On to the Asteroid (Space Excursions II) – Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

A billionaire industrialist launches an automated mission to an asteroid, aiming to redirect it into a Lunar orbit for future extraction of minerals. The propulsion system malfunctions before completing the redirection maneuver, and now the asteroid is heading for impact with Earth. A desperate repair mission is launched.

The story is excellent. High stakes, interesting technical solutions, lots of hardcore space action, and a high pace. Unfortunately, and just like the previous book, it is let down by atrocious dialogue and cardboard cutout characters. The dialogue is especially cringeworthy. I did enjoy it because despite these negatives, it is a great yarn, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a real space buff.

At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program – Milton O. Thompson

The X-15 program ran from 1959 to 1968, with three aircraft exploring high altitude and high-speed flight. The research program contributed a wide range of scientific advances that were instrumental in the development of the Space Shuttle and fly by wire control technology, among other things. The work of flying the X-15 was dangerous and exacting, leading to the death of one pilot and involving numerous emergencies. It remains to this date by far the fastest and highest-flying winged aircraft in history.

Mr. Thompson’s account is matter-of-fact, with few embellishments. (The author does note that he is not a writer.) While it retains a certain flatness of style throughout, the book is nonetheless fascinating for the aviation buff. These men, including a young Neil Armstrong, were exploring the unknown fringes of the flight envelope in an unforgiving aircraft, frequently referred to in the book as “The Bull”. While sometimes the text veers into catalogues of flights with their respective purposes, it is peppered with interesting and funny anecdotes, as well as edge-of-your-seat accounts of in-flight emergencies.

How Apollo Flew to the Moon – W. David Wood

A technical overview of the Apollo program, from hardware to missions, set at a level suitable for the interested layman. The author wisely starts discussions from first principles, from a basic explanation of orbits to the intricacies of stellar navigation.

The book is extremely well researched and clearly written. Mr. Wood has sprinkled the text with actual radio chatter and interviews with the protagonists. This elevates the chapters from a dry, textbook style discussion into something far more real.

A must read for any space program enthusiast.

Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space – John W. Young with James R. Hansen

John Young was undoubtedly the most experienced astronaut of NASA’s early era, active from the days of Gemini, through Apollo and the Space Shuttle. He walked on the Moon, commanded the first test flight of the Space Shuttle and didn’t retire from NASA until he was seventy-four. He was legendary for his soft-spoken demeanour, coolness under pressure and later in his career, for not being afraid to speak truth to power on issues of mission risk.

His memoir is laid out in a straightforward chronological fashion, starting with early life and following him throughout his career in the Navy and at NASA. While he is most well known for his missions, his time as head of the Astronaut Office and then as a sort of senior and independent safety inspector within NASA, make up large parts of the narrative. There is also ample space dedicated to the Challenger and Columbia accidents, with extensive technical detail.

For any NASA and space buff, the memoir is interesting reading. However, it is a bit of a slog. The style is quite dry and self-effacing, much as the man himself. Descriptions of missions mostly chronicle events without poetic embellishments. This is in stark contrast with, for example, the memoirs of Gene Cernan, Gene Krantz and Mike Mullane, which in their different ways speak much more passionately about the subject matter. The book feels long-winded in many parts, with sections which are just listing various mission achievements, seemingly for completeness’ sake. The most readable bits are where Mr. Young manages to convey his considerable technical expertise to illustrate an issue concisely, such as when he discusses his testimony before the Rogers Commission, investigating Challenger.

I strongly felt that more decisive editing could have made this a more readable book, but then again, I also felt that Mr. Young’s particular voice came through loud and clear.

Perigee – Patrick Chiles

Polaris Airlines runs the first fleet of suborbital passenger transports, brainchild of industrialist and owner Walt Hammond. Flight 501 is a private charter from Denver to Singapore. Due to a malfunction it becomes stranded in orbit.

This is good clean fun if you like aerospace and a thrilling story. The characters ring true, especially the pilots, engineers and operations staff at the airline. I did sometimes have a hard time telling minor characters apart, since Mr. Chiles’s world is almost exclusively populated by “ordinary white people” straight from Central Casting.

