Scott Kelly is the American astronaut who spent a year on the International Space Station from March 2015 to March 2016. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, but it’s only one of many in this man’s eventful life. This fascinating book alternates between an account of that year in space and the story of Kelly’s life. For me, it’s a piece of nonfiction that’s a near-perfect read: absorbing, interesting, exciting, educational, and eye-opening.
The sections of the book that describe life on the space station are full of infinitesimal details, but because of where Kelly is and what he’s doing, every detail, even descriptions of mundane tasks, is gripping because of the difficulties, such as weightlessness, with which he has to cope. For instance, there are no laundry facilities, so he has to wear his clothes until they are so rank that he can’t stand them, and then throw them away; he has to swallow his toothpaste because you can’t spit in space or it would congeal into globs and float around until it hit someone; whenever he performs work he has to hook his toes under rails on the floor or walls so he won’t float away; eating and drinking have their own special problems and peculiarities of execution. Kelly describes the unique challenges of performing tasks in zero gravity such as exercising, sleeping, dissecting mice, obtaining blood or urine for analysis, and repairing the toilet or the air filtration system. He also describes thrilling spacewalks that he takes with other astronauts to repair mechanisms on the outside of the station.
Since by that time the space shuttle program in the United States had been discontinued, to get to the ISS for his year-long stint, Kelly had to train with Russian cosmonauts and take a rocket from a Russian base in Kazakhstan. He brings the reader along on this adventure too, from Star City, the Russian training center near Moscow, to survival exercises in frozen wastes.
The segments of the story of Kelly’s life interspersed throughout the space station account make fascinating reading as well. Kelly was a lackluster student, lazy and indifferent, more concerned with partying and studying. In his late teens, though, he came across the book The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, which tells the story of Navy test pilots who are selected by NASA as the first astronauts for the Mercury Program. He abruptly decided that he too wanted to be a Navy test pilot and an astronaut. However, up until then he had received poor grades, so he had a lot to make up. He set his mind to succeed, applied himself, taught himself study skills, and upped his school performance sufficiently to eventually be admitted to Navy flight training as a jet pilot. The account of his turnaround from indifferent laziness to intense focus is extremely inspiring.
He applied to NASA, was accepted for astronaut training, and became a space shuttle pilot and a selectee for multiple missions on the ISS. His identical twin brother also became a Navy pilot and an astronaut, and during Kelly’s year-long sojourn aboard the ISS, doctors and scientists monitored both Kelly’s physique and that of his brother’s so they could compare the results to learn more about the effects of space travel on human physiology.
This book is well-written, and every page has its own fascinations. Although Kelly sometimes describes complex operations and equipment, his explanations are always easy to follow. It’s one of those rare books that I consider a great discovery: there’s so much in it that is joyous and strengthening that I count myself fortunate to have come across it.