The course of US astronaut Scott Kelly’s life was changed by reading a book.
So it was especially fitting that Kelly, a UT alumnus who spent an unprecedented year in space about the International Space Station, spoke to UT freshmen during the annual celebration of Life of the Mind, a shared reading experience that is part of First-Year Studies 100.
Freshmen this year were asked to read Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Lazarus Dean, an associate professor of English at UT. Dean and Kelly are currently collaborating on a book that will explore the future of space travel and tell the story of Kelly’s historic mission. Endurance: My Year in Space and Our Journey to Mars is scheduled for publication in November 2017.
At Monday’s event, Kelly and Dean engaged in a conversation about space travel narrated by Brandon Hollingsworth, WUOT host of All Things Considered.
Asked how he got interested in becoming an astronaut, Kelly said he grew up watching the early days of space flight in the 1960s and 1970s. He said he remembers watching TV reports of Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin being the first men to walk on the moon in 1969.
Yet, Kelly said, he never dreamed of being an astronaut.
“I was not the greatest student,” Kelly said, adding that he was easily distracted and bored in high school. “Despite my efforts, I still managed to graduate in the bottom half of my class.”
Even at college he felt out of place.
Then one day, “I went to the bookstore to buy gum or potato chips or something—not a book,” he said. He spied a copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, about the early astronauts, and was intrigued. He purchased it and went back to his dorm room, where he got lost in its stories.
“It was probably one of the first books I ever bought and read,” he said. “I decided right then and there that I was going to be like one of those guys. I just tried to do the best I could every step of the way.”
Kelly went on to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from State University of New York Maritime College in 1987 and received his commission via Navy ROTC. He became a naval aviator and was deployed overseas several times. In 1994, he graduated from test pilot school.
In 1996, he was accepted into the astronaut program and also graduated with a master’s degree in aviation systems from UT. He was then assigned to the space shuttle program.
Kelly said his story—from mediocre student to record-setting astronaut—might seem like a big leap.
“But it was really a bunch of small meaningful steps,” he said.
In his twenty-year career as an astronaut, he flew four space flights and commanded the International Space Station on three expeditions. He logged more than 500 days in space.