During his year aboard the International Space Station, the longest space mission in American history, astronaut Scott Kelly received a call from his daughter. Braced for bad news, he asked what was wrong.
Onstage at the Presbyterian Church in Pasadena on Tuesday night, Kelly recalled their conversation. His daughter, he said, told him that she was lonely.
"Wait a minute, I'm in space for a year and you're lonely?" he asked. The completely sold-out event, crammed with attendees of all ages, howled with laughter and relief. "There are 7 1/2 billion people down there. Just go out and find one."
On tour for his new book "Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery," Kelly was joined onstage by Bill Nye, television personality, science educator and CEO of The Planetary Society, for the Vroman's Bookstore event. The night did not begin auspiciously (technical problems with a video projector) but after a swift recovery, they kept the audience on the edge of their seats. It felt fitting: in addition to providing an insider's take on spaceflight, Kelly's book traces his trajectory from below-average student to record-breaking astronaut. It's quite the story arc: his memoir's rising action shoots right up to space.
"It's great to be here," said Kelly. "It's actually great to be anywhere with gravity."
Kelly read an excerpt that described some of the painful physical effects of re-acclimating to life on Earth. Blood pooled in his legs; his swollen ankle "squishes like a water balloon." Kelly's mission was in part devised to study the challenges of long-term spaceflight — his twin brother Mark Kelly, also a NASA astronaut, was a built-in control. In space, Scott Kelly grew an inch and a half taller. Kelly recalled with a hint of sibling rivalry — and obvious affection — that the first thing his brother wanted to do when they were reunited was stand back to back.
"We were little hellions," he said of their childhood, risk takers who climbed drainpipes and stared out of the window at school. Kelly graduated high school in the bottom half of his class. In college, he happened to stumble across Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" about the birth of the space program and was instantly entranced. That single book changed his life and gave him a direction. Of his memoir "Endurance," he said, "I hope this book inspires young adults to think that they could be more than they previously thought possible."
During his mission, Kelly's sister-in-law Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was shot. The most challenging aspect of space travel, he said, is that "if something bad happens to your family you cannot come home."
In space, there are small comforts: Kelly listened to Coldplay, Pearl Jam and Jay Z. Fascinatingly, his dreams changed: "The longer I was there they became almost exclusively space dreams." Spacewalks scare him less than the glass floor of the Space Needle in Seattle — "I don't like that at all" — and he'd happily go on a mission to Mars "as long as I had a return ticket."
"How loud was it when you took off?" Nye asked.
"I can't hear you," joked Kelly.
"What was the most amazing thing you saw in space?"
"Earth," he said with grin.
From space, the planet is borderless: "we see the earth as is it meant to be seen." Kelly described the fragility of the earth's atmosphere — "almost like a contact lens on somebody's eye" — and that while "generally it's a very beautiful view" he saw firsthand the effects of pollution. (The smoke from the 2015 California fires, he said, was also visible.) "It's our responsibility to put people in office that believe in science, believe in facts, believe in data," he said to applause.
Kelly's story seemed to hold something for everyone. Norma Gonzalez, a 4th and 5th grade special education teacher, "loved his openness about his past and not being the perfect student. I can't wait to take that back to my students," she said. Elham Maghsoudi, an engineer at JPL, agreed, adding that she appreciated "the impact of being an astronaut on his point of view," encouraging the public to "believe in science and fact."
To close the evening, Kelly stood and addressed the audience. Building and operating the International Space Station is the most difficult thing humanity has ever done, and its success makes him hopeful. "If we can dream it, we can do it": curing cancer, fixing the country and the environment, he said, it's all within reach.
Kelly received a standing ovation. After the applause died down, his exit music piped in. What song? What else: "Rocket Man."