In February 2016, the astronaut Scott Kelly decided to send an e-mail to my father, the writer Tom Wolfe, from the international space station (later they also spoke by telephone). Mr. Kelly wanted to thank him for "The Right Stuff," my 1979 book on the first US space program, which had inspired his astronaut career, Mr. Kelly told me.
Mr. Kelly, now 54, was at the end of a one-year mission to the space station. When he returned to Earth, he met my father, who died in May, for some meals and asked him for advice on writing about his experience. "Start from the beginning," my father told him.
Mr. Kelly took it to heart. Last year he published a memoir, "Endurance". And last week, he came out with "Infinite Wonder", which illustrates his year in orbit with a series of vivid photographs he took on Earth as he passed under.
Mr. Kelly has been in space four times, starting in 1999 with a Space Shuttle Discovery pilot mission to serve the Hubble Space Telescope and ending in 2016 with his trip to the international space station. During his NASA career, he spent a total of 520 days in space, the record for an American astronaut (from broken up) when he retired from space flight in 2016. He still holds the US record for most of the days spent in time-340 space.
His businesses were both mental and physical. To prepare to spend so much time under pressure and cramped during his last mission, he lived in a submarine lab in Key Largo for two weeks of stint and spent about a week in an icy cave in Wyoming. He met regularly with a psychiatrist with whom he spoke every few weeks from the space station. "Surely I think I have developed a talent for living in an uncomfortable environment," he says. "That does not mean I like flying economy class on an airline," he jokes, "but I can do it if I have to."
As a child growing up in West Orange, New Jersey, Mr. Kelly and his twin brother Mark (also an astronaut and husband of former Arizona congressman, Gabrielle Giffords) were energetic and rebels. "We had two speeds, fast and steady," he says. His father was a police officer, and eventually his mother became one.
Kelly read "The Right Stuff" for the first time while in college at the Maritime College of the State University of New York, where he graduated in electronics engineering in 1987. "It was not just an exciting adventure," written in his memoir. "This was more like a life plan."
Winni Wintermeyer for The Wall Street Journal
He joined the Navy, where he worked as a fighter pilot and test driver until NASA chose him to become an astronaut in 1996. "I never felt more rewarded at work … than when I was doing something I had very serious consequences in not doing it correctly, "he says.
In space, he learned to work at zero gravity. Every time he made a small movement like pressing a button, he had to anchor himself with a foot or a point, and he had to protect objects such as forks and knives with velcro. The fluid that would normally have lodged in his lower part of the body gathered in his head, giving him an unpleasantly full sensation in his skull.
But none of this prevented him from marveling at the views below. He began to photograph the Earth from space seriously in 2010, during a 159-day flight, finding ways to maintain himself and his camera without gravity, while the space station moved beyond the planet to 17,500 miles at the time. Now. "I had to move the camera steadily and quickly while the shutter was released, otherwise the image would get dirty and look fuzzy," he writes. He used a 800 mm long lens with a 1.4x zoom lens and then used the software to enhance the color.
During his last mission, he took some photos to help scientists observe environmental changes and document natural disasters. The photos of his new book range from the veined landscapes of the Egyptian deserts to the bright blue and green colors of the Bahamas. "I really enjoyed taking pictures … that made the Earth look like an abstract art," he says.
He took most of his photographs for fun. During the football season, he tried to take stadium photos during matches and got a shot of Super Bowl 50 in California. He also shot places where people he had lost lived.
He undertook several dangerous walks in space to accommodate parts of the space station, putting him at risk of remaining unattached while trying to move in his graceless suit. The worst part of his journey, he says, was receiving bad news from the earth. He had left two months in his 159-day mission in 2011, when he discovered that his sister-in-law Giffords had been killed at an event in Tucson. At the beginning he felt she was dead; only a few hours later he discovered he had survived. From space, he led a moment of silence for his crew and for flight control centers around the world.
Since he retired, Mr. Kelly has spent most of his time writing and giving talks, which he finds enough to keep him busy for now. He and his wife Amiko have decided to leave their home in Houston and travel, stay in hotels, Airbnbs and occasionally tent or yurt, as when they visited Everest base camp. He has two daughters from his previous marriage.
Mr. Kelly thinks that one day soon we will be able to fly halfway around the world in 45 minutes, climbing briefly into space and descending again, and thinks the human journey to Mars is "inevitable". leave? "Yes," he says, without hesitation.
When I spoke to Mr. Kelly, I remembered a phrase that was a favorite of my father. Instead of saying goodbye, he liked to say "Keep flying!" – a slogan of a recruitment announcement of 1941 for the Cadet Program of Aviation. True to his form, when he received that surprising email from space, he thanked Mr. Kelly for "writing this earthly way down" and signed "In orbit!"
Write to Alexandra Wolfe on email@example.com