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Scott Kelly Drank Recycled Pee and Ate Mouse Turds in Space

Scott Kelly is not the first man to leave Earth’s atmosphere, but he is the first to wear a gorilla suit in space. If that weren’t enough, in March 2016 he earned the distinction of having spent 340 consecutive days aboard the International Space Station—besting the previous American record by 125 days.

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“I’m not the guy who saw the moon landing in 1969 and decided then and there to be an astronaut. I didn’t get straight A’s and become an Eagle Scout,” Kelly says. “I’m a below-average guy that’s done a slightly above-average job.” As chronicled in his unflinching new memoir, Endurance, Kelly, 53, was a terrible student growing up. More interested in playing hooky than studying, he graduated in the bottom half of his high school class and was accepted by only one university—which he had applied to by mistake. Then he came across Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff in the campus bookstore.

“I’m a below-average guy that’s done a slightly above-average job.”

Wolfe’s book tells of the first generation of American astronauts, test pilots who lived fast and died young. “The risk, the danger of it all, was part of the excitement,” Kelly says. “It’s what attracted me to it.” In pursuit of his new aim to join the ranks of those hard-drinking “badasses,” Kelly forced himself to study and, despite occasionally falling off training ships drunk, succeeded in becoming a fighter pilot and then an astronaut.

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Just as Kelly goes against our idea of what an astronaut should be, his descriptions of life in space don’t resemble the sanitized version as portrayed in pop culture. The ISS is not the immaculate, chicly furnished Space Station V of  Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The real one reeks of garbage and body odor. Instead of showering, you “move the dried sweat” around your body with wipes. There’s also the danger of eating what you think is a piece of candy suspended in midair, only to discover it’s a mouse turd that escaped from one of the many experiments onboard. The place sounds less like a technical marvel than it does a leaky pirate ship, with the astronauts drinking their own (recycled) urine, worrying about scurvy, and trying to keep the creaky old station afloat as carbon dioxide levels soar, collision with space junk is a constant threat, and the space toilet breaks down yet again. How did Kelly do it?

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“We had a saying in the Navy: ‘Better is the enemy of good enough,’ and I think that definitely applies in space. Clearly there’s stuff that has to be perfect every single time or you’ll die, but for other stuff it’s important to moderate your level of effort. I’ve seen perfectionists just drive themselves into the friggin’ dirt. You can’t do that for a year.”

“I’ve seen perfectionists just drive themselves into the friggin’ dirt. You can’t do that for a year.”

I ask if he ever managed the stress with a nip of something stronger than processed piss. “Against the rules.” A former member of a fighter squadron nicknamed the Pukin’ Dogs spent almost a year aboard a space station alongside a bunch of Russian cosmonauts without a single drink? “Against the rules.” Kelly spent much of his time experimenting on himself. With a mission to Mars on the horizon, NASA wanted to study the effects of prolonged space travel on the human body. So before he left Earth, Kelly got small tattoos that showed him exactly where to place the various probes he would be scanning himself with on a daily basis. “I suppose I’ll have to get the one on my neck removed,” he says. “I understand some retail stores won’t let you work there if you have a neck tat.”

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When he returned from the ISS, Kelly’s body was a mess. He broke out in hives whenever his skin brushed up against anything, and his joints were in excruciating pain. Yet despite these ailments, he believes it’s possible to get to Mars and thrive. “I’d go there in a heartbeat,” he says.

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Kelly is obviously a guy who doesn’t scare easily. He tells me one of the most exciting moments of his trip was the “fucking medieval” descent to Earth in the Russian Soyuz capsule. “As soon as you realize you aren’t going to die, it’s the most fun you’ll ever have,” he says. But how do you know that you aren’t going to die? “Once you’ve done it.” This makes no sense.

“I heard once there was an astronaut in there who was crying because he thought he was going to die.” He chuckles as if this were the most ridiculous reaction in the world.

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Did Kelly ever get teary himself when things looked bad? “There’s no crying in space!” he growls. “In space no one can hear you cry!”

This article appears in the November ’17 issue of Esquire. Subscribe Today

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