In his new autobiography, retired astronaut Scott Kelly gives an unflinchingly blunt take on his U.S. record-breaking year in space and the challenging life events that got him there.
This isn’t your usual astronaut’s memoir.
Kelly recounts dumpster diving on the International Space Station for discarded meals after a supply capsule was destroyed and ending up with “some dude’s used underwear” in his hands. He writes about the congestion, headaches and burning eyes he endured from high carbon dioxide levels and the feeling no one cared at Mission Control in Houston.
In his book, Kelly tells how prostate cancer surgery almost got him banned from space station duty, and how his vision problem during an earlier spaceflight almost cost him the one-year mission, which spanned from March 2015 to March 2016.
He tells how he visited a tattoo parlor before launch and got black dots all over his body to make it easier to take ultrasound tests in orbit, and how he fashioned extra vomit bags for a nauseated crewmate.
Making story ‘more believable’
Kelly said his goal in writing Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery was to tell the whole story.
So many other NASA astronauts’ memoirs “focus on the good stuff and not necessarily the personal things that happened in their lives, things they might not be proud of, things that we all have that makes us normal, relatable people,” he told The Associated Press. “So I felt like sharing is good, but … the bad stuff, too, makes the story more believable.”
In the book, he writes about a little-known incident that he says occurred during his first space station stint in 2010, when a Russian cosmonaut came untethered during a spacewalk and began floating away. Luckily, Oleg Skripochka happened to hit an antenna that bounced him back toward the space station, enabling him to grab on and save his life, according to Kelly.
Kelly said that even though he was aboard the space station at the time, he didn’t learn about the incident until his yearlong mission five years later, when it casually came up in conversation with other cosmonauts. “I was, like, really? Holy crap. Crazy,” Kelly recalled in an AP interview.
He remembered Skripochka had looked shaken, but thought it was because he had been out on his first spacewalk.
On Wednesday, the Russian Space Agency’s press department said it contacted Skripochka, who did not confirm Kelly’s account. No other comment was provided.
“I’ve often pondered what we would have done if we’d known he was drifting irretrievably away from the station,” Kelly writes. “It probably would have been possible to tie his family into the comm system in his spacesuit so they could say goodbye before the rising CO2 or oxygen deprivation caused him to lose consciousness — not something I wanted to spend a lot of time thinking about as my own spacewalk was approaching.”
Published by Knopf, Endurance comes out next Tuesday. So does a version for children, My Journey to the Stars, put out by Penguin Random House.
Kelly, 53, said he didn’t discover his passion for aviation and space until reading Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff in college. Kelly writes that he was a terrible student and most likely suffered from attention deficit disorder.
The former spaceman also tells how he realized right before his wedding that he didn’t want to go through with it, but did anyway, leading to a troubled marriage and eventually divorce, and how he initially didn’t want “that space station stink” on him — getting space station assignments — for fear it would limit his shuttle-flying opportunities. He flew twice on space shuttles and had two extended stays at the space station, sharing the entire 340-day mission, his last, with Russian Mikhail Kornienko.
A ‘below-average guy’
When asked whether it was difficult exposing his weaknesses when astronauts are supposed to be perfect or close to it, Kelly replied, “Naw, I feel like I’m like a below-average guy doing slightly above-average stuff.”
Kelly figured he might write a book, given it was NASA’s longest single spaceflight ever. So he kept a journal in orbit and took notes about how the place looked, smelled and felt “to make someone feel like they were on the space station.”
“The book hasn’t come out yet,” Kelly said, “and as I get closer to it coming out, I’m thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to live with this for the rest of my life.’ ”
Kelly’s identical twin brother, Mark, also a former Navy pilot and NASA astronaut as well as an author, was among the several people who read early drafts. Scott Kelly devotes several pages to the 2011 shooting of his sister-in-law, former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Aboard the space station at the time, Kelly wondered whether he was calling his family too much — “whether in my effort to be there for them I was becoming intrusive.”
Back on Earth and now retired for 1½ years, Kelly said he misses being in space. Of course, when he was in space, he missed Earth. He credits that saying to a Russian crewmate, Gennady Padalka, the world’s most experienced spaceman, and isn’t sure the saying made it into the book.
“I need to write a sequel of all the stuff I left out.”