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Scott Kelly

Astronaut Scott Kelly and author Tom Wolfe. Photo courtesy of Amiko Kauderer

By Daniel Dunaief

How often do you get to talk to someone whose legend loomed large over your childhood?

Last year, I had the privilege of interviewing author Tom Wolfe, who died last week at the age of 88. Wolfe wrote “The Right Stuff,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” among others. I spoke with Wolfe about astronaut Scott Kelly, who was so inspired by “The Right Stuff” that he directed a life he considered somewhat aimless toward becoming a fighter pilot and, eventually, an astronaut.

My conversation was rewarding and memorable, so I thought I’d share my interview with the legendary author.

DD: Kelly credits you with putting him on a path that led him to spend almost a year aboard the International Space Station. Is there a satisfaction that comes from that?

TW: Nothing else I’ve written has had such a beautiful result. He told me he’d been floundering around trying to figure out what to do with his life. He hadn’t been doing well in school. Then he just got the idea of going into space and became an astronaut.

DD: Did you know he took “The Right Stuff” with him?

TW: He sent me from the space station a picture of the cover on his iPad. That was one of the greatest messages I ever got.

DD: Do you think Kelly’s mission increased the excitement about space?

TW: There’s been a general lack of a sense of heroism in much of the post-World War II era and there were people who responded to the space program in general in that fashion.

DD: How does the excitement now compare to the early days of the space program?

TW: John Glenn’s return created a lot of excitement. At that time, we seemed to be at war in space with the Russians. That was what kept the space program going. There was always this threat. It’s very hard to hit the Earth from space. You’ve got three speeds: the speed of what you fired the rocket with, then you’ve got the speed at the end of that opening shot and you’ve got the speed of hitting the Earth, which is moving.

DD: How do you think people will react to Kelly’s mission?

TW: It remains to be seen whether it inspires young people the way the Mercury program did.

DD: What drove the space program until that point?

TW: Wernher van Braun [a German engineer who played a seminal role in advancing American rocket science] spoke in his last year. The point of the space program was not to beat the Russians. It was to prepare for the day when the sun burns out and we have to leave Earth and go somewhere else. It’s hard to imagine everybody shipping off to another heavenly body.

DD: Getting back to Kelly, how difficult do you think Kelly’s mission was?

TW: Scott Kelly’s adventures were a test of the human body and the psyche. Being that removed from anybody you could talk to and see must be a terrible stress. That’s what he and others in the space station are chosen for.

DD: Do people like Kelly still need “the right stuff” to be astronauts?

TW: It’s the same except anyone coming into the program is more confident that these things can be done. For Mercury astronauts, these things were totally new. The odds against you, the odds of death, were very high.

DD: What advice did you give to Kelly when he started writing his book?

TW: Begin at the beginning. So many of the astronauts and other people who have memorable experiences will start with the adventure to get you interested. Then, the second chapter, suddenly you’re saying, “Harold Bumberry was born in 1973,” and it makes you take a deep breath [and say], ‘OK, here it comes.” Whereas starting at the beginning always works.

DD: What do you think of the movies made about your books?

TW: I think they’re terrible. Three of my books were made into movies and I disliked them all. The reason being they didn’t do it like I did. You can’t do a lot of things in a movie that you can in print. You’re better at presenting themes, better at dialogue. You can hear it, you can’t get inside a mind of a character the way you can in print. Movies don’t have time.

DD: What impact did Scott Kelly’s being inspired by your book have on you?

TW: It’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.

Scott Kelly and Amiko Kauderer.Photo by Stephanie Stoll/ NASA
Astronaut Scott Kelly’s girlfriend recounts a year apart

By Daniel Dunaief

One night, her leg drifted to his side of the bed, where she often snuggled up so close that she nearly pushed him off the bed. The cold woke her up. After that, she stayed away until he returned from his perch, circling 249 miles above the Earth for a record-breaking year.

Amiko Kauderer, who works for NASA, has been dating astronaut Scott Kelly for years. Indeed, she had been through a six-month separation when he traveled to the International Space Station in 2011. This time, however, Kelly was gone for a year, conducting a range of experiments, including one in which he grew flowers in space. He also took samples of his own blood, which NASA will use to compare to his identical twin brother Mark to track the effects of extended time in space on his body. The information Kelly collected will help NASA prepare for future missions deeper into space, including to Mars.

Kelly’s journey, and his NASA career, ended on March 1, 2016, a year after jetting away from Kauderer and his two daughters from a previous marriage for an extraordinary journey that covered 144 million miles, or more than the distance from Earth to the sun.

