… most problems aren’t rocket science, but when they are rocket science, you should ask a rocket scientist (Scott Kelly, Endurance)
The first thing I want to say is that Scott Kelly’s book Endurance is probably the most informative book I’ve read about the present day space program, and one of the best books of any type that I’ve read in a long time.
Kelly’s account of his year on board the International Space Station (ISS) is fresh, and authentic, a significant contrast to the staged presentations that can be viewed from time to time when the Station crew interact with the public from space.
Starting out as a disengaged school student who hated study, Kelly’s life changed after reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Inspired by that book, Kelly became determined to be a test pilot and then an astronaut. He needed to force himself to become a more engaged student to make sure the path he wanted to take would be open to him.
While most of the book is about Kelly’s record breaking stay on the ISS, in occasional chapters he also writes about the life journey he took to get there. From school days, through his military service and eventually his career with NASA.
Kelly’s identical twin brother Mark also became an astronaut, and Scott’s year in space gave NASA a unique opportunity to observe the effects of long-term space travel, enabling comparisons to be made between the genetically identical brothers to see what effect a year in space would have, and whether it would lead to any genetic changes.
While aboard the Station, Kelly had numerous crewmates from a variety of backgrounds: Russian, Italian, Japanese, and British, living and working well with them all.
Daily life could be a challenge. He had regular struggles with the temperamental apparatus that removed carbon dioxide from the ISS atmosphere, and he started to recognise when it was malfunctioning by the symptoms he experienced whenever the CO2 level was high.
There were also occasional problems with the toilet facilities, which was not only an obvious inconvenience, but seriously compromised the reclamation of water in what was intended to be a closed water recycling system. All water, including urine and airborne moisture from perspiration is supposed to be purified and recycled as drinking water.
A saying I’ve come across a few times (though not in Kelly’s book) is the phrase “todays coffee becomes tomorrows coffee”.
The difficulties faced weren’t all technical. Having no means of laundering clothes, crew members were required to remain in the same clothing for as long as they could tolerate it, wearing underclothes for several days before throwing them in the garbage. Outer clothing was worn much longer.
It might seem a strange comparison, but reading this book brought to mind The Wizard of Oz. While the business of space may have a certain “magic” to someone like me who grew up during the beginnings of the space program, Kelly’s book takes us behind the wizard’s curtain. Apart from problems with malfunctioning toilets and carbon dioxide scrubbers (and lack of laundering and bathing facilities), Kelly’s space walks revealed the damage caused by micro-meteors to the exterior of the ISS, with serious pitting to the surface. Damage that would have fatal consequences to an astronaut should it happen during an excursion outside.
While there have been countless amazing scientific and engineering achievements, at times the space program isn’t always as controlled and organised as the space agencies may like the public to think. So much relies on chance – such as the unexpected appearance of an old satellite in the same orbit but in heading in the opposite direction to the ISS, presenting the imminent possibility of a catastrophic collision.
But even facing such a serious threat, appearances clearly needed to be maintained. Emergency procedures were interrupted for a scheduled PR link-up requiring astronauts to face an interview with an earth based group about more trivial topics. Then after the interview they continued the urgent preparations and sought sanctuary in the station’s Soyuz capsule in case an emergency evacuation was required.
As his time on Station came to a close Kelly started to think about some of the things he missed – and he provides a quite moving list of very mundane experiences that most of us would take for granted, but to someone deprived of them for a year they have significance.
…I miss the sound of children playing, which always sounds the same no matter their language. I miss the sound of people talking and laughing in another room. I miss rooms. I miss doors and door frames and the creak of wood floorboards when people walk around in old buildings. I miss my couch, sitting on a chair, sitting on a bar stool…
One of the common experiences of those who spend time away from earth, viewing it from above, is the awareness of its fragility, and the lack of visible borders.
At one stage Kelly was interviewed by an American politician who seemed to be concerned about him sharing the ISS with a crew of Russians – as if their interaction could compromise US national security, or other American interests. Kelly was quick to point out that all of the ISS residents, no matter what their national origin relied on each other for their very lives, and would do whatever it takes to ensure each other’s welfare.
To those aboard ISS, maintaining the well-being and life of the crew was more important than political posturing.
… following the news from space can make Earth seem like a swirl of chaos and conflict, and that seeing the environmental degradation caused by humans is heartbreaking. I’ve also learned that our planet is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and that we’re lucky to have it. (Scott Kelly, Endurance)