A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery
By Scott Kelly with Margaret Lazarus Dean
387 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $29.95.
What will the future of human space exploration look like in the 21st century? If Scott Kelly has any say on the matter, we shall go to Mars and beyond, with the discipline and determination that fill the pages of his memoir chronicling the extraordinary life he’s lived on Earth and in space.
No overachievers are born without influences, and Kelly is forthcoming about the early motivations that led him on his unique career path. As an unfocused, unremarkable young college student, he read Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” a nonfiction classic on why anyone in his right mind would submit to the dangers of spaceflight. Wolfe’s portrayal of hotshot pilots was just one highlight of a star-studded career that would eventually take him beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Another noted inspiration is the book after which Kelly named his own, and which he carries with him on multiple voyages to the International Space Station: “Endurance,” by Alfred Lansing, about Ernest Shackleton’s historic expedition to the South Pole, during which his crew cheated death after their ship became trapped in a polar pack ice, overcoming 850 miles of heavy seas on small lifeboats. Both of these literary homages set up the structure of Kelly’s own “Endurance.” While “The Right Stuff” captures the swagger — the daredevil aviators hell-bent on making it to the final frontier — Lansing’s account is a stark reminder that along with the rock-star image of the explorer comes the omnipresent specter of death. This horror of total isolation serves as a reminder that spaceflight, much like the sea exploration of olden days, isn’t all thrills; it brings human beings face to face with an at best indifferent and often hostile environment ready to crush any innocent traveler on a whim.
The book’s narrative is split between Kelly’s year in space — a zero-gravity journey of “unprecedented” duration — and his personal development from a child reading “The Right Stuff” into a decorated naval test pilot. One would think tales of space travel should overshadow any Earthbound life story, but in “Endurance,” Kelly’s humor and self-awareness when relating his experiences at home make them just as absorbing as those aboard the station.
That is not to say his extraterrestrial anecdotes fail to entertain. Kelly takes on the task of fixing the station’s toilet, one of the most crucial devices on board; against protocol, the Americans and Russians on board share garbage bags whose contents they then shoot into the atmosphere. (The descriptions of Kelly’s comradeship with his Russian colleagues are easily the most endearing parts of the book, and provide some hope in dire geopolitical times.) Other space chapters are grueling and stressful, as the astronauts wait for resupply ships that keep malfunctioning and exploding, exposing just how easily things can go wrong after months of calm.
Kelly’s sharp self-observation and narrative poignancy make for a fascinating tale of a life lived on Earth, too, and the value of the book is heightened by its glimpses beyond the astronaut’s veil. Behind the imposing spacesuit and perfect smile is a three-dimensional person, and “Endurance” offers brilliant insight into the human aspect of space travel by paying equal attention to the origin story as to its climax among the stars.