Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Write Stuff: 'Endurance'

Review by Bill Doughty

Scott Kelly, Christmas photo aboard ISS in 2010.
As a young man, future naval aviator, Navy captain and American astronaut, Scott Kelly was on his way to becoming a failure – unfocused, undisciplined and underwhelmed with the future. His only motivator was taking risks. Then he found a passion for a time as an EMT.

But the real ignition in his life came from a book: Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff." Kelly writes in his own book, "Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery" (Knopf/Borzoi 2017):
"I was captivated by the description of the Navy test pilots, young hotshots catapulting off aircraft carriers... This wasn't just an exciting adventure story. This was something more like a life plan. These young men, flying jets in the Navy, did a real job that existed in the real world. Some of them became astronauts, and that was a real job too. These were hard jobs to get, I understood, but some people did get them. It could be done. What drew me to these Navy pilots wasn't the idea of the 'right stuff' – a special quality these few brave men had – it was the idea of doing something immensely difficult, risking your life for it, and surviving. It was like a night run in the ambulance, but at the speed of sound. The adults around me who encouraged me to become a doctor thought I liked being an EMT because I liked taking people's blood pressure measurements, stabilizing broken bones, and helping people. But what I craved about the ambulance was the excitement, the difficulty, the risk. Here, in a book, I found something I'd thought I would never find: an ambition. I closed the book late that night a different person."
Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords meet Tom Wolfe in May 2016.
But then 18-year-old Scott had to turn ambition into action. As a college student he needed a boost from his twin brother, Mark, in the form of blunt advice: choose to study instead of party; aim for excellence. "That phone call with Mark was almost as pivotal a moment in my life as reading 'The Right Stuff.' The book had given me a vision of who I wanted to be; my brother's advice showed me how to get there."
Scott and Mark Kelly

Scott and Mark, who grew up in New Jersey, took separate and sometimes circuitous routes to becoming Navy pilots and astronauts, but their future seemed predestined. Their grandfathers were veterans of sea service in World War II, one serving on a destroyer in the Pacific and the other as a Merchant Marine officer. Scott and Mark were both attracted to service and adventure and the opportunity to make a difference.

In Scott's case he earned his U.S. Coast Guard license and participated in ROTC training on a Navy ship from California to Hawaii. With the ROTC he became acquainted with surface, submarine and SEAL training, but found his calling in naval aviation.

USS Eisenhower (CVN-69)
He describes landing on the training carrier USS Lexington (CV-16) and later on USS Eisenhower (CVN-69) in the Arabian Sea during Operation Desert Shield – on the outskirts of a sandstorm with low visibility. Scott boltered several times – failed to catch the arresting wire with his F-14's tailhook – before safely landing aboard Ike. He learned more about risk management and was reminded of "a saying in the Navy about mistakes: 'There are those who have and those who will.'"

With NASA, Scott enjoyed training with Russians, Germans and Japanese, finding value in diversity and gaining "a profound respect for scientific knowledge."

Much of "Endurance" is about Scott's life as an astronaut, of course, especially his 340 consecutive days in space on a mission considered vital to understanding the effects of living in space for an eventual mission to Mars. He calls the International Space Station "a foothold for our species in space." Toward that end, he participated in scientific studies with his identical twin brother, Mark, "at the genetic level."

Kelly and Obama.
Scott shows what it's like to: grow zinnias in space; live and work with Russians; tweet of speak with presidents, including Obama and Putin; eat burritos; watch CNN and the film 'Gravity'; urinate and draw blood; battle high levels of carbon dioxide; and listen to Pink Floyd, Jay-Z and Coldplay inside the ISS.

In space, Scott read Alfred Lansing's "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage" about the Irish adventurer's exploration of the Antarctic. One of Shackleton's voyages was aboard the ship Endurance. Kelly chose "Endurance" as the name of his book, with the subtitle "A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery." (Interestingly, "Discovery" was the name of the ship Shackleton took on a voyage at the very beginning of the 20th century.)

