My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve always wanted to go into space, and I know I never will.
I know I never will because I’m 52 years old, and the world of “2001: A Space Odyssey” I wanted to be a part of – a world of Pan Am shuttles and space station Hiltons and, obviously, regular use of both by mere Earthlings – is decades away, if it ever happens at all. I will either be too old or too dead to try them, and thus will be spending the remainder of my life gravitationally attached to this oblate spheroid.
Fortunately, if space must remain the domain of well-trained astronauts, we have people like Scott Kelly to tell us what it’s like.
Kelly freely admits he was a ne’er-do-well student probably ticketed for a middling life until he stumbled on Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” early in college. (“The Right Stuff” is probably my favorite Wolfe book, too, and considering that I love most of what Wolfe has written, that’s saying something.) Suddenly he had a purpose. He wanted to be an astronaut. However, that meant mastering math, physics and engineering, excelling in the military, becoming an accomplished jet pilot and being selected by NASA.
As he writes, often humbly, in his memoir “Endurance,” he pulled it off.
“Endurance” alternates between chapters describing Kelly’s “Year in Space” – 2015-16, when he set the record for consecutive days by an American on board the space station – and his push to get there. He seldom spares himself, writing matter-of-factly about his initial lack of discipline, his occasional foolishness as a Navy pilot (in one incident, he went overboard after drinking too much and could easily have died) and the divorce from his first wife, who – at least as of the book’s writing – barely speaks to him.
However, what makes his memoir so gripping, and what raises it above the level of the overcoming-adversity book it could have been, is his sense of wonder. Inside Kelly is still that college kid reading “The Right Stuff” and pondering the heavens. It’s when he’s describing those moments – staring at the Earth from the cupola (the space station’s viewing room) or, during spacewalks, noting the fragility of the tether connecting him to the station – that the book almost brought me to tears. You can feel Kelly’s awe. How I’ve stared at the night sky and felt that feeling myself, wishing to see it from the other side.
Which is not to say astronaut life is all zero-G dances to the “Blue Danube.”
There’s the impact of zero-G, for one. What seems so natural in “2001” (or “Star Wars,” or any movie set in space) is actually quite unnatural for human beings. Kelly gets headaches as his brain tries to figure out which end is up. A crewmate spends several days throwing up. Their bodies start wasting away, since there’s less need for the muscle and bone that keeps us upright and ambulatory. Makes you wonder how easy it would be for Dr. Heywood Broun, or his Pan Am flight attendants.
Then there’s the space station itself: a remarkable creation, but one that seems put together with chewing gum and baling wire. The station struggles to keep up with its resident humans’ oxygen needs – carbon dioxide builds up all too easily – and the toilet craps out (sorry) a couple times, which means that it has to be fixed … while its parts threaten to float away. Frankly, it’s amazing the space station has held up as well as it has, given the lack of passion and funding for space exploration among national governments.
Finally, Kelly acknowledges how difficult it is to be hundreds of miles away from home – not just in another part of the world, but literally above it. He can’t step outside for a breather; he can’t go shopping or drinking or simply grab a change of scene. In a moving section near the end of “Endurance,” he talks about what he’s missed:
I miss cooking. I miss chopping fresh food, the smell vegetables give up when you first slice into them. … I miss grocery stores, the shelves of bright colors and the glossy tile floors and the strangers walking the aisles. … I miss rooms. I miss doors and door frames and the creak of wood floorboards when people walk around in old buildings. … I miss the feeling of resting after opposing gravity all day. … I miss showers. I miss running water in all its forms: washing my face, washing my hands.
Amazing what you take for granted, simply existing on this planet.
“Endurance” isn’t perfect. The writing (with Margaret Lazarus Dean) can be workmanlike – not dull, but not at the level of its most heartfelt sections. I would have liked more information on Kelly’s crewmates, particularly the Russians — though, to his credit, he offers up the occasional tart comparison. (If NASA is by-the-book to the point of absurdity, the Russians are sometimes casual to the point of imprudence.)
I’m glad Kelly was blunt about the stresses of space, though. The training alone would eliminate me, all that drownproofing and roughing it in the Russian woods. And having nearly passed out after trying an “anti-gravity workout,” in which you do pushups and situps while hanging from the ceiling, I can’t imagine how I’d survive life in the space station … never mind the trip to and from the place. (Kelly describes the ride back in a Soyuz capsule as “going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, while on fire.” And he loves it.)
So I’d never make it in space unless Pan Am, or whoever, made it reasonably comfortable. But Kelly has made it in space, and has done so with an open-mindedness that makes “Endeavor” a welcome, and surprisingly deep, addition to space-oriented literature – including “The Right Stuff.”
In a classy move, Kelly called Tom Wolfe from space late in his journey to thank him for the inspiration. In turn, I’d like to thank Kelly for taking me along on his trip. Godspeed.