Book Review. Endurance: A year in space, a lifetime of discovery

I didn't know what to expect when I picked this book from the library. A book by an astronaut could turn out to be boring and mundane for me. The thing is, I am interested in space, but I wouldn't say I am passionate about it. I never wished I could be an astronaut as a child (or as an adult). I guess I wanted to be the engineer that designed those systems, rather than the astronaut that piloted them.

Long story short, I enjoyed reading this book a lot. I never got bored, on the contrary I was very engaged. The book interleaved Scott Kelly's growing up and his 1 year stay at the International Space Station (ISS) at every other chapter. At the end of the book, Scott's life timeline has caught up to the beginning of his year-long ISS stay, and his ISS stay timeline concluded with the Soyuz return capsule entering the atmosphere.

I learned a lot about the space program. It still weirds me out that while we are very much earth-bound with our lives, technology, perspectives, problems, and dreams/aspirations, and yet there are some dozen people that get to inhabit space and look onward to Mars. The future is not uniformly distributed.

The book also included a lot of life lessons and reflections on human relationships. I guess, being in space and looking down to earth, would give a great vantage point on such reflection.

I had also read Seveneves by Neal Stephenson and The Martian by Andy Weir and loved those as well. I guess I should be looking for more books about space. Please recommend some.

In this book, Scott Kelly credits in several places "The Right Stuff" book by (the recently deceased) Tom Wolfe to have turned around his life and got him on track to being an astronaut despite all odds lined against him. So I should also plan on reading some work by Tom Wolfe.

From the book

Here are some random interesting passages from the book. Bring your own context. I will start skipping passages when I am tired of typing.

Page 30:
After a while the bus slows, then comes to a stop well before the launchpad. We nod at one another, step off, and take up our positions. We've all undone the rubber-band seals [on our Sokol suits] that had been so carefully and publicly leak-checked just an hour before. I center myself in front of the right rear tire and reach into my Sokol suit. I don't really have to pee, but it's a tradition: When Yuri Gagarin was on his way to the launchpad for his historic first spaceflight, he asked to pull over---right about here--- and peed on the right rear tire of the bus. Then he went to space and came back alive. So now we all must do the same. The tradition is so well respected that women space travelers bring a bottle of urine or water to splash on the tire rather than getting entirely out of their suits.

[ I guess the danger and unpredictability of the situation is enough to make to make scientist/engineered minded people very superstitious. ]

Page 40-41:
In my freshman year, I started out with great hope that I could turn things around and be a good student, as I had every previous school year. This determination always lasted just a few days, until I realized once again that it was impossible for me to concentrate in class or to study on my own. Soon I was waking up each morning and struggling to think of a reason to go to class, knowing I wouldn't absorb any of the professor's lecture. Often, I didn't go. How was I going to graduate, let alone do well enough to be accepted by any medical school?

Everything changed that afternoon when I picked up The Right Stuff. I'd never read anything like it before. I'd heard the word "voice" used to describe literature, but this was something I could actually hear in my head. Even out in the middle of the swamp, Wolfe wrote in this rot-bog of pine truncks, scum slicks, dead dodder vines, and mosquito eggs, even out in this great overripe sump, the smell of "burned beyond recognition" obliterated everything else. I felt the power of those words washing over me, even if some of the words I had to look up in the dictionary. Perilous, neophyte, virulent. I felt like I had found my calling. I wanted to be like the guys in this book, guys who could land a jet on an aircraft carrier at night and then walk away with a swagger. I wanted to be a naval aviator. I was still a directionless, undereducated eighteen-year-old with terrible grades who knew nothing about airplanes. But The Right Stuff had given me the outline of a life plan.

Page 50:
Unlike the early days of spaceflight, when piloting skill was what mattered, twenty-first-century astronauts are chosen for our ability to perform a lot of different jobs and to get along well with others, especially in stressful and cramped circumstances for long periods of time. Each of my crewmates is not only a close coworker in an array of different high-intensity jobs but also a roommate and a surrogate for all humanity.

Page 140:
The increased fluid pressure may squish our eyeballs out of shape and cause swelling in the blood vessels of our eyes and optic nerves. ... It's possible, too, that high CO2 is causing or contributing to changes in our vision ... High sodium in our diets could also be a factor ... Only male astronauts have suffered damage to their eyes while in space, so looking at the slight differences in the head and neck veins of male and female astronauts might also help scientists start to nail down the causes. If we can't we just might have to send an all-women crew to Mars.

Page 150:
Launch time comes and goes. Shortly after, my laptop's internet connection starts working again. I look up the video for the SpaceX launch, but the connection isn't strong enough to stream the video. I get a jerky, frozen image. then my eye stops on a headline: "SpaceX Rocket Explods During Cargo Launch to Space Station."
You've got to be fucking kidding me.
The flight director gets on a privatized space-to-ground channel and tells us the rocket has been lost.

Page 159: [ Upon getting a second chance after being disqualified from flying F14s ]
"You know, you can fly the airplane okay, but you're not flying it all the time," he told me. "You're on altitude and airspeed, but you're not on top of it." I had been trained to keep my altitude within a 200 foot range, so I didn't worry if I was 10 feet off the precise altitude, or 20, or 50. But Scrote pointed out that this imprecision in the end would lead me far from where I needed to wind up, and fixing it would take a lot of my attention. I had to always be making small, constant corrections if I wanted to make the situation better. He was right. My flying got better, and I've been able to apply what I learned from him to a lot of other areas of life as well.

