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Astronaut Scott Kelly's Latest Mission: A Book

Oct 17, 2017
Originally published on October 18, 2017 10:06 am

As part of NASA's twins study, astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year in space while his twin brother, astronaut Mark Kelly, stayed on Earth. That year on the space station makes Scott Kelly the American record holder for consecutive days in space. To get through that year, he had a routine.

"You kind of do stuff you might do at home, although, you know, we don't have a shower but you take a sponge bath," he says. "At breakfast, I'd watch the news, do the planning conference, and then the rest of the day is executing the plan, and the activities you do range from very sophisticated, scientific experiments to fixing the toilet."

Kelly writes about his year in space in his new book, Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery.


Interview Highlights

On what it feels like to be in space

It's a pretty crazy place. I mean it's — you know, you realize you're in a vacuum and there's just the thin layers of a suit protecting you from the next micro-meteoroid or space junk debris strike. The suit you wear is very complicated. It's difficult to work in, difficult to move in. But all that aside, it's an incredible experience, you know, one of the highlights of my professional life. It's not exactly fun. It's kind of like the Type-2 kind of fun. Type-1 fun is the roller coaster; Type-2 fun is the thing that's fun when you're done.

On the necessary mentality of an astronaut

It does require a certain level of focus, especially when stuff, you know, starts going wrong or becomes difficult. You know, it's something I think the military trains us really well for, is focusing on what we can control and ignoring what we can't, whether that's, well — in space we can't control, you know, the fact that we could meet our demise at any time. We can't control how distracting the Earth looks and how incredibly beautiful it is. We can't control how everything floats around, and that makes stuff more difficult, so yeah, compartmentalization is very important.

On what he misses about the experience

I miss the people that I was there with. Now, all those people are back on Earth, but you know spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week with people is something that, you know, with these folks is something I'll never do with them again, so I miss them, I miss the work. The work is technically demanding; it's risky and even though I do some stuff that challenges me now, it doesn't challenge me in the same way. Writing a book is really hard. It's a lot harder than I thought, but it doesn't have the same consequences. You know, if I write a bad sentence people are only going to get angry with me. They're not going to die.


This story was edited for radio by Maddalena Richards and Jacob Conrad, and adapted for the Web by Sydnee Monday and Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There was nothing routine about what astronaut Scott Kelly pulled off - living in space for nearly a year, 340 consecutive days, to be exact. It was important work meant to evaluate the impact of life in space on the human body. But it's also incredibly taxing and isolating. So in order to cope, Kelly learned to appreciate the routine chores of life on the International Space Station.

SCOTT KELLY: So you get up, you know, you go to the bathroom. You kind of do stuff you might do at home, although, you know, we don't have a shower. But you take a sponge bath. At breakfast, I'd watch the news, do the planning conference. And then the rest of the day is executing the plan. And the activities you do range from very sophisticated scientific experiments to fixing the toilet.

MARTIN: Really the biggest achievement was just existing up there for so long. Scientists measured Kelly's physiology and how it compared to his twin brother, astronaut Mark Kelly's, back on Earth. Scott Kelly tells his story in a new memoir that's out today titled "Endurance: A Year In Space, A Lifetime Of Discovery." I talked with Scott Kelly recently. And he joined us from Houston, naturally.

You've worked in space. You've been out tethered to the space station out there. You've seen Earth from so many miles away. I know it's hard to put into words, but what does it feel like to be out there?

KELLY: It's pretty crazy.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

KELLY: Yeah, it's a pretty crazy place. I mean, it's - you know, you realize you're in a vacuum and there's just the thin layers of a suit protecting you from the next micrometeoroid or space junk debris strike. The suit you wear is very complicated. It's difficult to work in, difficult to move in. But all that aside, it's a incredible experience, it's, you know, one of the highlights of my professional life. It's not exactly fun. It's kind of like the type-two kind of fun.

