“I’ll never take water for granted again,” writes astronaut Scott Kelly about his nearly yearlong mission aboard the International Space Station. During those 340 days, Kelly missed many things about life on his home planet. In Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery , written with Knoxville author Margaret Lazarus Dean, Kelly describes longing for such commonplace experiences as cooking, shopping in grocery stores, sitting down, even being in rooms. But the feel of water was a particular yearning. “The night my plane landed in Houston and I finally got to go home, I did exactly what I’d been saying all along that I would do: I walked in the front door, walked out the back door, and jumped into my swimming pool, still in my flight suit. The sensation of being immersed in water for the first time in a year is impossible to describe.”
Endurance is the story not just of the year Kelly spent in space but of how he became an astronaut. It is the story of a kid from New Jersey who had trouble concentrating in school and had no direction in life until he discovered a copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff at the college bookstore. “I felt like I had found my calling,” he writes. “I wanted to be like the guys in this book, guys who could land a jet on an aircraft carrier at night and then walk away with a swagger. I wanted to be a naval aviator.”
His direction set, Kelly applied himself academically, transferred to SUNY Maritime College, and joined the ROTC. After years of intensive effort and training he qualified for carrier landings in an F-14, becoming first a fighter pilot and then a military test pilot, just like the men he’d read about in the book he credits with changing his life. In 1995, he applied for the astronaut program. His twin brother, Mark, also a Navy flier, applied at the same time, and both men interviewed at NASA in Scott’s suit, the only one they owned between them. The brothers were selected—the first time the space agency had ever chosen relatives to be astronauts.
Kelly, who earned a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee Space Institute, and Dean, who has written two previous books about space travel (the novel The Time it Takes to Fall and the nonfiction book Leaving Orbit) have structured Endurance with alternating chapters about Kelly’s yearlong ISS mission and his life’s story. The book’s title is an homage to Alfred Lansing’s 1959 account of Ernest Shackleton’s fateful 1914 voyage to Antarctica, in which the ship Endurance became locked in the ice.
During his long struggle with separation from his planet, Kelly found inspiration in Shackleton’s fight for survival in a cold and isolated wilderness. “When isolation is getting to me,” he writes, “reading a few pages about the Shackleton expedition reminds me that even if I have it hard up here in some ways, I’m certainly not going through what they did.”
Kelly had plenty to keep him busy. A veteran of the shuttle program and two previous missions to the ISS, he was well prepared for both the technical challenges faced by astronauts—from repairing carbon dioxide scrubbers to executing space walks—and the scientific investigations so important to understanding how life functions without gravity. The mission was designed to study what happens to the human body during extended space flight, including the hoped-for journey to Mars, the next big goal of human space exploration. The data Kelly gathered by poking, prodding, and testing his own changing body will take years to evaluate, but the fact that Kelly has an identical twin brother provides scientists the opportunity to compare a space voyager to his genetically equal but earthbound double.
And what is it like to be in space, to experience a long-term separation from the home planet? On that point, Kelly is less forthcoming than he is about the ins and outs of the technology of the ISS. Still, he offers some delightful insights into the mind of a star voyager. About the presidential campaign of 2016, he writes, “Sometimes before going to sleep I look out the windows of the cupola at the planet below. What the hell is going on down there? I mutter to myself.”
Endurance ends with Kelly’s return to Earth and his retirement from the Astronaut Corps. But before leaving orbit, he made a phone call to a man he’d never met to talk about the book that changed his life. “On a quiet Saturday afternoon, I call Tom Wolfe to thank him,” Kelly writes. “He sounds truly amazed to hear from me. … We talk about books and about New York and about what I plan to do when I get back (jump into my swimming pool).” Shortly after that, Kelly was reunited with the watery world we all call home.
A Michigan native, Chris Scott is an unrepentant Yankee who arrived in Nashville more than twenty-five years ago and has gradually adapted to Southern ways. He is a geologist by profession and an historian by avocation.
Tagged: Book Reviews, Chris Scott, Margaret Lazarus Dean, Nonfiction, Scott Kelly