by Scott Kelly (Doubleday £20)
Among life’s great dreams I have had to abandon are playing Test cricket at Lord’s, presenting a Saturday night light entertainment show and going into space.
This latter is, in some way, the hardest to bear, given my lifelong devotion to Star Trek.
Hooray, then, for the autobiographies of astronauts, of which I have now read many and which all say the same reassuring thing: it’s unbelievably tough to get into space, it’s unbelievably tough to stay there and — whisper this bit — it’s slightly boring, too.
Scott Kelly volunteered to be the first American to spend an entire year in space
Scott Kelly is a four-time spacegoer who, having spent 159 days on his previous tour of the International Space Station (ISS), volunteered to be the first American to spend an entire year up there.
NASA and their Russian equivalents, very much partners on this project, needed a couple of mugs to give them 12 months of their lives, so they could find out exactly what long-term effects deep space, with its lack of gravity, has on the human body.
A year is slightly longer than it would take to get to Mars: these things need to be known.
Kelly, then, tells the story of his year in space, and intersperses it with autobiographical fragments. Unlike most future astronauts, who are fully conversant in quantum dynamics by the age of seven, he was a tearaway in his youth.
It wasn’t until he picked up a copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff when he was 18 that he realised what he wanted to do with his life. Thus the Wild One became the Mild One, for astronauts have to be unnaturally calm people who do not panic when something goes wrong. Because something goes wrong all the time.
Kelly is fascinating on the politics of the ISS. He reveals early on that Russian cosmonauts are paid quite poorly, but receive a generous ‘per diem’ allowance for every day they spend on the station. But this allowance can be reduced if they make a mistake of some kind, and there’s rather a broad definition of what that mistake might be.
Scott Kelly tells his story of a year in space and intersperses it with autobiographical fragments
‘I suspect that complaining, even making very legitimate complaints, can be defined as a mistake, costing them money and, potentially, the chance to fly in space again,’ writes Kelly.
So whenever ground control asks them how things are going, the answer is always ‘khorosho’, which means ‘good’.
‘At times I’ve dared them to say “not great”, “just OK” or even “I feel like s***”, but they refuse to take me up on it.’
DID YOU KNOW
There are 50 tonnes of litter left on the moon from Apollo missions
Space, it turns out, has a distinctive smell: slightly burned and slightly metallic.
If you’re in an airlock, for example, which had been raw space until air was pumped into it, that’s what you’ll smell — and after a while your skin will smell of it, too.
Weightlessness, as you’d imagine, is devilishly hard to get used to. If you don’t put everything away in its particular place, it’ll get lost. The record time something was lost on the ISS before it was found again was eight years.
According to Scott, space has a has a distinctive smell: slightly burned and slightly metallic
Fresh food and vegetables go off more quickly than on Earth, and no one knows why.
People ask Kelly all the time how the Americans and Russians get on, and they are always surprised to hear that there are no issues. There’s genuine warmth between the crew, and you can see there would have to be: these people are chosen for their easy-going natures, as well as calmness under pressure. (That’s me counted out, then.)
Kelly reckons that he spends a third of his time on scientific experiments, and maybe another third repairing things. During the week, every minute of his working day is precisely timetabled.
The astronauts occasionally relax with a film, and tonight it’s Gravity. ‘The film 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.’
Scott Kelly pictured at The Kennedy Space Center for the ‘Summer in Mars’ promotion
Now that the space shuttle is no more, re-entry to Earth is provided by the rather more basic Russian-made Soyuz spacecraft.
‘The shuttle re-entry feels like cruising down Park Avenue in a Rolls-Royce,’ Kelly tells a couple of astronauts who are about to experience re-entry for the first time. ‘Riding the Soyuz is more like riding a Soviet-era economy car down an unpaved street that leads off a cliff.’
They look worried.
‘Actually,’ he adds, ‘as soon as you realise you aren’t going to die, it’s the most fun you’ll ever have.’
They look sceptical, but he assures them it’s true.
Endurance by Scott Kelly (Doubleday £20)
Kelly does some experiments on mice, which grow used to weightlessness remarkably quickly.
But there are some hazards you always need to be careful of. ‘I’ve discovered that with the mice on board it’s wise not to eat what appear to be floating pieces of chocolate.’
Endurance has a winning modesty and, as you’ll have noticed, a bone‑dry wit.
There’s a moment of genuine terror as the crew learn that, in about two hours, a stray satellite will pass close by them, travelling at 17,500 mph. If it hit, the station would be vaporised.
They hide in the attached Soyuz. The deadline passes. The satellite has whizzed by, harmlessly. But imagine the fear. Imagine the thought that this next minute could be your last, and there isn’t a thing you can do about it.
In the main, though, this is a tale of endless repairs of equipment and — how can we put this? — personal ablutions. If you have ever wanted to know how to do a number two in space, this is your chance to find out.
Unusually for a book about space, there are very few photographs in it, but a possible explanation for this is that Scott Kelly bears a remarkable resemblance to Phil Collins.
Maybe we’re better off without too many photos after all.