It falls over a bit on the technical details, which is unfortunate since in a technothriller like this the technical details are essential. The explanations are often lacking in the clarity needed for mainstream prose. There are also inconsistencies in the text which should have been caught in editing. For example, one paragraph will mention thin cirrus clouds and afternoon sun, then the next will speak of an aircraft “breaking out of the overcast.”

The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space – Eugene Cernan with Don Davis

On 14 December, 1973, Gene Cernan re-entered the Lunar Module Challenger after the third and final moonwalk of Apollo 17, the final Apollo Moon Mission. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s aspirations, first as a US Navy Pilot, then as an Astronaut. This is his story, told in his own words.

Mr. Cernan comes across as a straight talker with a rock-solid work ethic; a conservative in the traditional sense. When he wrote this memoir, he gave the impression of being long past any point where he needed to impress anyone.  His account is frank and does not mince words about anyone, including himself. While Cernan will never be remembered like Neil Armstrong, Apollo 17 had much more value from a scientific standpoint. It had the longest stay on the surface, the longest space walks, the longest distance traversed, the heaviest load of samples and the speed record for the lunar rover (unofficial).

A great book for any fan of the space race, or even flying in general.

In a sad coincidence, Mr. Cernan passed away on 16 January of this year, while I was in the middle of reading his book.

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.

3Rosbochs

Rescue Mode – Ben Bova & Les Johnson

RescueModeThe year is 2035, and the first manned mission to Mars is getting underway.
During the long transit, disaster strikes and our heroes must find a way to survive.

While the story itself is engaging in an adventure novel kind of way, the prose is not. Much of the dialogue feels written to explain things to the reader. It makes the characters look clueless about the systems and concepts they should be experts on. It is also rather corny most of the time.

The social sensibilities are very old fashioned. Males taking the lead and feeling protective about women even if those women are highly trained astronauts. The technology doesn’t feel very futuristic either. In a nutshell, the book is set in 2035, but feels like 2015, or maybe 1965.

3Rosbochs

The Martian – Andy Weir

TheMartianEarly on during the third mission to Mars, the crew has to leave prematurely during a storm. Mark Watney is hit by flying debris, specifically an antenna, and carried away from the others. The rest of the crew have no choice but to leave him behind. He is presumed dead due to his bio-monitor being disabled by the impact. But he’s not dead. And now he has to survive on Mars with no communications and limited resources until, somehow, he can be rescued.

From the very first page, I could not put this book down. It grabs the reader instantly and leads him on a long and arduous journey with Watney. Most of the book is written as log entries by Watney himself, and that’s what really makes it shine. “Watney’s” entries reflect his character, which is that of a wise-cracking, self-deprecating, profane, laugh-out-loud funny smartass who is forced to become MacGyver on a planet that, as he puts it, is constantly trying to kill him. Even chemistry becomes funny when written like this, and the almost flow of consciousness style allows frequent and often hilarious tangents. After a log entry about how he will need to use his botany skills and experiment supplies to grow food, the next day’s entry simply reads, “I wonder how the Cubs are doing”. This personal voice makes Watney feel like a real person, not a superhuman hero, and it makes the reader connect with him viscerally. I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed so often while reading a book, which is not bad considering that it is a story about a man who is an inch away from dying from the first page to the last.

5Rosbochs

 

 

 

Failure is not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond – Gene Krantz

Failure is not an Option - Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and BeyondThis non-fiction account of the NASA manned space programs from the early days of Mercury through the triumphs of Apollo was written by Gene Krantz, one of the original flight controllers in Mission Control, and probably the best known. While most accounts of the events focus on the astronauts and the spacecraft, Krantz naturally takes us into the world of Mission Control. It is a fascinating “behind the scenes” look at the people and equipment that led and supported the missions. While the astronauts got most of the glory, the truth is that Mission Control saved the day on many occasions.

This is by all accounts a geeky book. The material is often rather technical and having a prior understanding of some of the mechanics involved definitely helps. Just like the author and his former job, it is written with the precision and honesty that Krantz values.

