Book review: "Endurance" by Scott Kelly

"Endurance" - without promising to be a book about management or leadership - is exactly that

Book review: "Endurance" by Scott Kelly

Astronauts and cosmonauts are fortunate enough to visit outer space.

The rest of us can read biographies like Endurance (2017) by American astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent one year in space between 2015 and 2016.

Near the book's beginning, Kelly talks about a key personal influence: his mother’s decision to become a police officer at a time when fewer women were doing so. To pass the mandatory physical fitness test – one of the more challenging steps – she trained regularly, monitored her progress, and grew stronger until she was able to complete all required tasks, including scaling a high wall. She chose a difficult goal and accomplished it. Whatever her original intent, she also inspired her son to think bigger and more confidently.

Readers will find similar inspiration as they follow Endurance's two intertwining storylines.

The book’s first storyline details the author’s journey from slacker-ish kid to accomplished pilot, engineer, and astronaut. He describes various motivations, for example his twin brother Mark and Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff; failures, including early struggles at school; successes, such as academic achievements after he learned how to study; and much in between. The author readably depicts one man’s hard work through adversity to reach the top of a difficult and respected profession.

The second storyline follows the events in and around Kelly’s yearlong voyage in space. A story about life atop a pinnacle is bound to feel less inspiring than one about a boy who grows up to become an astronaut, and sure enough the inspiration-seeking reader may prefer the author's earlier-life chapters. That said, the later years remain captivating. Kelley's observations about the space program, international cooperation, and life and work in space illuminate rare and unusual corners of both life and our world, and they come in context of a first-ever human achievement that he and cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko accomplished together: spending a year orbiting the planet.

Consequently, some of what you read in this book may surprise you. For example, it surprised me to know that astronauts are chosen in large part for their ability to get along with others. Of course - how could it be otherwise? On earth, one poorly-matched roommate or colleague can complicate life tremendously. In a space station, with life-threatening danger and little escape, the risks and consequences loom only larger.

Any one person's surprises aside, this book is wide-ranging and complex enough that all readers are likely to discover something new, even (especially?) if only in themselves.

In particular, any team captain, manager, or leader is likely to appreciate Kelly’s descriptions of interactions among astronauts and cosmonauts. He describes an elite, rotating, highly functional, cross-cultural unit accomplishing important tasks and supporting each other while coexisting in an unavoidably difficult and stressful environment that launched in 1998 and remains floating, operational, and successful 20 years later. Endurance, without promising to be a book on management or leadership, describes real-life leadership experience and wisdom.

Even if team dynamics are not your thing, each space station chapter brings a new tale, like preparing to launch from Kazakhstan; drawing inspiration from Sir Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition; looking down upon the beautiful Bahamas and the rest of the world; keeping the space station operational; or supporting scientific discoveries that promise to improve life on earth and help us embark upon long-term space flight successfully.

Endurance is a page-turner within the biography genre that often makes reading feel like walking through mud. It is a “show don’t tell” sort of book with plenty of imagery and feeling, made more readable thanks to its universally interesting subject (space) and the author’s wise choice to interweave the early-life and year-in-space storylines in alternating chapters.

This book offers a whole worldview and way of life to explore. If you are looking for a new read – or if you just want to get away from home without getting away from home – consider Endurance.

Header photo by NASA / Unsplash