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Zero-gravity reality

Jaroslav Kalfar, Dec 9 2017, 21:40 IST

What will the future of human space exploration look like in the 21st century? If Scott Kelly has any say on the matter, we shall go to Mars and beyond, with the discipline and determination that fill the pages of his memoir chronicling the extraordinary life he's lived on Earth and in space.

No overachievers are born without influences, and Kelly is forthcoming about the early motivations that led him to his unique career path. As an unfocused, unremarkable young college student, he read Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, a non-fiction classic on why anyone in his right mind would submit to the dangers of spaceflight. Wolfe's portrayal of hotshot pilots was just one highlight of a star-studded career that would eventually take him beyond Earth's atmosphere. Another noted inspiration is the book after which Kelly named his own, and which he carries with him on multiple voyages to the International Space Station: Endurance, by Alfred Lansing, about Ernest Shackleton's historic expedition to the South Pole, during which his crew cheated death after their ship became trapped in a polar pack ice, overcoming 850 miles of heavy seas on small lifeboats. Both of these literary homages set up the structure of Kelly's own Endurance.

The book's narrative is split between Kelly's year in space - a zero-gravity journey of "unprecedented" duration - and his personal development from a child reading The Right Stuff into a decorated naval test pilot. One would think tales of space travel should overshadow any Earthbound life story, but in Endurance, Kelly's humour and self-awareness when relating his experiences at home make them just as absorbing as those aboard the station.

That is not to say his extraterrestrial anecdotes fail to entertain. Kelly takes on the task of fixing the station's toilet, one of the most crucial devices on board; against protocol, the Americans and Russians on board share garbage bags whose contents they then shoot into the atmosphere. (The descriptions of Kelly's comradeship with his Russian colleagues are easily the most endearing parts of the book, and provide some hope in dire geopolitical times.) Other space chapters are gruelling and stressful, as the astronauts wait for resupply ships that keep malfunctioning and exploding, exposing just how easily things can go wrong after months of calm.

Kelly's sharp self-observation and narrative poignancy make for a fascinating tale of a life lived on Earth, too, and the value of the book is heightened by its glimpses beyond the astronaut's veil. Behind the imposing spacesuit and perfect smile is a three-dimensional person, and Endurance offers brilliant insight into the human aspect of space travel by paying equal attention to the origin story as to its climax among the stars.

It is Kelly's stark honesty that lends the book its pathos. He holds nothing back when discussing his battle with prostate cancer, the grief he felt over the loss of his colleagues to the Columbia shuttle disaster, or the emotional strain his year in space creates between him and his romantic partner, Amiko. The professional recollections could stand alone just fine without these intimate details, but the humanity behind them underlines Kelly's dedication to the project of writing a full portrait of his life. He doesn't hide behind the infinite achievements and fascinations he encountered in space; he readily acknowledges his failures, shortcomings and heartbreaks.

The military discipline that led to Kelly's career can at times stifle his prose, resulting in occasional awkward rigidity and overwriting. But such moments are sparse, and they are compensated for with descriptive passages so lyrical they could put a career writer to shame. "One of my favourite views of the Earth is of the Bahamas - a large archipelago with a stunning contrast from light to dark colours. The vibrant deep blue of the ocean mixes with a much brighter turquoise swirled with something almost like gold, where the sun bounces off the sandy shallows and reefs," Kelly muses. In such moments the rewards of the book are clear.

"You have to go to the ends of the Earth in order to leave the Earth," begins the first chapter of Endurance. Though Kelly means this statement literally - to launch, today's American astronauts have to travel all the way to a spaceport in the deserts of Kazakhstan - it could also be the motto for the author's lifelong work. In this captivating, charming, if occasionally convoluted, memoir, Kelly generously takes the reader through a life of endless dedication that ultimately led to his groundbreaking 12 months in space. He pulls back the curtain separating the myth of the astronaut from its human realities. Just as Kelly brought with him the books that inspired him to become a man of space, it is easy to imagine future generations of explorers and daredevils harnessing the lessons and truths within the pages of Endurance as the blueprints for their own trips into the unknown.

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