An Astronaut and Endurance

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of DiscoveryEndurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finding candor in a vast public relations program can be like searching for water in outer space. It’s there, but it’s scattered in small amounts that are easy to miss. So, it’s quite a joy for a space enthusiast like me to come across a book like Scott Kelly’s Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery.

In Endurance, readers will find candor about NASA operations and culture. They will also read revealing descriptions of the scrappier Russian space program. What is more, Kelly speaks candidly about his time as a Navy test pilot and life at home. His pathway from boy to man to astronaut included plenty of turbulence.

Arguably the most shocking detail in the book is Mr. Kelly’s poor showing in high school. I have this image of astronaut candidates as elite almost from birth, straight A students, Eagle Scouts, double doctorate types. Though Kelly had the right stuff, he failed to truly tap into it until college. Even then, it proved a struggle.

Though the main storyline of this memoir is Kelly’s record-setting time aboard the International Space Station, he also intersperses chapters about growing up in a troubled home, his time as an EMT, and his marriage and subsequent divorce. Space geeks will experience the cosmic adventure the dust jacket promises. They will also learn of the broader personal and professional challenges, the years of preparation for a single flight.

“Our space agencies won’t be able to push out farther into space, to a destination like Mars, until we can learn more about how to strengthen the weakest links in the chain that makes spaceflight possible: the human body and mind.”

Kelly presents a highly personal narrative of camaraderie, both with his twin brother and fellow astronaut Mark, as well as with his Russian counterparts. At the center of this grand project, Russia and the United States remain the two biggest players. While describing the no-nonsense–well, the modest amounts of nonsense–culture of the International Space Station, Kelly also brings into focus the symbiotic relationship of America and Russia.

On YouTube videos, we see one space station. Yet in a sense, the ISS is two stations joined at the hip. At times this partnership seems as vulnerable and pockmarked as the hull of the ISS. Yet it triumphs again and again. Kelly’s book left me feeling more insecure about our two nations’ spacefaring bond, but also convinced we must continue cooperating.

Running consistently through Endurance is Kelly’s dry, but unmistakable sense of humor. Also evident is his fondness and admiration for fellow astro- and cosmonauts. Readers will have spaceflight explained by a coolheaded thrill seeker who has spent a lifetime learning how to manage risk. For me, the dryness and attention to technical detail sometimes make for a less engaging read. But this is a minor criticism. Endurance took me deeper into the ISS’s guts and culture than I’ve ever been.

For readers making their first foray into spaceflight literature, I recommend Mike Massimino’s more conversational book, Spaceman. However, if this adventurous subject has already taken hold of you, make sure Endurance is on your reading list.

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Under the Belly of Enterprise

This week I visited New York City to see The Iceman Cometh starring Denzel Washington, as well as finally seeing an opera at the Met. It was a great trip. One of the highlights was meeting the space shuttle Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum Complex.

Until seeing this exhibit, I had failed to appreciate the extent to which NASA tested this vehicle in preparation for space missions. In addition to gliding tests, they strapped it to boosters and also submitted it brutal vibrations to prove the design. Grand engineering!

Here is a brief clip of my previous visit to space shuttle Discovery in Washington DC.

A beautiful ISS image for you

ISS048-E-2035_lrg

Hell of a corner office those astronauts have.

The above image comes to us courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory website. The images they send me via my email subscription never disappoint. For a full caption, and to learn which landscape is featured, visit Earth Observatory.

Cassini’s Final Breath in Poetry

Waiting for the Last Wave

“Cassini Significant Events Email – Friday, Sept. 15 (DOY 258)
…As Saturn set in the western California sky, the DSN stations in Australia locked onto the spacecraft’s signal as Saturn rose above their eastern horizon…”

We wait on echoes
from the near past
the spearing death cry
from the just silenced mouth
the quintessential sitting
watching and waiting
generations mourn in synced frequencies
higher and lower together
we are all precious
fleeting folk

“…as Cassini continued to faithfully follow the commands it had received months before…”

Is the echo part of the life
still alive
last cry like a geyser spraying
up and out

“…Data continued to flow, and every bit of telemetry was captured at the Australian DSN stations…”

In silence, we watch each other
eyesight embraces eyesight
hands pass a jar of peanuts
fingers kiss fingers
ears watch for the living wave
ready to capture

“…As it tumbled out of control, within minutes Cassini had come apart, melted, and vaporized into its host planet.”

