Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Scott Kelly

The International Space Station is a remarkable achievement of technology and international cooperation. It has been inhabited nonstop since November 2, 2000; put another way, it has been more than fourteen years since all humans were on the Earth at once. It is by far the longest-inhabited structure in space and has been visited by more than two hundred people from sixteen nations. It’s the largest peacetime international project in history. (pg 23)

512ih0qk93lThis is the book. This is the book I’ve been reading over the course of the last month that I didn’t want to finish because I loved it so much. This is the book that has given my perspective a whole new sense of balance. This is the book that has helped me step back from my frenzied parenting and allow things to flow more naturally again. This is the book that spoke to the part of me from seventh grade that desperately wanted to go to space camp, even though I believed then (and still do now) that I didn’t have the right kind of brain to be an astronaut. This book is everything to me right now, and I know we’re only a few weeks into 2018, but I’m not sure there’s going to be another in the next eleven months that moves me as deeply as this one did.

What is it worth to see two former bitter enemies transform weapons into transport for exploration and the pursuit of scientific knowledge? What is it worth to see former enemy nations turn their warriors into crewmates and lifelong friends? This is impossible to put a dollar figure on, but to me it’s one of the things that makes this project worth the expense, even worth risking our lives. (pg 22)

Every night since the beginning of December, I’ve been portioning out this book for myself. I never let myself read too much at one time because I wanted the details, the danger, the scent of space to soak into my consciousness. I was feeling especially overwhelmed when I picked it up, and I needed to take a look at real worthwhile risk to reevaluate some of my own concerns. Yes, my kids have colds, but this man is taking an eleven hour spacewalk. Yes, I have to get everyone packed up for our Christmas travels, but what about the astronauts who were putting their lives in danger in order to for me to understand more about the universe, who were doing all this in hopes that one day, more people could fly among the stars, fulfilling one of my deepest dreams of childhood?

Today I am doing a Twitter chat, answering questions from followers “live.” Because my internet connection can be slow, I’m dictating my answers to Amiko and another public affairs person, and they are typing them into Twitter almost in real time. I’m answering the usual questions about food, exercise, and the view of Earth when I receive a tweet from a user with the handle @POTUS44, President Obama.

He writes, “Hey @StationCDRKelly, loving the photos. Do you ever look out the window and just freak out?”

Amiko and I share a moment of being pleased that the president is following my mission. I think for a moment, then ask Amiko to type a reply: “I don’t freak out about anything, Mr. President, except getting a Twitter question from you.”

It’s a great Twitter moment, unplanned and unscripted, and it gets thousands of likes and retweets. Not long after, a reply appears from Buzz Aldrin: “He’s 249 miles above the earth. Piece of cake. Neil, Mike & I went 239,000 miles to the moon. #Apollo11.”

There is no good way to engage in a Twitter debate with an American hero, so I don’t. In my mind, I reflect on the fact that the crew of Apollo 11 spent eight days in space, traveling half a million miles; by the time I’m done I will have spent a total of 520 days in space and will have traveled over two hundred million miles, the equivalent of going to Mars and back. Only later, when the Twitter chat is over, do I have the chance to reflect that I just experienced being trolled, in space, by the second man on the moon, while also engaging in a Twitter conversation with the president. (pg 189)

It was impossible to stay angry or frustrated or anxious for very long when reading about Kelly spending a year orbiting the earth. Daily annoyances don’t compare to the wonder I feel when considering what that experience meant for Kelly, his family, and the world. (Before reading this book, I wasn’t aware of several facts: 1. Scott Kelly and his identical twin brother, Mark Kelly, are both astronauts. 2. After spending a year in space, Scott has provided scientists with invaluable information that is used to compare the effects of long term space flight down to the genetic level between himself and his brother. 3. Mark Kelly is married to Gabby Gifford, and the shooting which fortunately did not end her life took place while Scott was in space, which gave me a vastly different perspective on that event, as well as how intensely painful it must be – how huge a sacrifice is made on a personal level – by every person who goes into space.)

I received about twelve books for Christmas – books that I’ve been wanting to read for years – and yet I’m finding it difficult to start any of them. I keep going back and rereading portions of Endurance (the fact that this book shares a title with another I’ve been meaning to read, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, is not lost on me). I find it grounding to read about the challenges and adventure of space travel and also find it comforting to think that, when spending a year orbiting the earth, there is also the mundane to consider. There are toilets to fix, repetitive menus, minor squabbles between crew mates. Space is magnificent space, and humans are, well, human, no matter where we go. That combination of the extraordinary and the flesh are unbelievably compelling. This is the book. This is my book of the year.

Dressed and ready for breakfast, I open the door to my CQ. As I push against the back wall to float myself out, I accidentally kick loose a paperback book: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. I brought this book with me on my previous flight as well, and sometimes I flip through it after a long day and reflect on what these explorers went through almost exactly a hundred years before. They were stranded on ice floes for months at a time, forced to kill their dogs for food, and nearly froze to death in the biting cold. They hiked across mountains that had been considered impassable by explorers who were better equipped and not half starved. Remarkably, not a single member of the expedition was lost.

When I try to put myself in their place, I think the uncertainty must have been the worst thing. The doubt about their survival would be worse than the hunger and the cold. When I read about their experiences, I think about how much harder they had it than I do. Sometimes I’ll pick up the book specifically for that reason. If I’m inclined to feel sorry for myself because I miss my family or because I had a frustrating day or because the isolation is getting to me, 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. (pg 76)

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