Type-one fun is the roller coaster. Type-two fun is the thing that's fun when you're done.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

KELLY: When you're doing it, you're like, man, this is hard. And when you're done, you're like, hey, that was awesome.

MARTIN: That was awesome. Things do go wrong, though, from time to time. And you have to just compartmentalize it. You talked about when you're out there, you can't let your mind go to that place about what the consequences would be if X, Y, Z were to happen.

KELLY: Yeah, it does. You know, it does require a certain level of focus, especially when stuff, you know, starts going wrong or becomes difficult. You know, it's something I think the military trains us really well for is focusing on what we can control and ignoring what we can't, whether that's - well, in space, we can't control, you know, the fact that we could meet our demise at anytime. We can't control how distracting the Earth looks and how incredibly beautiful it is.

We can't control how everything floats around. And that makes stuff more difficult. So, yeah, compartmentalization is very important.

MARTIN: What was it like coming home? Not just going back into the Earth's atmosphere but, like, walking back into your house.

KELLY: Oh, walking into my house, it was surreal, you know, having not been there in over a year. Yeah, it was - you know, I came home, I got to do all these things I didn't get to do for a year like take a shower, sleep in a bed. And those were great but the best part about it, you know, was just being able to share the experience with my friends and family and those you care about.

MARTIN: What'd your brother tell you? What was the first thing he said to you?

KELLY: What did he say to me?

MARTIN: Yeah, when he got home.

KELLY: Because I don't remember, it was probably something like, I don't know, how's it going?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

KELLY: Or, hey, you don't look too bad.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: How are you doing? How is your body? A lot of this was about...

KELLY: I'm doing great.

MARTIN: ...How your body was going to hold up.

KELLY: Yeah, I'm doing - I mean, the stuff I can - you know, the symptomatic stuff, I would say, is fine. I don't have any long-term negative feelings, physically, from being in space now. There's the things you can't see, that you can't feel. And hopefully I will never learn that those are a problem.

MARTIN: Do you miss anything about that experience?

KELLY: I miss the people that I was there with. Now all those people are back on Earth. But, you know, spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week with people is something that, you know, with these folks is something I'll never do with them again. So I miss them. I miss the work. The work is technically demanding. It's risky. And even though I do some stuff that challenges me now, it doesn't challenge me in the same way. Writing a book is really hard.

It's a lot harder than I thought. But it's doesn't have the same consequences. You know, if I write a bad sentence, people are only going to get angry with me. They're not going to die.

MARTIN: Yeah.

KELLY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Do you, in some way, grieve being on the other side of this experience? I imagine the anticipation of it was all encompassing. And it is such an achievement, even if you downplay it. And really, you are unlikely, I think it's fair to say, to do anything like this again, right?

KELLY: Yeah, yeah, I do. You know, it hasn't been an easy adjustment, actually, coming back from this. I - not only did I, you know, come back from this incredible experience but I kind of retired from NASA and I moved on to something else that is completely different than flying in space. You know, something I was familiar with and, you know, I talk about spaceflight and I do a lot of public speaking now. But, you know, writing the book was new.

And, you know, I had some personal challenges in the, you know, last year and a half I was back. My dad passed away.

MARTIN: Oh, I'm sorry.

KELLY: Yeah. Yeah, there was...

MARTIN: It's been a tough year.

KELLY: It's been a rough - it's been a busy year and a half since I landed.

MARTIN: How do you get through that, though, when you inevitably think to yourself, OK, that was it, that may have been the apex of my career? How do you push through that?

KELLY: Compartmentalize, like you said.

MARTIN: Yeah, there it is again.

KELLY: Focus on what you can control and ignore what you can't.

MARTIN: The book is called "Endurance: A Year In Space, A Lifetime Of Discovery." It's a memoir by Commander Scott Kelly. Commander Kelly, thank you so much.

KELLY: Oh, thank you so much for your time and I enjoyed the conversation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.