By Ken Stone and Chris Stone
Updated at 10 p.m. Nov. 15, 2017
The message from earth sounded serious — an “emergency” call from his elder daughter.
Retired astronaut Scott Kelly, speaking Monday night to a packed house at the University of San Diego, recalled how during an earlier mission aboard the International Space Station word arrived that his sister-in-law Gabby Giffords had been shot in the head at a congressional outing.
So his biggest fear now, he said, was not being able to help if something serious happened to a loved one. Making things worse: The orbiting station hit a 20-minute blackout period.
Finally they connected — a dad in space and his daughter Samantha.
“Hey, what’s the matter?” he asked via their laptop connection.
“She says: ‘I’m at Uncle Mark and Gabby’s house. Mark and Gabby just left town.’ … And she was lonely.”
The Shiley Theatre audience of 600 erupts in laughter.
So it went at Kelly’s talk, co-sponsored by Warwick’s Books in La Jolla — the 23rd stop on his national tour promoting “Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery.”
With down-to-earth humor launching many stories, Kelly kept the crowd in stitches.
“It’s great to be here — it’s great to be anywhere with gravity,” he said. “On the space station, I changed positions so many times, you would have thought I was running for president.”
He read a passage from his book. It was about a moment after his return from 340 days in space, ending Feb. 29, 2016, when he realized his dream of simply dining with his family in Houston.
“Even the sensation of gravity holding me in my chair feels strange,” he said, as he recalled habitually looking for Velcro or duct tape to keep his silverware from floating away.
That night back, getting up for a bathroom break, he felt blood rushing to his legs — “swollen and alien stumps.”
His fiancé Amiko Kauderer tells him: “I can’t even feel your ankle bones.”
He finishes: “There’s about 400 pages after that.”
Quizzed on stage by USD math professor Satyan Devadoss, Kelly, 53, tells how the title “Endurance” initially was to refer to his challenge in space.
“But really it is the endurance of this kid who couldn’t do his homework and then with this attitude of never giving up and sticking with it with a lot of hard work and perseverance you can achieve some pretty remarkable things,” Kelly said.
Indeed, Kelly wasn’t a top scholar at his school, graduating in the bottom half of his high school and spending most of his school day gazing out the window. But one day visiting a campus bookstore for a gum he was attracted to the red-white-and-blue cover of a book by Tom Wolfe, which he then devoured in his dorm room.
It was “The Right Stuff” about America’s pioneering astronauts. At 18, it became “my inspiration. It spoke to me. I felt that I had things in common with them, and if I could just fix one thing, maybe I could be like them someday.”
And 18 years later — after buckling down in his math and engineering studies and becoming a naval aviator and test pilot — he was chosen for an astronaut class.
“It was a remarkable comeback,” he said of his unexpected journey in life. “If you don’t have really lofty goals and things that you think you might not be able to do, you’re not ever really going to find out what your capacity or capability is.”
He applied to NASA on a whim because “the guy sitting next to him in the office applied too. I didn’t think I was qualified,” he said. His twin brother Mark, also a Navy test pilot in Navy, borrowed Scott’s suit for his own NASA interview in Houston.
A few weeks later, NASA called Scott for an interview as well.
The result: The only suit that’s been selected twice to be an astronaut, he said.
In addition to “The Right Stuff,” his mother was a driving force for him and his brother.
Kelly’s father was a New Jersey cop. His mom was a secretary and waitress aspiring to join him on the force. She trained on a backyard obstacle course built by her husband, scaling a 7-foot-4 fence after early failures, and preparing for the fitness test — dragging a 120-pound dummy 100 feet.
She practiced by dragging 120-pound Scott — “one of the first things I was good at” — and became one of the first female police officers in New Jersey.
“It was kind of a pivotal moment for my brother and I to see someone who has this goal that they think that maybe they can’t achieve, and then (make) a plan and working really hard for something she cares very strongly about. My mother was the biggest inspiration.”
Referring to his nonstop activity and injuries, Scott said he and Mark were “little hellions,” and credited his mother — “I really have to hand it to her for putting up with us all those years.”
He recalled the many stitches he and his brother accumulated and in the book listed Mark’s many travails: being hit by a car, breaking his arm, getting appendicitis and then blood poisoning.
“He was a mess,” Kelly quipped about Mark, adding as only a brother can: “He still is.”
Kelly spoke about challenges aboard the Space Station.
During his last flight, Capt. Kelly wasn’t so handy at keeping six zinnias alive.
“A guy on the Internet said I was no Mark Watney [the resourceful character of “The Martian” movie], which challenged me to make sure those flowers didn’t die,” Kelly said.
So he took off his gloves to feel the soil because he thought it needed a human touch. He discovered he’d been overwatering them.
