the book or seen the film, and as an astronaut for the last 20 years I have been subjected to countless questions, jokes and jibes about whether I’ve got it.

“The title didn’t come until well into the writing process,” Tom told me. He had been working on the book for years and had started to fear it would never be done. One day when he was talking with a friend who worked in law enforcement, he mentioned that he’d always had a great deal of respect for police officers, those who knowingly risk their lives to help others.

“You know what?’” the friend said. “It takes guts to be a police officer, but you know who’s really got to have courage? Test pilots. Those guys have really got the right stuff.”

Tom said that knew the moment he heard that phrase that he had found the title for his book. Not long after, his wife suggested that — though his original plan had been to write about Mercury, Gemini and Apollo — he had done enough by telling the story of Mercury. He had documented America’s first steps off our planet in a unique way. And he’d found his title. He submitted the manuscript to his publisher not long after, and the book was published in 1979. It’s never been out of print since.

“Whenever I tell people how inspired I was by ‘The Right Stuff,’” I said, “they always assume that I was inspired by the idea of space travel. But the truth is, I was captivated by your descriptions of the test pilots, before any of them were chosen as astronauts. The idea that their job was to get into an experimental airplane and struggle to stay alive just by their wits — I wanted to do that.”

“Even with the way the book starts?” Tom asked.

The book begins with a test pilot getting smashed to bits when his airplane malfunctions; a few pages later, another dies when a catapult on an aircraft carrier fails, and “his ship just dribbled off the end of the deck, with its engine roaring vainly, and fell 60 feet into the ocean and sank like a brick.” A pilot “rolls in like corkscrew from 800 feet up and crashes”; another passes out when his oxygen system fails; another let his airspeed fall too low before extending his flaps and loses control of the airplane.

Tom was right to sound incredulous: This part of the book was not exactly an advertisement for flight test. A career Navy pilot faced a 23 percent likelihood of dying from an accident — and this statistic did not include deaths in combat, since those could not be classified as “accidental.”

All this was meant to create a sense of the kind of courage these men had to possess in order to simply do their jobs every day. Before Tom’s readers could understand the concept of “the right stuff,” they had to understand the risks those pilots faced (and still face). But, I tried to explain to Tom, as a college freshman I saw something in those opening pages that spoke to me. I told him that seeing the risk of death brought to life on the page affected me the way nothing else had before. If I could risk my life in the same way, relying on my wits to bring me back down onto the runway in one piece, that would be something. Risking my life would give me life a meaning it hadn’t seemed to have before.

I followed the paths of the characters in the book as closely as I could — joined the Navy, became a naval aviator, qualified to fly jets off an aircraft carrier, was accepted into the Navy test pilot school at the Patuxent River air station, where “The Right Stuff” begins. I flew experimental aircraft and tested their flying abilities. Unlike many of the characters in the first pages of the book, I’d come back alive every time. Only after having survived all that did I apply to NASA as an astronaut; then I flew another experimental craft, the space shuttle.

I didn’t entirely understand, when I was a kid reading “The Right Stuff” for the first time, that in a sense Tom had invented the idea of the astronaut by writing about the Mercury 7. He taught us how to read their identical crew cuts and enormous wristwatches, their rakish smiles and indomitable swagger, their “Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving,” their endless pool parties at Cape Canaveral, racing their Corvettes along the highway testing their luck and believing themselves (incorrectly) to be “equally gifted in the control of all forms of locomotion.” By the time I became an astronaut myself, the culture had changed — the astronaut corps was more diverse and less debauched, but some of the swagger remained.

As we wrapped up our conversation, Tom suggested that I should think about writing a book about my experiences. I didn’t tell him I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to write a book — despite all I had done earlier in my life to overcome my attention problems, I still had trouble concentrating on reading and writing for long periods of time. Despite the extraordinary nature of the mission I was on, writing a book still seemed like an unattainable journey.

Still, with his encouragement, I wrote that book. I called it “Endurance,” and it was published last October. A few months later, I received an email from a woman whose grandson was in jail. She wanted me to know that her grandson had read and enjoyed both “The Right Stuff” and my book.

“Time weighs heavily in a jail,” she wrote. She told me her grandson could relate to my descriptions of living without fresh air, freedom or the touch of family, since as an inmate he is living under the same conditions. “We are hopeful this experience will be a turnaround for him,” she wrote. “I think your writing will be influential in his life, much as Tom Wolfe inspired you.”

Now that I had struggled to wrestle my own sentences to the ground, trying to find the right word to convey an accurate meaning as well as a feeling, a tone and a rhythm that needs to flow into the next sentence, and the next — now I was starting to understand the complexity of what Tom had achieved in his book. And I now understand just a bit what it felt like to Tom to get that first email I sent him from the space station.

When I received his response, that email with all the colons and exclamation points, I assumed it was partly out of politeness that he was showing such enthusiasm for having heard from me. But receiving this woman’s email about her grandson has meant the world to me — it’s made every late night and early morning I spent working on my book worthwhile.

Now I am a retired astronaut myself, just as the Mercury astronauts were when I met them in the 1990s. I spend my time traveling and telling people about my time in space. I want young people to be inspired to do their best and push beyond what they believe to be their limitations — I want the things I’ve learned to help someone else. I’m grateful that I came along at the right time to get to fly the missions I did. I’m grateful that I had a great work of literature to show me the way.

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