If you’ve ever wondered what space smells like, think about sparklers on the Fourth of July. “Slightly burned, slightly metallic” is how former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly describes it in his new book Endurance, about his year in space.
Between 2015 and 2016, Kelly spent 340 days on the International Space Station (ISS) — the longest any American has ever spent in free fall around our planet. The purpose of the mission was to study how long periods in zero gravity affect the human body and mind. After all, if we want to go to Mars one day — a trip that’d last about nine months, at current rates of travel — we’d better know how to get there healthy.
In his autobiography, which comes out October 17th, Kelly talks about his journey from “blue-collar New Jersey” to NASA to the ISS. His childhood — marred by an alcoholic father and what Kelly says today would be diagnosed as ADHD — is the typical tale of “boy of modest means works hard to accomplish his dream, and it pays off.” Except in Kelly’s case, that dream didn’t come until he was 18 and a freshman in college, when he was assigned to read The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. The book, about the first pilots who went to space, gave Kelly his calling: to a be a naval aviator. Once he found his “spark,” as he calls it, “I just forced myself to learn how to pay attention and then eventually how to study and be a good student,” Kelly tells The Verge. “It wasn’t easy.”
His description of growing up in West Orange, NJ, is focused on details: riding the family car to the Jersey Shore in the middle of the night wearing pajamas, building rafts out of spare fence planks to ride in the lagoon, and working as an EMT in Jersey City. It’s as if Kelly knew he was going to write a memoir, and took careful notes on his youth. (Kelly says he didn’t keep a journal as a kid, but remembered all those stories because he told them over and over. “In some ways, I’m kind of a natural storyteller,” he says.) But as compelling as his life story is, including dangerously landing an F-14 on an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea during a sandstorm, the most captivating parts of the book come when Kelly describes the time he spent preparing to launch, or the time he spent in space.
In his telling, astronauts perform some weird rituals before boarding the Soyuz rocket in Kazakhstan, the only rocket currently ferrying people to the ISS. One involves having their entire bodies wiped down with alcohol wipes, to kill germs. Another one is peeing on the right rear tire of the bus transporting space travelers to the launchpad. It’s tradition: Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, did the same in 1961 before his historic first flight — and he came back alive. So before rocketing to space, Kelly had to do the same. (Women astronauts usually bring a bottle of urine or water to spray the tire.)
Kelly’s descriptions of what it’s like to live on the ISS — including getting headaches because of high carbon dioxide levels — are probably the closest most people will ever get to experiencing zero gravity. Kelly abandons the PR talk of many astronauts, who rarely complain about their work, and speaks his mind about the absurdity of some NASA policies. For instance, when the ISS was at risk of hitting space debris, which would have destroyed the station, killing everyone on board, Kelly was ordered to close and check all the hatches on the US segment of the ISS. He considers that a useless procedure; meanwhile, the Russian cosmonauts had lunch. (The debris eventually missed the space station.)
The space-junk episode is one of many breathless passages that suggests how crazy it is that humans willingly decide to go live in space. Everything in space is hard: essential life-supporting equipment breaks down all the time, fresh food is incredibly limited, pooping is a challenge because there’s no gravity to assist your bowels, and you can’t shower. To feel better about himself during his year in space, Kelly flipped through a book about Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica, where his ship Endurance was crushed by ice. Shackleton’s men had to kill their dogs for food and clean themselves with ice chunks. At one point, after three months into his mission, with nine more months to go, Kelly wonders: “What have I gotten myself into?”
The book ends with Kelly returning to Earth in a Soyuz capsule in March 2016, which he describes as “fucking medieval.” He says his body felt fine upon being thrust back into gravity. “If I were on the first crew to reach the surface of Mars, just now touching down on the red planet after a yearlong journey and a wild-hot descent through its atmosphere, I feel like I would be able to do what needed to be done,” Kelly writes. “I wouldn’t want to have to build a habitat or hike ten miles, but I know I could take care of myself and others in an emergency, and that feels like a triumph.”
But the book begins on a totally different note: Kelly describes waking up in the middle of the night, after being back on Earth for 48 hours, with a fever, his skin burning, and his legs swollen like water balloons. It’s hard to imagine a human doing fine on Mars after months of weightless travel. When I ask Kelly about this, he says he stands by the way he described it. “I think I could do what it took to secure the area, the spacecraft, but you’d probably take some time to recover,” he says. Plus, it wouldn’t take a whole year to get to Mars, so “you’d probably feel even better.”
Whether you agree with him doesn’t matter. If anything, his passion and confidence about a potential Mars mission adds an extra sense of purpose to everything he’s done, in the name of science. Endurance, like its writer, is a great testament to the wonders humans can accomplish. As Kelly says: “Stuff is hard, but if you stick with it and work hard and show up prepared, you can achieve some pretty incredible things.”