Remembering Challenger: El Onizuka, Mike Smith, Christa McAuliffe,
Dick Scobee, 
Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik and Ron McNair. (NASA)
Scott gives special tribute to the Columbia and Challenger tragedies, eulogizing the astronauts lost, including some close personal and professional friends. The reader gains an even greater appreciation for the bravery of the explorers of space and human endurance.

Throughout the book we go deep into some personal territory: Scott's divorce, his love for fiancé Amiko Kauderer, his bout with prostate cancer, and how he and Mark dealt with the tragic shooting of his sister-in-law, then Representative Gabby Giffords, and others in Tucson, Arizona. Scott was in space on January 8, 2011 when he received notice of the shooting. He was offered an opportunity to address the nation.

He said, in part:
"'These days, we are constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another. Not just with our actions, but with our irresponsible words. We are better than this. We must do better. The crew of ISS Expedition Twenty-six and the flight control centers around the world would like to observe a moment of silence in honor of all the victims, which include my sister-in-law, Gabrielle Giffords, a caring and dedicated public servant...' Those of us who have had to privilege to look down on the Earth from space get the chance to take a larger perspective on the planet and the people who share it. I feel more strongly than ever that we must do better."

Scott shares what it's like to see Earth from space, including while on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station:
"The color and brilliance of the planet, sprawling out in every direction, are startling. I've seen the Earth from spacecraft windows countless times now, but the difference between seeing the planet from inside a spacecraft, through multiple layers of bulletproof glass, and seeing it from out here is like the difference between seeing a mountain from a car window and climbing the peak. My face is almost pressed against the thin layer of my clear plastic visor, my peripheral vision seemingly expanding out in every direction. I take in the stunning blue, the texture of the clouds, the varied landscapes of the planet, the glowing atmosphere edging on the horizon, a delicate sliver that makes all life on Earth possible. There is nothing but the black vacuum of the cosmos beyond."
Scott and Amiko
Toward the end of his nearly one year in space, Scott reflects on the "whole arc of my life that brought me here, and I always think about what it meant to me to read 'The Right Stuff' as a young man."

On "a quiet Saturday afternoon" passing over the Indian Ocean, Scott calls Tom Wolfe and talks about communication, books and writing, among other things. And Scott thanks him.

"Endurance" is a terrific biography of a quiet American hero. Kelly credits Margaret Lazarus Dean for assisting with the book. There are laugh-out-loud moments, especially about lost-in-translation Janglish on a dessert truck labeled "Marchen & Happy for You." There are private and sad passages. And there are inspiring keepsakes, like Amiko's advice: "Teamwork makes the dream work" – and this found haiku by Scott about what he learned in life:

I've learned that grass smells
great... wind feels amazing... rain
is a miracle

In an interview with "The Costco Connection" published this month Navy Captain (ret.) Scott Kelly discusses how his nearly year in space affected him. "I think it gives you more empathy for Earth and its inhabitants, and the planet itself, when you are detached from it for a long time. It definitely makes you appreciate everything Earth has to offer, which is everything. As humans, this is where we live and where we evolved, and everything is basically here. So not having most of that makes you definitely appreciate what we have – and what I have."

Reed Warrick gets a high five during his book signing at Costco in Kirkland, WA.
Phots by Kailan Manandic, courtesy Kirkland Reporter
We can imagine a young man or woman somewhere picking up this book and finding a path to purpose, endurance and discovery.

As Kelly says, "I would like people to think, whether they're younger or older, 'I can do more than I think I'm capable of. More than my experience base, education, background would let me think is possible.' ... You can always learn from your mistakes. You can always do better."

In his acknowledgements, Kelly thanks Amiko, Mark and other family members and professionals, and he concludes with: "And finally, I have to thank Tom Wolfe for his early inspiration. I truly believe if I had not read "The Right Stuff" as an eighteen-year-old, I would not have written this book or had the privilege of flying in space."

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