Perhaps one day an astronaut’s job will be so ordinary that no one will think to write a book about what they might have done. Sadly, that day is yet some distance away and, now that the Space Shuttle is on the verge of retirement, likely to move further away. So, for the time-being, astronaut is still a remarkable career, and there is a ready market for books on the topic. As astronauts go, Winston E Scott (Captain USN, retired) is not especially noteworthy. He was not the first to fly anywhere, or set foot anywhere; nor did he perform any astonishing feat of bravery in space. He holds no records; in fact, he spent just over 24 days in orbit.
But still, he was an astronaut. He went into space.
Scott was born in Florida in 1950, went to one of the first integrated schools in the state, and studied for a degree in music at Florida State University. On graduation, he joined the US Navy and became a naval aviator, flying Kaman SH-2F Seasprite helicopters and then Grumman F-14 Tomcats. He then became a production test pilot, was awarded a masters in aeronautical engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School in 1980, and was selected by NASA for the astronaut corps in 1992. He flew two missions aboard the Shuttle as mission specialist: STS-72 (January 1996) and STS-87 (December 1997). The latter mission is notable as the capture of the Spartan satellite did not go as planned and Scott and Doi, the other mission specialist, had to EVA to perform it manually.
Scott’s autobiography, Reflections from Earth Orbit, is a slim book of 128 pages. It is also copiously illustrated with photographs. He opens with his first flight at the USN’s Aviation Officer Candidates School, and his fear of failing it. Of course, he passes. Scott then writes about his childhood, his years at school (where a teacher had a large positive effect on him), and the years at college. The rest of Scott’s career is interleaved with the events of his Shuttle missions – how he felt during his first launch, what it feels like in orbit, and so on. Scott’s voice is cheery and readable, and he succeeds in giving the reader a good idea of what it was actually like on those two missions. He’s also good with detail – many of which are fascinating, and all of which demonstrate he knows what he’s writing about.
There is very little self-aggrandisement present in Reflections from Earth Orbit, unlike in, say, the autobiography of an Apollo astronaut (Michael Collins excepted). This is hardly unexpected – the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes recruited men of a specific type. They had, as Tom Wolfe put it, the “Right Stuff”. Twenty-five years later and those qualities were less important in the astronaut corps, and might perhaps have even been considered undesirable. Astronauts such as Scott were professional engineers and pilots, they just happened to work in an unusual environment. And then, of course, there was the commute…
Reflections from Earth Orbit is a readable account of one astronaut’s career. It amply demonstrates how much the job of astronaut has changed since the heady days of Apollo.
Reflections from Earth Orbit, Winston E Scott (2005, Apogee Books, ISBN 1-894959-22-1, 128 pp)