Kelly recently published an in-depth book about his life before and after his historic mission titled “Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery.” Kauderer has her own story to tell about their prolonged separation. When asked about the time apart, both of them acknowledge that the challenges are no different from the ones people face when a spouse is on active deployment with the military.

During their separation, Kelly and Kauderer spoke regularly, including by videoconference. In an early videoconference, Kelly took Kauderer on a tour of his orbiting home, where he circled Earth 5,440 times. “I’ve seen it,” Kauderer recalled, as he drifted from room to room, using his toes to push off and float to the next destination. When he entered a room, Kelly asked her to guess where he was. “I know where you’re at,” she laughed. “You’re in the gym.”

While he was beaming images of his life in space, Kauderer returned the favor with video of their home in Houston, Texas. She took him outside, where he could see the pool. She knew he loved the water. When they were on these calls, Kelly focused on Kauderer as well as on areas around the house that he could see from space that needed attention. He saw that the refrigerator water filter light was on, indicating it was time for a new one. He told her, “You need to change the filter,” she recalled. She enjoyed the observation because “those kinds of moments felt like he was home.”

Kauderer recalled an experience where she was on a video conference with Kelly while she cooked a pizza, something he couldn’t eat during his journey. He asked her to show it to him when she was taking it out of the oven and then told her the pizza wasn’t done and she needed to stick it back in the oven for another few moments. “Him being from New Jersey and me being from China Spring, Texas, I’m not going to argue with the New Jersey guy on how to make a pizza,” she recalled. That, too, felt more like normal.

Kauderer didn’t dwell on the dangers of his trip, even though she had considerable information about his schedule and his daily assignments. Knowing “her man,” as she puts it, well also helped her recognize the early signs of trouble for him from afar. Once, when they began a conversation, she heard an aggressiveness and frustration in his voice. She told him to check the carbon dioxide levels, which were above normal.

The most stressful moment for her was when he went on the first of his three space walks. “I had seen how hard he worked,” she said “I knew all the behind-the-scenes stuff, even the things that are not as fun and [are] painful. I was extremely excited that he was finally going to do this.”

She said she knew he’d be fine as soon as he got back inside. While he was gone, she forgot what it felt like to have physical contact with Kelly. “The one thing you can not replicate is human touch,” she said. “There does come a time when you forget what that person feels like, what it feels like to get a hug.” The moment of realization is “sad,” although she said she always knew there was an end point.

Indeed, when his journey was almost over, Kelly sent her a list of the things he wanted and craved back on Earth, including green Gatorade, strawberries and salad. She didn’t have any similar such lists for him. “You tend to put your own needs aside,” she said. “You focus on everything for him. I didn’t think about what I wanted.”

At first, she felt an urgency to make sure he adapted to his return, which was no small task. In addition to getting him to doctors’ appointments, she helped him deal with a painful rash that developed after an extended time when gravity didn’t push clothing against his skin. He also had swelling in his legs. When she massaged his feet, she couldn’t feel his ankle bones. At the beginning, it was “disgusting,” she said. “I knew they weren’t his feet.” She said he was “in such a fog” after his return. Physically, he was back, but the pain, particularly in his feet, was difficult for him.

Kauderer felt limited in what she could do for herself. “When he came home, I didn’t have any me-time,” she said. She went to the door to go for a run and Kelly asked her where she was going. She told him she needed to get out for 20 minutes to take a run. “That’s all I need,” she said. “He was like, ‘OK.’”

Kelly’s life has returned to a new normal, as he travels to promote his book. Kauderer said the distance apart brought them closer together. At night, she said she has returned to moving over to his side of the bed, which is warmer than it was during his absence. “When he was back, I went back to pushing him off the bed again,” she said.

Above, Scott Kelly, right, with his twin brother Mark. Photo by Robert Markowitz

By Daniel Dunaief

Dear readers,

Each week, in the Power of Three, Times Beacon Record News Media highlights the efforts of dedicated scientists at Stony Brook University, Cold Spring Harbor Lab and Brookhaven National Lab. This week, we will feature astronaut Scott Kelly, who set an American record for consecutive days in space.

Kelly not only conducted research on flowers and performed space walks while orbiting the Earth, he also became his own living laboratory, taking blood samples to compare to his twin brother Mark. Some day, the pioneering studies from the twins may turn the dream of a trip to Mars and beyond into a reality.

He had a spectacular view for close to a year, watching 16 sunrises and sunsets each day aboard the International Space Station. He even pretended to catch a pass thrown by television host Stephen Colbert from over 249 miles away.