Page 161:
Being in an F-14 squadron in the 1990s was like a cross between playing a professional sport and being in a rock-and-roll band. The movie Top Gun didn't quite capture the arrogance and bravado of it all. The level of drunkenness and debauchery was unbelievable (and is, thankfully, no longer the standard).

Page 164: [ A Marine saying about failures and mistakes ]
There are those who have, and those who will.

Page 290:
This wasn't my first time training with the Russians, of course... By now, I was intimately familiar with the way the Russian space agency handles training similarly to NASA, such as an emphasis on simulator training, and the way they don't, like their emphasis on the theoretical versus the practical---to an extreme. If NASA were to train an astronaut how to mail a package, they would take a box, put an object in the box, show you the route to the post office, and send you on your way with postage. The Russians would start in the forest with a discussion on the species of tree used to create the pulp that will make up the box, then go into excruciating detail on the history of box making. Eventually you would get to the relevant information about how the package is actually mailed, if you didn't fall asleep first. It seems to me this is part of their system of culpability---everyone involved in training needs to certify that the crew was taught everything they could possibly need to know. If anything should go wrong, it must then be the crew's fault.

Page 294: [ Real artists The Russians ship! ]
Once Sasha was back in his seat and it seemed clear we weren't going to catch fire, we talked about our predicament. I decided not to voice concern about the flammability risk.
"It's too bad we won't launch today," I said.
"Da," Sasha agreed. "We will be the first crew to scrub after strapping in since 1969." This is an incredible statistics, considering how often the space shuttle used to scrub, right up to the seconds before launch, even after the main engines had lit.
A voice for the control center interrupted us. "Guys, start your Sokol suit leak checks."
What? Sasha and I looked at each other with identical What-the-fuck? expressions. We were now inside five minutes to launch. Sasha raced to get strapped back into his seat properly.

Page 300-301: [January 8, 2011 During Scott's second ISS mission]
Mission control told me that the chief of the Astronaut Office, Peggy Whitson, needed to talk to me and would be calling on a private line in five minutes. I had no idea why, but I knew the reason wouldn't be anything good. Five minutes is  along time to think about what emergency might have occurred on the ground. Maybe my grandmother had died. Maybe one of my daughters had been hurt.
Peggy came on the line. "I don't know how to tell you this," she said, "so I'm just going to tell you. Your sister-in-law, Gabby was shot."
[ His sister-in-law is Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman from Arizona. ]

Page 311: [ Upon being disqualified from the year-long ISS mission ]
When I got home that night, I told Amiko about being medically disqualified. Rather than looking disappointed, as I expected, she looked puzzled.
"So they are going to send someone who has been on two long flights and has not suffered vision damage?" she asked.
"Right," I said.
"But if the point of this mission is to learn more about what happens to your body on a long mission," she asked, "why would they send someone who is known to be immune to one of the things they intend to study?"
This was a good point.

... I decided to present my case to management. They listened, and to my surprise they reversed their decision.

When I was preparing for the press conference to announce Misha and me as the one-year crew members, I asked what I thought was an innocent question about genetic research. I mentioned something we haven't previously discussed: Mark would be a perfect control study throughout the year. [ Scott's identical twin brother Mark Kelly is also an astronaut. ]
It turns out my mentioning this had enormous ramifications. Because NASA was my employer, it would be illegal for them to ask me for my genetic information. But once I had suggested it, the possibilities of studying the genetic effects of spaceflight transformed the research. The Twins Study became an important aspect of the research being done on station. A lot of people assumed that I was chosen for this mission because I have an identical twin, but that was just serendipitous.

Page 350:
I've been thinking about the whole arc of my life that had brought me here, and I always think about what it meant to me to read The Right Stuff as a young man. I feel certain that I wouldn't have done any of things I have if I hadn't read that book---if Tom Wolfe hadn't written it. On a quiet Saturday afternoon, I call Tom Wolfe to thank him. He sounds truly amazed to hear from me. I tell him we're passing over the Indian Ocean, how fast we're going, how our communication system works. We talk about books and about New York and about what I plan to do first when I get back (jump into my swimming pool). We agree to have lunch when I'm back on Earth, and that's now one of the things I'm looking forward to most.

Page 360:
As much as I worked on scientific experiments, I think I learned at least as much about practical issues of how to conduct a long-range exploration mission. This is what crew members on ISS are always doing---we are not just solving problems and trying to make things better for our own spaceflights, but also studying how to make things better for the future. ... And the larger struggles of my mission---most notably, CO2 management and upkeep of the Seedra--- will have a larger impact on future missions on the space station and future space vehicles. NASA has agreed to manage CO2 at a much lower target level, and better versions of CO2 scrubbers are being developed that will one day replace the Seedra...

MAD questions

1. What type of computer/software systems should we have in space?
The RAM is exposed to radiation, so memory can be corrupted. A self-stabilizing program that tolerates memory corruption could be useful in some situations. I also heard triple modular redundancy and replicas are preferred for some computer/sensor systems. How about Byzantine tolerant systems? Would that be useful for computers in space?

The reliability and assurance needed for computers in space stations should be in a league of their own. I wonder if there is a nice description of modern programming techniques/styles for computers deployed in space.

2. Could there be a book out there for you that could change your life? Give your life a whole new meaning/purpose?

3. Or could something you write/contribute can help change someone's life?


Popular posts from this blog

Foundational distributed systems papers

Your attitude determines your success

Progress beats perfect

Cores that don't count

Silent data corruptions at scale

Learning about distributed systems: where to start?

Read papers, Not too much, Mostly foundational ones

Sundial: Fault-tolerant Clock Synchronization for Datacenters


Using Lightweight Formal Methods to Validate a Key-Value Storage Node in Amazon S3 (SOSP21)