Not quite two years ago, I received a call from what appeared to be a Houston area code. When I answered, I discovered that the caller was not in Texas, nine hundred or so miles from my home in Knoxville, but rather two hundred and fifty miles above me, orbiting Earth. The astronaut Scott Kelly was calling from the International Space Station; he had read my book about the end of the Space Shuttle era, and he wanted to talk about his own attempts to portray the personal and emotional meanings of spaceflight in a journal he was keeping during his mission. We talked a long time that day—about Russian literature, our shared love of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” what the inside of a spacesuit smells like, and the food on the I.S.S.
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By that point, in December, 2015, Kelly had been living aboard the I.S.S. for close to nine months. A former Navy pilot and a veteran of three previous spaceflights, he was flying a mission distinct from any attempted by NASA before—a full year in space. Before humans can hope to reach a far-off destination such as Mars, scientists must first understand the effects of long-term spaceflight on the body and mind.
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In the months following that first call, Kelly told me more about his life in space—the frustration of fixing the same air purifier over and over again, the pleasures and challenges of working with crewmates from seven countries, the satisfaction of completing a difficult spacewalk, the unexpected pride of bringing a crop of zinnias back from the brink of death, the dread when an emergency call about his daughter reached the station. He also told me surprising details about his life before joining nasa, including his lifelong struggles with what he now believes was undiagnosed attention-deficit disorder.
Once Kelly returned to Earth, in March, 2016, we began working together on his memoir, “Endurance.” We spoke again shortly after its release, this past October.
M.L.D.: In the book, you write a lot about your difficulty paying attention in school. Compared with other subjects, was writing hard for you?
S.K.: Absolutely. All schoolwork was hard for me, but writing was impossible. I just didn’t have the ability to stay focussed enough to get through even a short piece of writing.
Do you remember ever enjoying writing?
No. I only remember it being a struggle.
What kind of writing did you have to do once you got to college?
I took only the minimum required English courses—two semesters of freshman English.
It was around that time that you read “The Right Stuff.”
That’s right. Reading that book gave me the motivation to become a pilot and an astronaut. I changed schools and changed my major to engineering. Learning that material was hard for me with my attention issues, but I still don’t think I could have written even a simple paper.
What kind of training in writing did you get in your career?
As a test pilot, a great deal. A big part of being a test pilot is writing a very detailed technical report on the data from each test flight—evaluations of the airplane’s flying qualities, recommendations for improvements. The hardest part of test-pilot school is not the flying but the writing.
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Since “Endurance” was released, I’ve heard you say that writing it has been the hardest thing you’ve ever done. That always gets a big laugh, because people know the other things you’ve accomplished—things like spending a year in space, commanding the Space Shuttle, and landing the F-14 Tomcat on an aircraft carrier. But I suspect you’re being at least partially serious.
There are different kinds of hard. It’s not the hard of landing an airplane on an aircraft carrier. It’s not the hard of doing a spacewalk. But writing a book is the type of project that takes a persistent focus over a long period of time, a lot of energy, a lot of work. I’m not joking when I say it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It was pretty damn hard.