Scott Kelly’s early life as a kid from West Orange, New Jersey, just west of New York City, gave no hint of what he and his twin brother Mark would become. Scott in particular was a mediocre student at best, drifting through school, even junior college, just getting by. Until he read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, the story of the seven original US astronauts.
That book sparked the passion in him that led him to become a Navy F-14 pilot, a test pilot, and ultimately an astronaut who would fly both the Space Shuttle and on the International Space Station. His final mission aboard the ISS lasted nearly a year. That year would prove to be a true test of endurance—mental and emotional more than physical—for not only him, but his ex-wife, their two daughters, and his girlfriend. Those of us who have experienced long-term military deployments to far-off foreign lands, especially in the days when we had little or no contact with our loved ones back home, can certainly relate to his struggles. For those who have not had that experience, Kelly’s story can be revealing.
Endurance is more than a story of that struggle, however. It’s also a fascinating look into how the US and Russian space programs differ, especially in their attitudes and approaches to doing something that is dangerous and hard every single day. The hard and dangerous parts don’t end with arrival at the station. Not only are the astronauts scientists and engineers, they’re also mechanics. When something breaks—especially something critical like one of the devices that scrubs carbon dioxide out of the air, or either of the two toilets—it’s up to the astronauts to fix it. While it’s true they get lots of advice and guidance from the teams on the ground, the astronauts are the ones who have to do the physical work.
“Space walks” are no day in the park, either. Getting into and out of their space suits, and getting out of, and then back into, the airlock are long and arduous tasks. Kelly says he came back from each “extra-vehicular activity” exhausted, his hands aching and roughed up by the insides of his gloves, which were thick and stiff, and through which he nonetheless had to do precision work.
During his 11 months in space on his last mission, Kelly shared the ISS with other American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, plus astronauts from Japan, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Not only was building the ISS an international effort, manning it was and is too. The ability to get along with others, despite personal and cultural differences, is vital to everyone’s health and safety.
This summary barely scratches the surface of everything Kelly has to tell not only about his long-duration mission, but the three others he flew and the winding path he took to become an astronaut. As someone who applied twice to be an astronaut—even though I knew I didn’t really have a snowball’s chance, given my grades in college—Kelly’s story is impressive. For a “civilian” who’s never had any insight into the inner workings of either the military or NASA, Endurance will be more than eye-opening. It’s hard to become an astronaut, and even harder to be one. Movies and TV can only hint at how hard it is.
Highly recommended, especially for anyone who’s ever dreamed of going into space.