When astronaut Scott Kelly blasted into orbit last October, bound for a six-month stint aboard the International Space Station, among the items he brought with him were two books, tales of heroic sojourners overcoming dire peril far from home. One of the volumes was Slavomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk, the story of a Polish cavalry officer’s escape from the Soviet gulag in Siberia, and his 2,000-mile trek to freedom in British India. The other was South, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s classic memoir of disaster, and escape, on an Antarctic expedition in 1915. Life aboard the space station seemed almost a dull routine in comparison.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Scott and his twin brother, Mark, were growing up in West Orange, New Jersey, the great adventurers were the space-suited astronauts of NASA, men (as they all were back then) who walked on the moon, and stirred dreams of journeys to Mars, and beyond. As it happened, Scott and Mark both possessed that particular measure of nerve and steely calm required of the breed. They both became Navy test pilots, a traditional feeder line for NASA, and, in 1998, they were selected for the astronaut program.
By the time the Kelly brothers reached space, NASA’s hold on the public imagination had badly waned. The Space Shuttle was a marvel, but it was a transport service; the International Space Station, one of the Shuttle’s regular destinations, held a certain Trekkie appeal, but an orbiting science experiment hardly evoked the thrill of space conquest. Scott Kelly took command of the Space Station last November, and the next month, the 10th anniversary of the station’s launch came and went, scarcely noticed by the public, or the press.
But midway through this mission, Scott Kelly, who has trained for every conceivable contingency in space, was confronted by a grace-under-pressure challenge he could never have imagined. On Saturday afternoon, January 8, a half-day of work for the Space Station crew, Kelly received an unplanned call from Peggy Whitson, head of the astronauts’ office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston.
“When you hear that—that your boss wants to talk to you, and wants to talk to you right now, without any heads up, without any notice—you know that what she has to say is probably not good,” Kelly recalled, in a phone conversation we had this week via satellite linkup. “So, I was expecting some bad news. Certainly not of this magnitude.”
“Houston did report to me, via a privatized channel, that there were unconfirmed reports that Gabby had passed away,” he said. “So, yes, I did hear that.”
Whitson told Kelly that there’d been a shooting at a public event in Tucson. One of the victims was Kelly’s sister-in-law, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords—Mark’s wife. “I told my boss, Peggy Whitson, that I wanted to hear whatever the news was reporting, even if it was unconfirmed,” Kelly said.
The crew of the Space Station can receive intermittent Internet service, and television signals, when the satellite signals are aligned, and Kelly learned the unfolding details of the tragedy as most of America did, in news bursts that were not always reliable. I asked Kelly if he had heard, as his brother had, the erroneous reports that Giffords had died. “Houston did report to me, via a privatized channel, that there were unconfirmed reports that Gabby had passed away,” he said. “So, yes, I did hear that.”
Scott carried on as skipper of the station, with its 10-hour work days, while assuming the added duty of concerned brother. He spoke to Mark nearly every day, sometimes twice a day, on the private phone hookup. He offered consolation, and provided a unique sounding board for his twin as Mark decided whether or not he would leave his wife’s bedside and return to his own Space Shuttle crew, training for a mission scheduled to launch in April. Scott fully believed that his brother was right in deciding to resume his mission. “I think it shows a certain level of resilience and commitment to duty that not only he has, but many people in our country do,” he said. “Certainly, there are many people in the U.S. military that have to deal with similar issues, and still have to go on deployments, for instance, for even longer periods of time, in times of family and personal tragedy. I think it shows something about what we’re made of.”
At one point, the Kelly brothers had been scheduled to meet aboard the Space Station—another of their space firsts—but delays in the shuttle launch scrapped that plan; Scott is scheduled to return to Earth, riding a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, in March. He plans to be at the Kennedy Space Center for Mark’s launch, an occasion that the family hopes Giffords will also witness in person, if her doctors permit it.
Meanwhile, the story of the brothers Kelly, and their steady devotion to duty in the face of personal ordeal, has provided NASA a much-needed glimpse of its former self, as a source of national optimism and pride. Administrator Charles Bolden counted himself among those hoping that Giffords can make it to her husband’s launch this spring, saying it would be “tremendous for the nation.”
Scott Kelly says that the family’s demonstration of resilience has only just begun. “I think we’re going to see that much, much more with Gabby, as we follow her through her recovery,” he said. “She is a very strong, strong-willed, and dedicated person. And I look forward to seeing her, and the example she sets for all of us, and how she deals with a very, very personal tragedy like this.”
Peter J. Boyer joined Newsweek/Daily Beast after spending 18 years as a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he wrote on a wide range of subjects, including politics, the military, religion, and sports. Before joining The New Yorker, Boyer was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and a television critic for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” As a correspondent on the documentary series, Frontline, he won a George Foster Peabody Award, an Emmy, and consecutive Writers Guild Awards for his reporting. Boyer’s New Yorker articles have been included in the anthologies The Best American Political Writing, Best American Science Writing, Best American Spiritual Writing and Best American Crime Writing. He is at work on a book about American evangelism.