Astronaut kicks off tour at Words event in W. Orange

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Scott Kelly is no stranger to trying new things — the former NASA astronaut did spend a year on the International Space Station from 2015 to 2016, after all. Now the West Orange native is about to share his experiences from the 12 months he was in space and discuss his upbringing on Earth in his first book, “Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery.”

On Tuesday, Oct. 17, Kelly will come to West Orange High School, across the street from the elementary school now named for him and his twin brother and fellow astronaut Mark, for a discussion about the book in conjunction with Maplewood’s Words Bookstore.

Kelly, who admits he was a below-average, unfocused student as a child, said that he read Tom Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff,” in college and it motivated him to learn to fly. Wolfe’s 1979 book is about the Navy, Air Force and Marine pilots who were testing aeronautics and the astronauts who were selected for Project Mercury, the United States’ first spaceflight.

“That changed my life and motivated me to become an engineer and a pilot, a military test pilot,” Kelly said in a phone interview on Oct. 6. He was a pilot in the Navy before being selected by NASA to train to become an astronaut in 1996. “Eventually I was lucky enough to become an astronaut and fly in space four times over the course of 20 years … and I wrote a book about it.”

Kelly said that when he started the book, he had a couple different messages he wanted to write about. One was about himself and how he was able to find what motivated him to get through school — his dream to fly.

“I wasn’t good in school and I found that spark that changed my life and allowed me to have this pretty amazing career and experience,” he said. “I was this kid who got bad grades and I think it was because I was the kid with ADD or ADHD, you know, untreated or undiagnosed that I think happened to a lot of people in that time. I think that’s part of the story, too. It was impossible for me to pay attention until I found the thing that motivated me and allowed me to figure it out.”

The Kelly brothers graduated from WOHS in 1982, and Scott said he visits his hometown once or twice a year; however, he spends a lot of time in the Tri-State Area, going back and forth between Manhattan and his home in Houston.

“When I grew up there it was much different than things are today,” Kelly said of West Orange. “I had much more freedom than my children have; the ability of our parents to just kind of let us run wild gave us a spirit of exploration and discovery that maybe my children don’t have. I can remember, I was probably 10 or 12 years old, getting up at like 4 in the morning and hitchhiking down to Verona Park to go fishing,” Kelly said.

He remembers having free rein over the area, and playing in local woods and parks as a child. Kicking off the launch of the book on the day it comes out in his former high school’s auditorium just made sense.

A large portion of “Endurance” is devoted to describing what it feels like to be in space — because the vast majority of the population will never experience it — and to readjusting to being on a surface with gravity.

“It’s a privilege to fly in space. It’s an incredible experience, with the view. Floating is fun, although it makes things more difficult to do,” he joked. “Adjusting to Earth after being in space for a year is harder than adjusting to space after being on Earth for a year.”

The risks to the human body in space are severe, as Kelly tells in the book.

“On my last flight to the space station, a mission of 159 days, I lost bone mass, my muscles atrophied, and my blood redistributed itself in my body, which strained and shrank the walls of my heart,” he wrote. “More troubling, I experienced problems with my vision, as many other astronauts have. I have been exposed to more than 30 times the radiation of a person on Earth, equivalent to about 10 chest X-rays every day. This exposure will increase my risk of a fatal cancer for the rest of my life.”

Kelly also had to relearn to walk when he returned from his year on the International Space Station. And NASA continues to study the effects of being in space on the human body by comparing the Kelly twins.

Still, the risks are worthwhile, according to Scott Kelly. And that is why it was so vital to him to write about NASA’s mission. He believes that if space travel is possible, then anything else is possible.

“It’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done and built,” he said. “And if we can do this, you know, build a million pound structure while flying around the earth at 17,500 miles an hour in a vacuum with extreme temperatures of plus or minus 270 degrees, with an international partnership, we can do anything, whether it’s going to Mars or solving our problems right here on Earth.”