Setting aside for a moment the spectacular achievements of the American space programs in the sixties, I was struck by Krant’s unabashed patriotism. He is a big fan of John Philip Sousa marches and feels great pride when listening to the national anthem. This is not the showy, hollow national love so prominent nowadays, but a true, deep connection. Krantz worked very hard to achieve great things, and he did it predominantly for his country. He gave to his country through blood, sweat and tears. His feelings are those characteristic of a generation past, one that did not show love of country by clicking “Like”, but actually by sacrificing. It smacks of an innocence lost in the late nineteen-sixties, when Americans stopped looking up to their politicians and when they stopped believing they could achieve great things. Krantz does indeed mention this himself in the epilogue. While reading, I found myself growing very fond of Krantz. He could by all accounts be tough as nails, but he feels an affection towards his colleagues that is very different from the empty corporate speak of many of today’s leaders. The world needs more people like Gene Krantz. People who dare to step up and doing the hard things because they feel that they need to be done.

On a side note, it was nice to see the footnotes in line with the text instead of at the end. On a Kindle, following a link to the footnotes is an annoyance.

4Rosbochs

Von Neumann’s War – John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor

In the beginning of this book, various professional and amateur astronomers notice that Mars is changing color. It is becoming slowly less red and more grey. Eventually, they figure out that it is being consumed by Von Neumann machines. For those who aren’t familiar, these are machines capable of replicating themselves. A team of Very Smart People in Huntsville, Alabama ends up developing the concepts for and leading the defense. If the location sounds familiar, it is the site of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Redstone Arsenal, some of the premier rocket design locations in the United States. The book starts fast, and gets faster, as a reconnaissance probe is sent to find out more about the Von Neumann “probes” and then these attack Earth. The “motivation” of the probes is interesting. They only kill as a side effect. Mostly they just grab anything metal, including dental braces, cars, metal eyelets out of shoes, dog tags and rebar out of buildings, to make more of themselves. The story focuses on the Very Smart People, and they are quite a fun bunch of rocket scientists.

This is what happens when you combine Ringo, known for fast moving prose and a twisted sense of humor, with Taylor, who can write one heck of a fast moving plot. Hold on tight! Just like in his other works, Taylor’s story creeps up on you. It starts very small and by the end the fate of the world is at stake and the action scenes crowd each other out on the page. The initial alien attack conveniently lands near Paris. I say conveniently because the US can act as the Last Citadel. I suspect it also gave our authors a chance to destroy France. This book is great fun, the science is fascinating and the main characters sound like a group of people I’d like to have a beer with.

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.

 

Titan – Stephen Baxter

Initially I thought this book was going to be rather upbeat, but the mood goes on a downward spiral towards the end. Humanity loses interest in space exploration completely. In fact the only thing to still progress is the search for shallow consumer happiness. NASA decides to go for one last hurrah and sends a one way expedition to Titan. As the years pass during the voyage, the small crew gets increasingly on each others nerves while listening from afar as humanity fades away to oblivion back on earth. The novel is powerful and moving, with there is a glimmer of hope in the end when those among us most suited for it, the voyagers and explorers, get to carry on the seed of humanity. Life goes on despite short-sighted humanity.

Red Thunder (Thunder and Lightning I) – John Varley

RedThunderFor some odd reason I had never read Varley, an author who was first published in 1977, before I picked up this book. After this experience, I realized my mistake. Red Thunder makes some rather preposterous assumptions in order to underpin a story. A decade or two from now, two lower class Florida youngsters dream of going to space. They and their girlfriends accidentally run into (actually run over) an ex astronaut who has fallen from grace. Said ex astronaut has a quasi autistic genius cousin who has accidentally invented an immensely efficient and cheap form of energy generation/propulsion. Seeing as the Chinese are on their way to being first to Mars and the American expedition will not only be second, but may well have an accident on the way, this motley crew builds a spaceship.

Appalled yet? Most authors would have made a hash of this and turned out unreadable drivel. But Varley concentrates on the people aspect. The whole thing becomes an excellent, funny and exciting coming of age story.

