In February 2016, the astronaut Scott Kelly decided to send an email to my father, the writer Tom Wolfe, from the international space station (they later spoke by phone as well). Mr. Kelly wanted to thank him for “The Right Stuff,” my father’s 1979 book about the early U.S. space program, which had inspired his career as an astronaut, Mr. Kelly told me.
Mr. Kelly, now 54, was at the end of a yearlong mission to the space station. When he returned to Earth, he met my father, who passed away in May, for a few meals and asked him for advice on how to write about his experience. “Begin at the beginning,” my father told him.
Mr. Kelly took it to heart. Last year, he published a memoir, “Endurance.” And this past week, he came out with “Infinite Wonder,” which illustrates his year in orbit with a series of vivid photographs that he took of the Earth as it passed below.
Mr. Kelly has been to space four times, starting in 1999 with a mission piloting the Space Shuttle Discovery to service 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 (since broken) at the time he retired from spaceflight in 2016. He still holds the U.S. record for the most days spent in space at one time—340.
His feats were as much mental as physical. To prepare for spending such a long time in high-pressure, cramped conditions on his last mission, he lived in an undersea laboratory in Key Largo for two weeklong stints and spent about a week in a freezing snow cave in Wyoming. He met regularly with a psychiatrist with whom he spoke every few weeks from the space station. “I definitely think I developed a talent for living in an uncomfortable environment,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I like to fly in economy class on an airline,” he jokes, “but I can 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 the husband of former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords) were energetic and rebellious. “We had two speeds, fast and stop,” he says. His father was a police officer, and his mother eventually became one, too.
Mr. Kelly first read “The Right Stuff” while in college at the State University of New York Maritime College, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering in 1987. “This wasn’t just an exciting adventure story,” he wrote in his memoir. “This was more like a life plan.”
He joined the Navy, where he served as a fighter pilot and test pilot until NASA chose him to be an astronaut in 1996. “I never felt more rewarded in work…than when I was doing something that had very serious consequences of not doing it correctly,” he says.
In space, he learned to function in zero gravity. Any time he made a movement as small as pushing a button, he had to anchor himself with a foot or toe, and he had to secure objects such as forks and knives with Velcro. Fluid that would normally have settled in his lower body pooled in his head, giving him an uncomfortably full feeling in his skull.
But none of it stopped him from marveling at the sights below. He started photographing earth from space in earnest in 2010, during a 159-day flight, finding ways to support himself and his camera without gravity as the space station moved past the planet at 17,500 miles an hour. “I had to pan the camera steadily and quickly as the shutter released, otherwise the image would smear and appear out of focus,” he writes. He used a long 800 mm lens with a 1.4x magnifying zoom lens and then used software to enhance the color.
During his last mission, he took some pictures to help scientists observe environmental changes and document natural disasters. The photos in his new book range from the veined landscapes of Egyptian deserts to the vibrant blues and greens of the Bahamas. “I really liked taking those photos…that made Earth look like abstract art,” he says.
He took most of his photographs for fun. During football season, he tried to take photos of stadiums during games and managed to get a shot of Super Bowl 50 in California. He also shot locations where people he missed lived.
He undertook several dangerous spacewalks to fix parts of the space station, putting him at risk of becoming untethered as he struggled to move in his ungainly suit. The worst part of his journey, he says, was getting bad news from earth. He had two months left in his 159-day mission in 2011 when he found out that his sister-in-law Ms. Giffords had been shot at an event in Tucson. At first he heard that she had died; only hours later did he find out that she had survived. From space, he led a moment of silence for his crew and flight control centers around the world.
Since retiring, Mr. Kelly has devoted most of his time to writing and giving speeches, which he finds enough to keep him busy for now. He and his wife Amiko have decided to give up their home in Houston and travel, staying in hotels, Airbnbs and the occasional tent or yurt, such as when they visited Everest Base Camp. He has two daughters from his previous marriage.
Mr. Kelly thinks that someday soon we’ll be able to fly halfway around the world in 45 minutes by going up briefly to space and descending again, and he thinks that human travel to Mars is “inevitable.” Given the chance, would he go? “Yup,” he says, without hesitation.
As I got off the phone with Mr. Kelly, I remembered a line that was one of my father’s favorites. Instead of saying goodbye, he liked to say “Keep ’em flying!”—a slogan from a 1941 recruiting ad for the Aviation Cadet Program. True to form, when he got that surprising email from space, he thanked Mr. Kelly for “writing this earthling way down below” and signed off, “Keep ’em orbiting!”
Write to Alexandra Wolfe at email@example.com