Review: Scott Kelly’s Memoir About a Year in Orbit

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery
by Scott Kelly with Margaret Lazarus Dean
Alfred A. Knoff
2017
369 pages

Scott Kelly was failing out of college when he spotted a book at the campus store that would utterly change his life: The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s classic tale of Cold War-era test pilots and the Mercury astronauts.

As he read Wolfe’s prose, Kelly realized that flying jets had the same type of adrenaline rush he felt working as an EMT, which had been the only thing he had excelled at thus far. He decided he would pursue a career as an U.S. Navy aviator.

Decades later, he would call Wolfe in the midst of a year-long stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to thank him and ask for advice about how to write a book of his own.

Endurance is the result. The memoir doesn’t live up to Wolfe’s stylistic brilliance, but what the book lacks in style it more than makes up for in inspiration.

Kelly is quite candid about growing up in New Jersey with his twin brother, Mark. The boys were always getting into scrapes of one kind or another with the neighborhood kids. School was a bore; the only thing Scott Kelly could focus on was his EMT training.

The Kelly brothers didn’t grow up in the most stable of households. Both parents drank and fought a lot, throwing things at each other as the arguments escalated.

Their father was an alcoholic who might have become a criminal if he hadn’t joined the police force. Scott Kelly would look to his mother’s gritty determination — she was a secretary who later became the first female officer on the West Orange police force — as he fought to overcome a lifetime of bad grades and low expectations.

After his Right Stuff-inspire epiphany, Kelly found he was actually able to study and apply himself when he wanted something badly enough. He recounts his schooling, naval career, and selection as an astronaut by NASA along with his brother Mark.

His account of his two stays aboard the space station is fascinating. When you see astronauts float around up there in microgravity, it’s easy to get the impression that life is pretty carefree. And it is fun. Kelly recounts the joy of watching the Earth roll by from the station’s cupola, and the camaraderie of meals and movie nights with the international crews serving aboard it.

What also comes through is just how much hard work is involved in just keeping six people alive in space on a continuous basis. Many things take hours and hours to do, whether it’s docking visiting crew and cargo vehicles, fixing balky air purifying units or unclogging the toilet. Even simple repair jobs become complicated as parts float away.

The long mission also took an emotional toll. The separation from his daughters and girlfriend Amiko was difficult. Modern communications — email, phones, Internet and video chat — give ISS astronauts advantages over earlier space travelers. But, it’s still not the same as being there.

A key purpose of the year-long mission — which Kelly undertook with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail “Misha” Kornienko — was to measure the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body. While Kelly was in space, his brother was undergoing medical tests on Earth so results could be compared.

Kelly arrived back on Earth eager to plow back into his life. Returning to Houston, he jumped into his backyard swimming pool without even taking off his clothes. But, he would soon discover that he needed to slow down as he made the painful adjustment to 1G.

If the book has a weakness, it’s an overabundance of information. Kelly has a tendency to recount almost everything he did without much distinction between the important and the trivial.

I can see where that comes from; almost everything an astronaut does is driven by a checklist. And there aren’t really any trivial steps on a checklist in space. You miss one and you could end up dead.

Unfortunately, some important moments end up getting glossed over.  Kelly and Kornienko hit the mid-point of their mission in September 2015. Do they celebrate it? How’s are they feeling about that? Is it all downhill from here? Or does it still fell like climbing a mountain? Kelly doesn’t say; he just notes it casually in the last sentence of Chapter 14.

And that brings us to my other frustration with the book. Chapters dealing with the year-long mission alternate with the narrative of Kelly’s life leading up to the flight. This can make the story difficult to following, especially if you put down the book for a day or two.

Right after hitting the midpoint of the mission, the next chapter throws us back in time nearly 16 years to early 2000 as Kelly adjusts to life after his first space shuttle flight. The next 36 pages cover a whirlwind of weighty and emotional events in his life:

  • a stint as NASA’s director of operations in Russia;
  • selection and training to command his first space shuttle flight;
  • involvement in recovery efforts after the crash of the space shuttle Columbia in 2004;
  • commanding the space shuttle mission to ISS three years after the crash;
  • the difficult birth of his second daughter, with fears the infant might have cerebral palsy (she didn’t);
  • selection for his first long-duration mission on the station;
  • intensive training in Houston, Russia, Europe and Japan for his ISS flight; and,
  • surgery for prostate cancer.

And, in the midst of all this traveling and training and flying and medical drama and tragedy, Kelly decided to end his failing marriage. His furious wife moved out of the family house, taking their two daughters with her.

That is a lot to pack into one chapter. And it took me right out of the narrative flow of the year-long mission. When the book rejoins Kelly in orbit, we’re right smack in the middle of a spacewalk.

In spite of these issues, the book is well worth a read. It’s inspiring to see how Kelly overcame his rough beginning to reach the pinnacle of a very elite profession. And you will learn a lot about the space program.