Monday, January 01, 2018

Thank God for Gravity: Scott Kelly's Endurance and the Future of Space Travel

Scott Kelly is a NASA astronaut, veteran of a year's stay on the International Space Station (ISS), and now a published author of a popular memoir called Endurance.  He is also the twin brother of fellow astronaut Mark Kelly, who is married to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011.  At the time Giffords was shot, her brother-in-law was in orbit during an earlier ISS stay.

Needless to say, Kelly has led an eventful life, and his memoir is rather unusual in that he doesn't shy away from matters that reflect badly on either him or aspects of the space program.  He is honest about many of his shortcomings, including his first marriage that ended in divorce.  And when in the course of narrating in detail his experiences in space, he is inconvenienced by a NASA policy or action, he lets you know about it.  The part of the book that describes day-to-day life on the ISS has got to be one of the most detailed and vivid descriptions of space flight in print.  And that's the problem.  If he wrote this book to encourage people to think about mass migration to space, it may have backfired.

To a landlubber like me, Kelly's trials and risks he undergoes to be in space are appalling.  Take what sounds like a simple thing:  a space walk.  First off, it takes about five hours to get ready, involving hundreds of separate checklisted steps, many of which if neglected or done in the wrong order could result in your untimely and painful demise. 

Then there is the zero-G environment.  I never really appreciated gravity until I read Kelly's book.  On earth, you put down a pen, or a wrench, or a screw, and it stays there.  Not in space.  Every single last thing you might possibly need has to be either tied down, kept in a bag, stuck to a piece of Velcro (TM), or otherwise secured, or else on the space walk you will inadvertently contribute to the already vast quantity of space junk orbiting Earth, and lose whatever you needed in the bargain.  The most chilling aspect of his space walks is to learn that over the nearly two decades that at least some of the ISS has been up there, meteors or orbiting pieces of derelict satellites have punched holes and taken entire chunks out of handrails on the outside of the structure.  And it's just a matter of chance whether another one of those 17,000-MPH pieces of debris drills a hole through you while you're outside. 

Kelly, along with anyone else who endures the rigors of years of training and competition to go into space, deserves accolades for his monumental achievements.  But at the same time, I can't help but wonder whether the up-close view of what life in space is really like lends more weight to the argument that, like many people say of New York, it's a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there. 

The question really boils down to this:  is space, and whatever lies beyond in terms of potentially habitable planets, really more like America in 1620, or Antarctica in 1920?  Here's what I mean.

Right now, corporations are being organized to go into space exploration commercially, and large groups of visionaries are planning to spread humanity in some form to other planets.  From what I can tell, these folks believe that space and regions beyond it will eventually harbor lots of people, like the New World (North and South America) does now.  Some even seem to think that we have damaged our planet here beyond repair with global warming and pollution, and we better start making our plans for an exit strategy when Earth becomes uninhabitable.  Either way, these folks (who Kelly, incidentally, does not explicitly identify himself with) have an attitude toward space that says it is our manifest destiny to go there and occupy it with all the trappings of civilization:  cities, nations, the whole bit.  They would say that space now is like America was to Europe in 1620:  a new world beckoning us to explore and settle it.

If Kelly's spare-time reading had been about Columbus or Vasco da Gama, I might agree that he is of that party.  But what book did he take with him on the ISS?  Endurance:  Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, the story of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated 1914 expedition to cross the Antarctic.  Their ship got stuck in ice and Shackleton and his men ended up floating away on chunks of sea ice and lifeboats.  In his choice of reading matter, I think Kelly has inadvertently answered the question of what space exploration is most similar to in the history of humanity so far.  And it doesn't bode well for any large-scale plans that involve moving lots of ordinary people into space.

There have been manned outposts in the extreme Arctic and Antarctic regions for about a century now, and the population of Antarctica still hovers in the hundreds at most.  The fact is that the environment there is so hostile to human life that living there is extremely expensive, inconvenient, and worth while only if a strong scientific or cultural motive justifies it. 

I think space is the same way.  It's hard to imagine how we could make space travel so safe, convenient, and comfortable that you could get lots of people (I'm talking thousands at least) to attempt it.  And by definition, you have to travel through space to get to anywhere besides Earth. 

So I salute Kelly and his compatriots for the incredible achievements they have made in simply keeping the ISS running and keeping alive up there, no small part of which is due to Kelly's accumulated expertise in repeatedly fixing what has to be the world's most expensive toilet.  But by the same token, I think space travel will remain a hugely expensive and highly specialized endeavor for a narrowly chosen few, for the foreseeable future—and maybe beyond that, too.

Sources:  I thank my wife for giving me Scott Kelly's Endurance:  A Year In Space, A Lifetime of Discovery (Knopf, 2017) for Christmas.

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