Endurance by Scott Kelly

Me holding a copy of Endurance by Scott Kelly with paper hearts in the background

The veteran of four space flights and the American record holder for most consecutive days spent in space, Scott Kelly has experienced things very few of us ever have and very few of us ever will. 

Kelly’s humanity, compassion, humour, and passion shine as he describes navigating the extreme challenge of long-term spaceflight, both existential and banal. He touches on what’s happened to his body, the sadness of being isolated from everyone he loves; the pressures of constant close cohabitation; the catastrophic risks of colliding with space junk, and the still more haunting threat of being absent should tragedy strike at home. 

Endurance will appeal to all kinds of readers – those that know everything about space and those that know absolutely nothing at all. If this is your first astronaut memoir it seems a good place to start. Scott Kelly is what I would call a typical astronaut in that he has a military background, he was a test pilot then through that he got into NASA and became an astronaut. That is not to say that all astronaut memoirs are the same, obviously everyone is unique so therefore their lives and telling of events differ.

I will hold my hands up and say the only things I knew about Scott Kelly before reading this were: he has a twin brother (who I actually didn’t know was an astronaut too!) and he spent a year on the International Space Station, otherwise known as the ISS. Endurance opens with Kelly sat around the dining table with his family after having just got back from space and his year on the ISS. From there it goes into detail about Kelly as a child in school, disillusioned with education as a whole and failing most subjects. For some this can be a familiar place to be. He had no drive and no reason  to study, so he simply didn’t. Somehow he got to University and his life changed the moment he picked up Tim Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff. It was one of the only books, up to that point, that he read all the way through and he decided he wanted to become a test pilot and then an astronaut. This book shows his determination to get there. Despite his failing grades, he taught himself to study properly, stayed in and revised before exams and managed to get his grades up enough to transfer to a military academy and the rest, as they say, is history.

This book tells Kelly’s story in two parallel timelines. In other books this can get confusing, jumping back and forth between a younger man and and his time on the ISS, however, in this it is very easy to follow. At times there are mentions of space jargon, however, most of the time it is explained or easy to guess in the context. Kelly has a way of writing that really feels like you are right there with him. It was so easy to imagine floating in the ISS, working on repairs or having dinner in the Russian module.

“As we are putting our tools away, Terry shouts something with a childlike excitement in his voice: “Hey! Candy!”A little piece of something edible looking is floating by. It often happens that bits of food get away from us and provide an unexpected snack for someone days later. “Remember the mice,” I warned him, “It might not be chocolate.” He takes a closer look at it. “S**t it’s a used Band-Aid,” he says. He catches it and puts it in the trash. Later that night, we tell Samantha the story and she tells us that last week she ate something she thought was candy and realise only too late that it was garbage.”

His year on the ISS is explored in fascinating detail and honesty, the good, the bad and sometimes maddeningly frustrating given equal billing. For example, he frequently talks about the machines on board the ISS that regulate CO2 levels. There are two but NASA only let them run one at a time, which is fine if there are only one or two astronauts on board, however with more it affects the air circulation, which can lead to headaches, brain fuzz, and various other side effects. However, NASA do not see low CO2 levels as a priority nor realise that astronauts may work quicker and more efficiently if these levels were addressed.

This book is also an excellent example of how astronaut memoirs can fit together sometimes. As Kelly was in space for so long, he worked with Terry Virts and as well as coinciding with Tim Peake’s (the first British ESA astronaut to visit the International Space Station) arrival in space. The anecdote about Virts having to cut his colleague, Samantha Cristoforetti’s hair appears both in Virts’ and Kelly’s books.

Overall, this is a great memoir to get an idea of what it would be like to spend a year in space aboard the ISS. I definitely recommend this one, whether you’re an ardent space fan or just mildly curious.


Rating: 4 out of 5.

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