The day I walked out of a bookstore with Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, I’d only meant to buy some gum. But there it was on the shelf, and it looked interesting, so I took my gum money and bought the book. As I lay on my unmade college dorm bed reading about the pilots who became the first U.S. astronauts, I discovered something I’d never had: an ambition. In his great works of fiction and nonfiction, Wolfe — who died at 88 on May 14 — made you feel as if you were there in the moment. The characters in The Bonfire of the Vanities seemed like real people in New York City, and The Right Stuff made me want to be like those test pilots. About 18 years after that day at the store, I made my first spaceflight.
In 2016, I sent him a photo of myself holding The Right Stuff and floating in a module at the International Space Station, and he responded the same day, in very Tom Wolfe fashion, with made-up words and outrageous punctuation. “At last I can point with extravagant pride at what I have done for the USA,” he wrote. After I got back to Earth, we had lunch at the Carlyle Hotel, in a corner booth. He showed up with his white three-piece suit and a cane with a wolf on top. I was starting to write a book myself, so I asked him how he did it. “What do you mean?” he said. “I use a pencil.”
Kelly, a TIME 100 designee, is a retired NASA astronaut, former commander of the International Space Station and the author of Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery
This appears in the May 28, 2018 issue of TIME.