The last echo dying gives us permission
to cry.

Poet’s Note:

For NASA’s complete email text, see the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s weekly Significant Events email, 9/13/17 ­ 9/19/17.

For more Cassini-inspired poetry, try Poetry for the Grand Finale.

Saturn on the rocks

“She climbs slowly, precisely, / With unwasted grace.”

–Kenneth Rexroth, “On What Planet”

saturn-cassini-rhea-mimas
Saturn, Rhea and Mimas by Elisabetta Bonora, Savona, Italy, Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/E. Bonora

On the Poetry Foundation’s website can be found wonderful poems like the myriad moons of Saturn. And in at least a couple of those poems, the planet Saturn becomes a principal character. Such is Kenneth Rexroth’s beautiful poem, “On What Planet.” The poem is not about Saturn, but about adventure-seeking rock climbers. Short and sweet, and with a delightful audio performance by the poet, this one is a gem. Check it out.

On What Planet

Note the “Amateur Images” logo on the above picture. This image also deserves a couple of minutes of your time. Let the video and web analyst herself explain the journey this vista took from Cassini’s camera, to her computer, to ours.

Saturn, Rhea and Mimas by Elisabetta Bonora

The Cassini spacecraft ends its two-decade mission on the morning of September 15th. It will have been one of the great flagship missions of space exploration. For more information, visit NASA’s Grand Finale Toolkit.

To stay in the poetry vein, try Papery Cassini Farewell.

Mother, Son, and Saturn

“He loves the buoyant, frictionless / plate / his father has in focus.”

–Stefanie Marlis, “Saturn”

cassini-saturn-camera-test
Cassini’s first color composite of Saturn, the moon Titan visible at upper-left, imaged from 177 million miles away in October of 2002, Credit: NASA/JPL/Southwest Research Institute

As we get ready to say goodbye to the Cassini spacecraft, I hope you’ll take this chance to read an example of Saturn embedded in our culture, as well as our individual psyches. Stefanie Marlis’s poem, quoted above, is a wonderful and pointed glimpse into the matriarchal mind, in relation to an imperfect but precious and promising child. Saturn makes a crucial appearance at the end. Short poem. Quite accessible. Give it a try:

Saturn

The Cassini spacecraft ends its two-decade mission on the morning of September 15th. It will have been one of the great flagship missions of space exploration. For more information, visit NASA’s Grand Finale Toolkit.

To stay in the poetry vein, try Papery Cassini Farewell.

Readying for the goodbye kiss

When you make one final flyby of Titan, before disintegrating in Saturn’s clouds, you experience a gravitational nudge which scientists call “the goodbye kiss.” If you experience this kiss, your name must be Cassini. And you must be nearing the morning of September 15, 2017–the last day of your life.

cassini-plunge-nasa
Artist’s depiction of the Cassini space probe descending into Saturn’s atmosphere, Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars in 2012, I thought it might be the greatest space achievement to occur in my life. I supposed, this is my generation’s Apollo 11 moment. However, as the end of the Cassini mission approaches, I realize its finale may be the most meaningful, albeit bittersweet, moment of my space-enthusiast life.

Cassini’s two-decade mission has spanned my adulthood years. I plan to do some poetry blogging here in the coming days to process that fact. Hopefully the output will be enjoyable for any who stop by Lit for Space. Bottom line, I need to savor this finale. I’m even taking the day off work on September 15th and plan to be glued to NASA TV that morning.

I strongly urge readers to take special note of this grand mission’s passing. For the public, at an absolute minimum, Cassini has provided some of the most awe-inspiring imagery of our solar system. The scientific data collected has made and will continue to make entire careers for some of the world’s brightest scholars. Indeed, Cassini’s success makes us a little less ignorant of the universe in which we struggle to survive.

To explore Cassini’s mission, try this starting point: NASA’s Grand Finale Toolkit. Here is a brief yet epic video dramatization of what is about to happen.