Scott Kelly’s ENDURANCE: MY YEAR IN SPACE AND A LIFETIME OF DISCOVERY
A book review by Dennis D. McDonald
This is one of the the best books about space travel I have ever read. I put it right up there with Boris Chertok's ROCKETS AND PEOPLE VOLUME 3: HOT DAYS OF THE COLD WAR.
ENDURANCE is candid, personal, readable, and it has just enough technical detail to not insult the intelligent reader.
Best of all, it’s honest. It does not sugarcoat the profound dangers involved in space travel and the excruciatingly detailed training that astronauts and cosmonauts ( and presumably Chinese taikonauts) must undertake to travel and live in space.
Kelly never stops reminding us that in space there’s always something waiting around the corner that will kill you if you’re not careful and prepared. We’re talking about people living for weeks, months, and years out there, not robots. They have to sleep, breathe, eat, work with other International Space Station (ISS) crew, use (and frequently repair) the toilet, and perform complex tasks in challenging zero gravity. They are constantly aware that microgravity and radiation are also having potentially longterm effects on their bodies.
As they orbit high above the atmosphere and circle the globe every 90 minutes traveling at 17,500 mph, they stay in touch electronically with the folks back home. As anyone who has ever traveled constantly away from home on business knows, just staying in touch electronically is not really enough. Kelly was up there for a year. His communication with his partner and his daughters from his first marriage were sporadic and not always fruitful. The longer he was up there the more he began to question his own memories of even the simplest of things affected by gravity — not to mention, a year without India Pale Ale!
What I thought most impressive was how space station residents learn to compartmentalize and deal with constant danger. One sequence in particular illustrates this.
Mission control privately messaged the station that a recently detected piece of orbiting space junk is going to pass near enough to the ISS in a few hours to be a real threat. If a collision happens the speed and mass combined would cause catastrophic damage. The Americans carry out the well rehearsed and disciplined emergency exercises they have trained for including closing off or checking all 18 of the American section’s 18 hatches.
The Russians, practical as always, basically shrug it off figuring that, if the football field size space station really gets hit head on by the orbiting debris, it’s “game over, man“ and there’s really nothing they can do about it.
I leave it to the reader to find out what eventually happens.
PS = The following are some of my favorite quotations from this book:
“We eat tortillas because of their long shelf life and lack of crumbs.”
“Our religion is ‘Be nice to other people and eat all your vegetables,’ ”
“I’m more of a hoppy India pale ale kind of guy. Maybe there’s some nutrient in cheap beer I’m missing.”
“Rooting through our supplies, I invent a new puke bag for Kjell made out of a ziplock bag lined with maxi pads. It works.”
“We rode the bus out to Gagarin’s launchpad, peed on the tire, and climbed into the capsule.”
“I’ve said that any day in space is a good day, and I believe it, but two days in a Soyuz is not that good.”
“As we start the journey, translating hand over hand along the rails, I notice again how much damage has been done to the outside of the station by micrometeoroids and orbital debris.”
“The trash fairy must have come in the middle of the night.”
“TODAY, January 15, 2016, is a great day on the International Space Station because a spacewalk is going on and I’m not doing it.”
“ ‘You’re no Mark Watney,’ quips one smart-ass commenter, making reference to the stranded astronaut in The Martian. Now it’s personal.”
“Sergey shakes his head. ‘Growing tomatoes is a waste. If you want to grow something you can eat, you should grow potatoes. You can live on potatoes.’ (And make vodka.) The practical and simple Russian perspective has merit.”
“I miss the sound of children playing, which always sounds the same no matter their language.”
“I’ve described it [re-entry] myself as the sensation of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, while on fire.”
“In a world of compromise and uncertainty, this space station is a triumph of engineering and cooperation. Putting it into orbit—making it work and keeping it working—is the hardest thing that human beings have ever done, and it stands as proof that when we set our minds to something hard, when we work together, we can do anything, including solving our problems here on Earth.”
Book review copyright 2019 by Dennis D. McDonald. Quotations courtesy of the Amazon Kindle’s nifty “notes” highlighting feature.