BOOK REVIEW: Endurance by Scott Kelly

BOOK REVIEW: Endurance by Scott Kelly

Doubleday UK
October 2017
Paperback, $35.00
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Non-Fiction / Science & Space / Biography


A stunning memoir from the astronaut who spent a record-breaking year aboard the International Space Station–a candid account of his remarkable voyage, of the journeys off the planet that preceded it, and of his colorful formative years.

The veteran of four space flights and the American record holder for consecutive days spent in space, Scott Kelly has experienced things very few have. Now, he takes us inside a sphere utterly inimical to human life.

He describes navigating the extreme challenge of long-term spaceflight, both existential and banal: the devastating effects on the body; the isolation from everyone he loves and the comforts of Earth; the pressures of constant close cohabitation; the catastrophic risks of depressurization or colliding with space junk, and the still more haunting threat of being unable to help should tragedy strike at home–an agonizing situation Kelly faced when, on another mission, his twin brother’s wife, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot while he still had two months in space.

Kelly’s humanity, compassion, humor, and passion resonate throughout, as he recalls his rough-and-tumble New Jersey childhood and the youthful inspiration that sparked his astounding career, and as he makes clear his belief that Mars will be the next, ultimately challenging step in American spaceflight. A natural storyteller and modern-day hero, Kelly has a message of hope for the future that will inspire for generations to come. Here, in his personal story, we see the triumph of the human imagination, the strength of the human will, and the boundless wonder of the galaxy. 


This is the kind of book everyone who’s ever looked up at the starts and dreamed of traveling among them is bound to love. Chapters alternate between the “now” (2016) in which Scott spent almost a year on the ISS, and his journey from a kid through to NASA’s decision to send him up for this mission, and there is plenty of humour and heart.

He speaks of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and he gives readers a glimpse of the International Space Station that is at once terrifying and stunningly beautiful. And let’s be honest, that’s at least part of why we’re so obsessed with space, right?

But beyond that insight, or rather at the base of that insight, is a man who is so terribly down-to-earth and personable that you can’t help but feel a connection. When recounting his experiences, he doesn’t gloss over his own actions to make himself look better; instead he owns up to his mistakes and shares how he has learned from them, and in doing so he doesn’t paint himself as some distant, hard to relate to “superhero”, but rather as a human being one would love to have a beer with… who has also been to space a lot.

I’ve learned that most problems aren’t rocket science, but when they are rocket science, you should ask a rocket scientist. In other words, I don’t know everything, so I’ve learned to seek advice and counsel and to listen to experts. I’ve learned that an achievement that seems to have been accomplished by one person probably has hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people’s minds and work behind it, and I’ve leaned that it’s a privilege to be the embodiment of that work.


There are so many things I wanted to quote from this book, but if I quoted them all, you’d practically have read the book, so instead, some favourites…

On the rituals surrounding space flight:

When Yuri Gagarin was on his way to the launch pad for his historic first spaceflight, he asked to pull over – right about here – and peed on the right rear tire of the bus. Then he went to space and came back alive. so now we all must do the same. The tradition is so well respected that women space travelers bring a bottle of urine or water to splash on the tire rather than getting entirely out of their suits. The Russians enforce the quarantine with an iron first, then let my brother break it for sentimental reasons; they make a ritual of sealing up our suits, then let us open it to pee on a tire. At times, their inconsistencies drive me nuts, but this gesture, letting me see my brother again when I least expect to, means the world to me.

Food in space (or not food, as the case may be):

It drives me nuts that our food specialists insist on giving us the same number of chocolate, vanilla, and butterscotch puddings, when the laws of physics dictate chocolate will disappear much faster. No one gets a vanilla craving in space (or on Earth).

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 warn him, “It might not be chocolate.”

The handling of space in films:

In the films Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey, a visiting spacecraft zips up to a space station and locks onto it, a hatch pops open, and people pass through, all over the course of a few minutes. In reality, we operate with the knowledge that one spacecraft is always a potentially fatal threat to another – a bigger threat the closer it gets – and so we move very slowly and deliberately.

The film [Gravity] was great – we were impressed by how real the ISS looked, and the five of us were an unusually tough audience in that regard. It was a bit like watching a film of your own house burning while you’re inside it.

Talking via Twitter with the president and Buzz Aldrin while on the ISS:

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.”

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.

Weird dreams in space:

Dreamed the new people came up here, bringing our total to nine. We were so overcrowded we had to share our CQs. I was sharing mine with some guy I didn’t know, and he was cooking meth inside. I had to sleep with a respirator on. The other crew members were getting suspicious of the yellow cloud of smoke coming from under the door, and for some reason I worked to hide it. My roommate kept saying he was going to stop, but he wouldn’t. Eventually I tricked him into the airlock, closed the hatch, and spaced him.

Dreamed Amiko and some of my astronaut colleagues arrived unexpectedly on the space station. They had come on a bus, which made sense in the dream. I went to the U.S. lab to clean up a bit and found a cigarette my dad had left smoldering. The cigarette started to catch on loose papers floating around. I shouted at everyone to evacuate, and I stayed behind to fight the fire with a garden hose, which I was surprised to find coiled on the wall along with all the other equipment we keep in there. It didn’t work very well, though, because the space station was made of dried wood. The fire grew until there were flames all around me, and I fought it until I woke up.

Keeping a sense of humour:

The crew of the Discovery mission did a few spacewalks, and one of them involved a Japanese payload called “Message in a Bottle.” It wasn’t an experiment but simply a glass bottle that Al Drew opened at a certain point in the spacewalk to “let space in.” Once the glass bottle returned to Earth, it would be displayed in museums throughout Japan in order to raise children’s interest in spaceflight (personally, I was skeptical about how excited children would get about an empty glass bottle). After the spacewalk was over and the bottle was back in the station, the Japanese control center wanted to know whether I had “safed” the bottle (I was supposed to tape the lid closed to make sure it wasn’t accidentally opened). I was busy doing a number of things, but they kept pestering me about it, until I finally got on the Space to Ground channel and said, “Message in a Bottle is on Discovery, and I opened it to make sure there was nothing inside.” There was a long pause. Then I said, “Just kidding.”

And, of course, the way space can leave you all turned around:

I look in the direction I think is Earth, hoping to catch a glimpse of some city lights 250 miles below in the darkness to get my bearings. If I just knew which way Earth is, I could figure out where I am on the truss. When I look around, all I see is black. Maybe I’m looking right at the Earth and not seeing any lights because we’re passing over the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, or perhaps I’m just looking at space.

Once I’m about halfway through the hatch, though, I have a transition in perspective. Suddenly I have the sensation of climbing up, as if out of the sunroof of a car. The large blue dome of Earth hovers over my head like some nearby alien planet in a sci-fi film, looking as if it could come crashing down upon us. For a moment, I am disoriented.





BOOK REVIEW: Endurance by Scott Kelly

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