In The film The Right Stuff there is a scene that really caught my imagination. Following a spectacular crash there is an inferno of flames. The ambulance crew stares in disbelief as a figure walks stoically out of the swirling smoke. One of the crew says to the other “is that a man?” And after a short pause and a relieved smile his companion answers: “Yeah, your’e damned right it is!” The heroic figure walking stoically out of the conflagration was the test pilot Chuck Yeager, played by the brilliant Sam Shepard. The whole film was like that, moving, provocative, challenging and ultimately uplifting.
So, as a result of seeing the movie I went on to read Tom Wolfe’s book on which the film was based. It is a masterpiece, a superbly evocative book that brings the space race to life. Chuck Yeager comes across as the central, inspirational figure, who more than anyone created the test pilot ethos of no nonsense bravery. It is Wolfe’s central thesis that this ethos was at the heart of the Apollo project. The film of The Right Stuff is excellent and I could watch it over and over again, and have. But the book works on a deeper, more profound level. It seems to provide a glimpse into the souls of the astronauts who were involved in the space race.
Astronaut Scott Kelly at work on the ISS (image: NASA)
And so recently I tucked into Endurance by Scott Kelly, the US astronaut. I was just expecting to have a nice read about the one year he spent on the International Space Station (ISS). You know the sort of thing, wow! space is great, having lots of fun up here, enjoying great views of Earth, doing fun experiments etc. etc. But the book is really nothing like that at all. It gives a very realistic and gritty account of what daily life on the space station is all about. The kit that doesn’t work, the pain and exhaustion of a spacewalk, the strain on family relationships that a year circling the Earth in claustrophobic tin can necessarily involves.
Scott Kelly carrying out a space walk during his year-long mission to the ISS (image: NASA)
And then there is the “seedra”, or more correctly CDRA, or to give it its full title: Carbon Dioxide Removal Assembly. A car engine-like contraption that cleans up the air on the ISS. It must be about the most important piece of kit on the station, but based on Scot Kelly’s account, it was extremely unreliable and needed constant and serious maintenance to keep it functioning. Scott Kelly was not a fan of the “seedra” and expresses his frustration with it in an extremely forthright way. And of course there are serious implications for such reliability, or should that be, unreliability issues. What happens if the equivalent piece of kit packs up on route to Mars, when there is little or no chance of getting a replacement?
Such safety issues and the likely high cost of a human mission to Mars led Bill Anders the Apollo 8 astronaut to recently describe NASA’s plans to put a human on the red planet as “stupid”. Scott Kelly would disagree with this assessment. After his one year stint on the ISS he toured the US talking to people about his mission. Here is what he found: “It’s gratifying to see how curious people are about my mission, how much children instinctively feel the excitement and wonder of spaceflight, and how many people think, as I do, that Mars is the next step”.
And what inspired Scott Kelly to become an astronaut?
One day at the campus bookshop he picked up a copy of The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. He headed back to his dorm and read it “heart pounding” for the rest of the day. “This wasn’t just an exciting adventure story. This was something more like a life plan.” The Right Stuff changed his life forever. And Scott Kelly’s Endurance might well do the same for someone else. And who knows, that person might just go on to be the first human on Mars. Books are like that, they change lives.
TOP IMAGE: Bell X1 rocket plane, nicknamed Glamorous Glennis, in which test pilot Chuck Yeagar became the first man to break the sound barrier in 1947. (photo: Wikipedia).