Kelly told the audience about the last few minutes before a launch on the Space Shuttle.
“At six seconds, the main engine ignites, a million pound of thrust, three giant main engines, but you don’t go anywhere. You’re bolted to the launch pad by eight giant bolts, and the clock goes five, four, three, two, one, the bolts are exploded open, the solid rocket motors light, and it feels like the hand of God has just lifted you up from the launch pad and is throwing you out to outer space… . It looks like the space shuttle lifts off slowly. When you are inside, there is nothing slow about this.”About 15 audience members asked questions ranging from the prospect of humanity becoming an interstellar species (“I think it’s just a natural progression,” Kelly replied. “Very important to our future”) to his favorite aircraft (“The F14 Tomcat — the Harley-Davidson of fighters”).
One man asked: “If you could bring any person, living or dead, to experience the thrill of spaceflight, who would it be?”
Kelly said Stephen Hawking. Big applause.
“He’s given us so much insight into the universe, only from his imagination,” Kelly said of the British astrophysicist. “If one person deserved it more than anyone else, it would be him.”
Asked by Devadoss about the beauty in space, the former astronaut spoke about viewing his first sunrise from space.
“As the sun came up, I just saw how breathtakingly beautiful planet Earth was, incredibly blue…. I knew right then and there that I would never see anything as beautiful as planet Earth again.”
Kelly also spoke of the physical rigors of being an astronaut and the toll on the body.
“Working in space has got some negative effects,” he said. “If we didn’t do exercise, for example, you would lose 1 percent of your bone mass every month, so after 100 months you would have no skeleton left. We’d all be like Gumby.”
He continued: “When you do the space walks, it’s a very physical thing. On one hand, being in space has some negative physical effects. Coming back, especially as how it makes you feel is even worse, especially after you have been up there for 340 days. But it’s absolutely a physical job.”
As a result, Kelly said he’s had cortisone shots in both knees, both shoulders and both elbows.
“I’ve had torn rotator cuffs (tears) on both shoulders, even now from working in a space suit. Some astronauts actually lose their fingernails from working outside on an EVA and they don’t grow back; they are damaged so badly from working in these gloves.”
A girl asked how to begin to become an astronaut.
“Where should you start? With your homework,” Kelly said to laughter and applause. “And if you ever struggle with it, understand that I struggled with it, too.”
But he added: “Don’t use me as an excuse. … You can make a comeback. Find an inspiration somewhere.”
A man asked if Kelly ever saw something “unexplained.”
Kelly said he’d always hoped he would wake up one morning, open the shutters protecting the ISS windows and see “an alien spacecraft right there.”
He never did. Yet he said he believes in intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
“But I also don’t think they visit earth for a couple of reasons — the distances are so great. You would think the aliens would land in Las Vegas or Times Square (the brightest spots as seen from space).”
In the Navy, he said, he visited Nevada’s Area 51. “There were no aliens there,” he quipped. “I suppose they all moved to Area 52.” (Hours earlier, Kelly visited the Navy Exchange Service Command, or Nexcom, at Naval Base San Diego.)
A girl asked about his funniest moment in space (“I’d dress up in a gorilla suit and scare the crap out of one of my crew members”) and another youngster asked about moving within the station (“When we first get to space, people generally fly like Superman. … After a few months you realize: You just walk like normal”). The gorilla suit was provided by his brother, Mark.
Quizzed about vision problems afflicting those on long spaceflights, Kelly said it happened to him and other men, but not so much with women.“Maybe women are immune to it,” he said, “so if we go Mars, it’ll be a crew of all women.” More applause.
Kelly recalled his friendship with Mikhail “Misha” Kornienko, his year-in-space colleague.
Despite the Russians’ tough exteriors, he said, “once you break through, you become friends with them at a much deeper level than you can with Americans.”
Kornienko told Kelly: “Scott, if we want to solve our countries’ differences, all we need to do is put [our] two presidents in space for a year together.”
Kelly added: “I think he’s right. Now more than ever.”
He ended his 70-minute appearance with a hopeful epilogue.
Recalling when he was on the Russian Soyuz craft backing away from the ISS, he says he thought: “We built this thing — a million pounds, size of a football field, in space, in a vacuum, while flying around the earth at 17,500 miles an hour in extremes of temperatures of plus or minus 270 degrees.”
He thought of the partnership of 15 countries doing “the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” he said. “And if we can do this, we can do anything. If we want to go to Mars, we can go to Mars. If we want to cure cancer, put the resources behind it, we can cure cancer.”
Same with the environment, and “challenges in our country, which right now seem to be many.”
Kelly said: “I was absolutely inspired after spending a year in space — that if we can dream it, we can do it.”
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