Astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent 340 days aboard the International Space Station in 2015, has been in the news this month as scientists learn more about his health after such an extended stay in space. NASA admitted Scott and his identical twin brother Mark into its elite astronaut program in 1996, and after many years the brothers’ back and forth missions resulted in Scott accepting a Russian mission to test human reaction to extended space travel, in part contemplating a trip to Mars one day. At the end of his 2015 mission not only did his body change, but he encountered what travelers to Mars will encounter: living in weightlessness, relying on the tools, food, and oxygen processing technology, and experiencing work stress for a similar period of time as a voyage to Mars. Although readers of his recently published memoir will learn the selection of the brothers into NASA and the selection of Scott for his record-breaking ISS mission initially did not contemplate use of the twin brothers as comparative test subjects, NASA soon realized the knowledge they could gain from such an endeavor. Although scientists have since backed off on early claims that Mark and Scott now have different DNA, their analysis continues, and Scott said he and his brother will continue to be tested and observed as part of the study for the rest of their lives.
In his book Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Scott Kelly recounts his life story and the details of his four trips into outer space: via the space shuttles Discovery (STS-103) in 1999 and Endeavour (STS-118) in 2007 and later via Soyuz TMA-19 in Expeditions 25/26 in 2010 and Soyuz TMA-18M in Expeditions 43/44/45/46 in 2015 with a record-breaking mission. The Endurance in the title reflects both the ship captained by Sir Ernest Shackleton in the 1901 expedition to Antarctica (and Shackleton’s book Kelly took on his journey into space for inspiration and reflection) as well as the mettle and resolve required to push his mind and body to the limits to survive his many journeys off-planet. Readers learn through his experiences the detail, perfection, and self-discipline that makes up “the right stuff” for the military fighter pilot turned test pilot, Navy captain, and astronaut commander are the same things that seem to make him so focused that he was perceived as less communicative and responsive to those closest to him. Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery is very much another chapter in a continuing history of books by astronauts recounting their circuitous and unlikely paths to NASA, yet Kelly’s account reveals less of a superman and more of a flawed but committed adventurer, and his flaws will no doubt engage any reader and fan of real-life adventure stories. The personal details, openness to discuss his own reservations, concerns, and mistakes, make this unlike any other of the more famous accounts of human travels in space. Kelly is most likeable when he’d seem unlikeable to us back on Earth–when he shows his frustrations, when at the end of a year in space little comments from his peers simply annoy him. He seems preoccupied with the ISS toilets and carbon dioxide levels throughout his year on the ISS, both of which he knows could mean the end of any Mars mission if they can’t become more reliable. And it’s these kinds of details he hopes will drive NASA to improve these components of space travel to hope to make a mission around the moon, around an asteroid, and ultimately a mission to Mars, a reality one day for mankind.
Kelly credits another book, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, as his inspiration for taking on a career as jet pilot and astronaut–he even called Wolfe from space to thank him at the end of his ISS mission. Kelly’s descriptions of several of his experiences, especially his three harrowing spacewalks while aboard the ISS, provide for a riveting read, and readers shouldn’t be surprised if they find themselves breathless as they follow along with him as he floats 254 miles above Earth orbiting at 17,000 miles per hour. Some sections of Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery are as nailbiting as Jon Krakauer’s extraordinary account of his ill-fated Mt. Everest climb, Into Thin Air. Some of Kelly’s more minor details are the most startling, like his description of hand rails outside the station that are riddled with bullet-sized holes, caused by space debris. Any new arriving piece of debris could poke a hole in him, too, as he floated in space. In one mission he encounters the same tile problem that caused the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia. A chunk of an old satellite careening in the vicinity of the ISS provides another dangerous condition for the crew that illustrates another theme of life on the ISS–international relations. Kelly speaks nothing but admiration for Russia, its space program and its cosmonauts, but their processes and procedures sometimes vary widely. When the satellite approached, the Russians kept on working just as he and his team hunkered down. The Russians figured any collision likely would kill them all instantly, so why worry about it? Readers will learn a lot about those less exciting parts of being a 21st century astronaut, especially about the required extended stays required these days in Russia, the departure point for American astronauts in the post-Space Shuttle world. In between flights, Kelly served as NASA’s Director of Operations in the legendary town of Star City, Russia, and we learn much about his many encounters with other astronauts and ground crew.
From a science fiction standpoint, it’s exciting to be an eyewitness through Kelly’s eyes as he welcomes new flight teams onto the ISS, just as recounted in the opening of Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. From a humanistic perspective, a meeting above Earth of representatives of like-minded, positive people from throughout the world in the face of thousands of years of human encounters and the ceremony of it all is as thrilling as it sounds, and Kelly remarks about this processes in several instances. These astronauts begin working with each other on each mission sometimes years in advance, so it is rare to meet someone at the ISS for the first time (as happens once in Kelly’s year in space). Kelly doesn’t pull any punches showing the downside of being both a test pilot and astronaut–the grueling tests to weed out candidates, the psychological testing and manipulation that begins with the first interview, the physical tests of the body’s threshold for punishment and abuse, and the repeated damage to the body as flight after flight tests how far the body will go before weakening (early on Kelly made more than 250 aircraft carrier landings and he flew more than 40 different aircraft and spacecraft for more than 8,000 hours, orbiting Earth in the ISS a whopping 5,440 times). By the time Kelly arrived home in Houston at the end of his year in space, he finally seemed like his body had enough.
Kelly was the ultimate workaholic, never seeming to have any break or vacation in his stay on the ISS. He recounts missed holidays and the irretrievable time lost with his two girls and other family members, taking a break for a few days when his brother’s wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords survived an assassination attempt in 2011 while Scott was aboard Expedition 26. It was refreshing to see him open up, become more human and less analytic or robotic, as the final days of his journey drew to a close. Only then did he say he started thinking about his plans for the future, his return to Earth with goal number one submerging himself in his backyard pool (which he did, with flightsuit on), and a short list of foods he missed, including fresh fruits and vegetables–no doubt something Shackleton could have related to on his return home from his Endurance expedition.
An exciting, fun, educational, and compelling read, Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery is available now in hardcover here at Amazon.