Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys – Michael Collins

Michael Collins was Command Module Pilot during Apollo XI, the NASA mission that included the first Moon landing. He did not himself land, but kept lonely vigil in Lunar orbit as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their famous landing. As is common with astronaut biographies concerning the early NASA era, this one also begins with an early career in the military. Mr. Collins was an accomplished test pilot, who was accepted by NASA on his second attempt, joining the third group of astronauts. He also flew on Gemini X, performing a spacewalk and perfecting docking manoeuvres.

Mr. Collins’s book stands out from other similar autobiographies I have read, in that it is written in the author’s own voice, as he explicitly states. His love for the English language, perhaps a product of rather a classical education, shines through in poetic passages, and even some poetry. This is not the voice of a clinical and technical test pilot, even though there is a fair amount of technical detail. This is the voice of a poet who lays bare his troubles, annoyances, fears and tribulations like no other astronaut I have read, elevating the text from documentary to something that seeks a deeper significance. We see the inner Collins, or at least more of the inner Collins that I really expected. Other astronauts are treated candidly, and sometimes with a brutal honesty about what the author sees as their character weaknesses. There is no bitterness in these passages, merely observations from a man who long since has gotten over the time when such concerns perhaps seemed all-encompassing.

The epilogue is particularly interesting to read today, almost fifty years after publication. Without rancour and with a great deal of patience, Mr. Collins laments the myopia of politicians, the ongoing damage to our fragile planet, and the general short-sightedness of humanity. He also takes issue with the perceived, but fictitious, conflict between resources devoted to space exploration, and spending on “problems at home”. With only a few detail changes, this chapter could have been written today, as humanity seems to have progressed no further, and such debates continue.

Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir

A man wakes up alone, in a room, groggy and without memories of who he is or why he is there. A medical robot is tending him. It eventually comes to light that he is Dr. Ryland Grace, a high school science who was previously a leading researcher in the field of alien life. Such life was purely speculative until the sun started slowly fading, something that will in time lead to the death of all or most life on Earth.

Grace finds himself deeply involved in Project Hail Mary, a no expense spared global effort to find a solution. Years later, in orbit around a distant star, Grace, finds an ally in his quest. But this ally is not human.

In some ways, it is easy to draw parallels to The Martian. An impossible mission. A snarky and clever protagonist who overcomes difficult challenges. Interesting science problems. But the scope of the story, and the stakes, are both much greater. Project Hail Mary certainly has the same page-turner quality and charming snark as The Martian, making me laugh out loud on multiple occasions. The ending added unexpected gravitas to the story and was a beautiful coda.

The alien is cleverly imagined and imbued with a charming personality despite being so very alien. The fact that the alien’s environment adds to Grace’s challenges doesn’t hurt. How relatively easily communications is established stretches plausibility, but on the other hand, the process is both clever and charming.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Chris Hadfield

AnAstronautsGuideToLifeOnEarthChris Hadfield is a man’s man. Test pilot, astronaut, commander of the International Space Station, guitarist, and most importantly endowed with the perfect Canadian Pilot mustache. This book is part memoir, part advice text, part space exploration tome.

I have long admired Colonel Hadfield. His videos from the International Space Station were inspirational and he is the perfect ambassador for the astronaut profession. Despite his many and often spectacular achievement, he embodies a quiet competence and work ethic without braggadocio. Everything I have seen and read with and about him gives the impression of a pleasant, hardworking and cheerful man who stays cool in a crisis.

Hadfield’s “nice guy” character may indeed be the reason for the weakness of his book. The tone is so earnest as to almost be off-putting. He couldn’t be more politely Canadian if he tried. (He even self-deprecatingly touches on the Canadian national character in the book.) Unlike Mike Mullane’s snarky and often hilarious Riding Rockets, this astronaut memoir feels rather plain vanilla.

Having said that, Hadfield’s story is well worth telling, and the message of hard work and striving for excellence without letting (possible) failure define you is inspirational. The theme of the book is not so much about space as about what we can do to define our lives and careers in a meaningful way.

Despite its shortcomings, for fans of astronautics this is an interesting read. I found the the insights into the charming traditions of the Russian Space Program particularly interesting.

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Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut – Mike Mullane

Mike Mullane flew on three shuttle missions as a Mission Specialist. His autobiography is a frank portrayal of NASA and the Shuttle program through his eyes. It starts with a hilarious and eye-opening description of the astronaut selection process (I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes) and then takes the reader from Mullane’s childhood through his NASA career.

The book is not written for laughs, but there is a lot of humor involved in Mullane self-deprecating style. (Of course there are  serious moments as well, such as when dealing with the Challenger disaster.) The narrative reflects one man’s singularly obsessive passion for spaceflight, and what happened once he made his dreams come true. Mullane is open about his fears, but also about what drives men and women to crave spaceflight and torture themselves in order to achieve it. The book focuses in detailed fashion on many of the less glamorous, and less well-publicized, aspects of spaceflight, chief among them visits to the toilet but also what it is like to lie uncomfortably on your back for hours waiting for launch.

This book is a real treat and highly recommended even if you aren’t that interested in space travel.

 

A Man on the Moon – Andrew Chaikin

A simply magnificent portrayal of the Apollo program. Easily accessible even for the non-engineering inclined. Chaikin interviewed a whole host of people from engineers to administrators and of course the astronauts, thus managing to produce what many feel is the definitive account of NASA’s Moon program. A fascinating insight into what actually happened on the American side of the Moon race. Despite its heft it does not feel like a heavy read. The only caveat is that you might have to read it twice since it is packed with information and a bit much to digest in one go.