A book that turned a bad student into an astronaut

US space record holder inspires UAE pupils with life story.

Retired US astronaut Scott Kelly autographs a book for pupils at an event in Abu Dhabi on Monday to unveil Citizen Science, a mobile platform for students. Ravindranath K / The National
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ABU DHABI // A chance encounter with a book helped to steer Scott Kelly from being a “bad student” to becoming Nasa’s most experienced astronaut.

Mr Kelly, who recently broke the US record for most time spent in space, met students on Monday. He told them that for a time he was anything but a model pupil, but with hard work and dedication he was able to change his life’s trajectory from failure to success.

“I spent my days looking at the clock wondering when the day was going to be over, I was looking out the window, and it wasn’t good,” said the 52-year-old. “I was really on the path to failure.”

It was not until he was a bit older, when he was just starting college, that he found the motivation to change his ways after entering a bookstore to buy snacks. There, he accidentally found a book that got him excited about space travel.

"It was a book called The Right Stuff," he said of the Tom Wolfe classic on pilots who were recruited for Nasa's space programme.

“I recognised in these pages things that I felt I had in myself. And it made me believe in myself. But I was still a bad student. So how do you go from 18-year-old bad student to the most experienced astronaut?”

It took baby steps, Mr Kelly said. “Bad student became good student. I was able to study maths, I was able to get into a commissioning programme that got me into the [US] navy,” he said.

“I was able to learn to fly aeroplanes and became a test pilot and they were all small little steps along the way.

“But the most important step was the spark that got me interested in school.”

Mr Kelly was among a number of speakers on Monday who addressed students at an event hosted by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) for the unveiling of Citizen Science, a mobile platform developed by Tribal Planet and EY.

The mobile platform awards points to pupils for completing science, technology, engineering and mathematics challenges and quizzes.

Although 25 students from Mawaheb and Al Ghazali schools sampled the application last month as part of a pilot project, it has yet to be adopted by Adec and is only expected to be available on iTunes and Google Play in August.

Mr Kelly said anything that makes children excited about science and technology was worthy of support.

“From a perspective of someone who works in a very high-tech industry in the United States and understands the crisis we have in the country and around the world with kids studying Stem subjects, I think that anything that can get kids interested in being engineers, scientists, physicists and mathematicians has significant value.”