Endurance proves a fitting title for the eye-opening autobiography of astronaut Scott Kelly, who in 2014-15 spent a record-breaking year in space aboard the International Space Station as a prelude to one day placing space boots on Mars.
While conducting scientific experiments in orbit, Kelly’s body became one of the key NASA test cases for the effects of prolonged space flight on humans. He was subjected to 30 times the radiation of those of us below, or the equivalent of about 10 chest X-rays each day.
But if Kelly’s prologue (in which his excruciating return to gravity after a year in space prompts him to plead, “Stick a fork in me, I’m done.”) could serve as the ultimate NASA buzzkill, Kelly’s colorful look back on how a New Jersey underachiever wound up putting the “rock” in rocket man is anything but. Honest, funny and frequently hair-raising, Kelly’s flight notes and family struggles, including his painful isolation in space during the assassination attempt on his astronaut twin brother’s wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, really bring this space tale down to earth.
We spoke with Kelly as he drove with his wife, Amiko, through the hills outside Houston, where they live.
Endurance is an unusually candid behind-the-scenes look at the life of an astronaut.
That was my intent, to be honest about it. Hopefully by doing that, it would let people feel like they were part of the experience.
As a wayward teen, you were inspired by reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff to reach for the stars. How crazy did that seem then?
I was headed to apply to NASA, but I would never say that I felt like I even had a chance [laughs]. That was what I wanted to do, but also, if that didn’t work out, my plan was to stay in the Navy and hopefully be the commander of an aircraft carrier someday.
What were the best and worst surprises your first time in space?
I would say the good surprise is the view. The bad surprise is how zero gravity makes almost everything harder to do, with the exception of moving stuff that is heavy or getting into odd positions or orientations—like floating upside down to hook up the cable to the back of your entertainment center.
Were you aware going in that your body would become an ongoing NASA scientific experiment for the rest of your life?
Not when I became an astronaut. I knew that the science experiments were a part of the shuttle program, but I joined NASA to be a space shuttle pilot and commander; the science was more a secondary responsibility. I never thought going in that, on the back end of my career, I would be such a large part of a human research study like that.
You describe the headache-causing, underperforming carbon dioxide removal assembly (CDRA) in the ISS as the bane of your existence. How did you muster the nerve to confront NASA about it?
I think everyone has similar reactions to the CO2 issue, but when you’re discussing stuff like your physical reaction to things, NASA kind of keeps that . . . There are privacy issues involved. I thought that since I was spending the longest time up there at one time of any other American, I had an obligation, not only to NASA but to the public, to let them know the physical and psychological effects of that.
You open several chapters with excerpts from your dream journal. How did that come about, and do you dream differently in space?
When I flew my previous long flight of 159 days, I knew I had dreams in space, and when I got back, the psychologists would ask, “Were they Earth dreams or space dreams?” And I really couldn’t remember. So this time, I made an effort to write them down, and it was interesting. In the beginning, they were more like Earth dreams, but as I was up there longer, they became more like space dreams, like I was in space. And as I got closer to coming home, they were more like Earth-centered dreams, which I think was kind of just looking forward to being back on Earth.
Did the ISS come to feel like home?
Oh, absolutely. At some point, it felt like I lived my whole life up there. You kind of forget what Earth is like.
For most earthlings, the one cringe-worthy fact of space flight is the urine-to-drinking water system. How did you adapt?
It’s actually pretty funny because I was involved in it when they were designing and making the system in Huntsville, Alabama, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I went out there to look at the system, and they were making water out of the urine of the workers in the lab, and I drank some and it tasted fine. So I took a bottle of it home and had my ex-wife, Leslie, and daughter Samantha drink it, and they were like, ‘Oh, this tastes perfectly fine.’ But then I told them it was water made out of urine and they got really mad at me, even though technically it was cleaner than what came out of the tap.
You describe being in orbit when Gabby Giffords was shot as a heartbreaking experience.
Yeah, you have no control over the situation, really. I was mad at the guy who shot her. He killed a bunch of people, injured others and ruined his own life.
As someone who obviously has it, what is “the right stuff”?
The way I describe this is, I’m a below-average person doing a slightly above-average job. I think if you are persistent and prepared and don’t give up and prioritize things to where you focus on the stuff that’s really important and don’t let the stuff that’s not important get under your skin, you can go a long way.
With four space flights under your belt, any interest in going to Mars?
Yeah, I’d go to Mars. I wouldn’t go on that one-way trip there’s talk of. It would take about six months to get there. They’ll do it someday. It’s not the rocket science; it’s the political science.
(Author photo by NASA-Bill Ingalls.)