A view of Earth aboard the ISS. Photo by Scott Kelly

Astronaut Scott Kelly set an American record for consecutive days in space, floating from one part of the multinational station to another for 340 days. During that journey, in which Kelly traveled over 143 million miles with cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, the New Jersey native conducted numerous experiments, including on himself. NASA plans to use the information gained from Kelly’s mission to design future extended trips into space, including any future journey to Mars.

Kelly, who returned to Earth in March of 2016, recently published a book titled “Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery” (Knopf), in which he shared a long journey from underachieving high school student to celebrated astronaut.

“There are things about the experience that are absolutely amazing,” he said, “but, then, at the same time, the things that make everything amazing also make other things more difficult.” For starters, moving from a Soyuz rocket to the space station isn’t as simple as stepping out of a car and opening another door. When the rocket attaches to the station, it can take hours to equalize the pressure. In a film or documentary of life in space, “You can’t show 11 hours of docking or six hours of preparation to go out on a space walk,” Kelly said.

Once aboard, the astronaut, who had lived on the space station on an earlier six-month mission, said he had to adapt to the logistics of meals in space. Gravity doesn’t hold the astronauts on a chair or their food on a plate. For close to a year, he couldn’t relax his body while eating, which meant that he felt like he was standing and balancing during meals.

Scott Kelly and Mark Kelly in 1967. Photo from Scott Kelly

Kelly said the transition from life on Earth to the station, and then back again, requires adjustments. One of the most significant scientific efforts he was a part of originated from a conversation Kelly had with a NASA scientist, asking him what he should say if a reporter asked if NASA was comparing the changes in his body to those of his identical twin brother Mark. The NASA scientist then asked if he and his brother, who is a retired astronaut, would consider participating in such an effort. Thus, the NASA Twins Study was born.

Before his mission, Kelly got several small tattoos on his body, to make sure he was drawing blood from the same place each time. Scientists have spent over a year examining changes in his genes. While more results will be published next year, the work so far shows an uptick in the methylation of Scott’s DNA. That means he potentially had more signals that can turn on or off genes.

Additionally, Scott’s telomeres, which protect the ends of DNA strands, were longer during the same period than those of his Earth-bound twin. Also, Scott returned from space closer to two inches taller than his brother because the discs in Scott’s spinal column weren’t compressed by gravity. That difference didn’t last long, however, as his spine returned to normal after he came back to Earth.

While life aboard the space station included movies like “50 Shades of Grey” in Russian and books like “The Right Stuff” by Thomas Wolfe, which Kelly said inspired him to become an astronaut, it also involved unusual environmental challenges.

Scott Kelly. Photo from NASA

As part of his training, Kelly needed to recognize any of the symptoms of carbon dioxide buildup in his system. His girlfriend Amiko Kauderer provided some necessary observations during one particular conversation. Within seconds of speaking with him, Kauderer told him to stop talking to her and check the carbon dioxide levels. She quickly had diagnosed that the carbon dioxide levels, while not dangerously high, were above Kelly’s comfort level.

Kelly explained that the routine in space doesn’t leave much time for relaxation or down time. “You have one day on the weekend when you’re off,” he said. “You can arrange your workweek such that you’re taking advantage of that. You still have stuff like cleaning the space station and you still have to exercise and organize the living environment.”

Indeed, astronauts need to exercise aboard the station or risk losing bone mass and encountering muscular atrophy during their missions. In addition to stretching his body, Kelly expanded the typical limits of his responsibility for some scientific experiments.

As he chronicled in his book, he was following a protocol for growing zinnias. When the flowers weren’t flourishing, Kelly asked NASA if he could take over the decision-making process, which NASA approved. “The satisfaction came more from the idea that it was an experiment that we were making the decisions on and controlling,” he said.

Typically, he reported what he saw to NASA, and scientists back on Earth came up with a plan that they sent to Kelly. While they required considerable effort, the astronaut also took satisfaction in the three space walks he conducted during his journey. As with the movie “Gravity,” Kelly recognized the danger that orbiting space debris, even small pieces, could pose for the space station and him. “You could get hit with something that would not only put a hole in your visor, but would put a hole in your head,” he said.

Kelly didn’t bother watching out for such objects when he’s outside the station because he’d “never see it coming at you at 17,000 miles an hour.” As for what he could see from space, Kelly watched wildfires in California and Hurricane Patricia, which was a storm off the coast of Oman. In addition to information NASA might take from his mission that could inform decisions about future missions, Kelly hopes people view his experience, and his success, as a model for them.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for redemption in the United States,” Kelly said. “It’s not the preferred or easy path, but it is a path, especially in this country.”