 

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void – Mary Roach

In this curious non-fiction volume, Mary Roach explores an aspect of space travel that is normally glossed over: the human inside the machine. She starts by explaining why engineers find humans the trickiest part of their spaceships, and goes on from there through impact experiments on cadavers, body odor research (really!), what happens to humans if they lie still for weeks on end, the horrors of space food, the even greater horrors of going to the potty in space and various other subjects.

If this sounds boring, think again. Not only is the subject matter surprising and fascinating, but Ms. Roach’s writing is infused with an extremely entertaining dry wit. Throughout her research and her many interviews with scientists, astronauts and even interns involved in space travel and its accessory activities, she seems to find the humor in every situation. To be fair, it is hard not to see the humor but she describes it so well. A couple of selected gems:

“Safeguarding a human for a multiaxis crash is not all that different from packing a vase for shipping. Since you don’t know which side the UPS guy’s going to drop it on, you need to stabilize it all around.”

“The staff played hot potato with my call until someone could locate the Person in Charge of Lying to the Press. The PCLP said that the room that houses the base archives is locked. And that only the curator would have a key. And that Holloman currently has no curator. Evidently the new curator’s first task would be to find a way to open the archives.”

I recommend this book even if you are not particularly interested in the space program. It is a great read about what it really takes to put people in space.

Back to the Moon (Space Excursions I) – Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

The story is set in the 2020s. NASA is finally returning to the Moon using the (now canceled) Orion/Altair hardware. Meanwhile, a private company is sending tourists around the Moon and the Chinese are up to something. The first mission back to the Moon turns in to a daring rescue.

I’m a big space program buff so I’m a sucker for this kind of book. The story itself is a decent adventure/thriller. The engineering is well described, as would be expected since Dr. Taylor works with NASA Huntsville and Les Johnson is a NASA physicist. Unfortunately the prose is quite stilted, especially during the first third. The characters are stereotypes, especially the Chinese. Unfortunately the Chinese are also the wrong stereotype. They feel like reruns of Cold War era Soviets with a dash of “Asian” thrown in. The story does pick up in the second half and there are some nice thrills for the space buff. If you aren’t interested in the space program particularly you should give this a pass. It isn’t a bad book per se but could have used an author with a smoother prose style.

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.

The Return – Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes

After the fantastic Encounter with Tiber, I was hoping that Aldrin and Barnes would pull off another great epic story. In this respect, I was sadly disappointed. The Return is still a good SciFi yarn. It’s a near space, near future story which fictionalizes what I assume to be Aldrin’s hopes for humanity’s return to serious space travel. Worth picking up if you’re into this sort of thing, but nothing very special.

Children of Apollo – Mark R. Whittington

In this alternate history novel, a CIA analyst figures out that by 1969, the space program is having a small but noticeable negative effect on he Soviet economy. Nixon, who never has to resign, decides to massively expand the space program. As the years pass, we follow spies, politicians and astronauts in the years following the first moon landing. While there certainly is a lot of wishful thinking in the plot, with Apollo missions continuing to 23, with private space stations and space shuttles in the seventies, it has a solid foundation. If NASA funding had remained at Apollo levels or increased, we might well have seen all those things.

This book, for me, represents the best and worst about self publishing. The best because sometimes good books simply are not picked up by publishing houses, and this one deserved to be published. The worst because a commercial publisher would have cleaned up the prose and made this book really shine.

The plot is really good. Well crafted. Exciting. Good pacing. But the text is rife with spelling and grammatical errors. I didn’t count them but I estimate more than one per page on average. Even a mediocre copy editor could have fixed 99% of the problems with the text. Now, if this book had been crappy in general, I wouldn’t have cared. But it is actually a great story. Thus, my frustration stems from the fact that a very good book is dragged down by easily fixable stuff, most of which a word processor would have picked up. That’s just plain sloppy.

Some examples of what I mean: Berkeley is incorrectly spelled “Berkly”. Camaro is spelled “Camero”. Taut is spelled “taunt”. Aide is spelled “Aid”. Applause is spelled “applauds”. Champagne is spelled “champaign”. Asti Spumante is spelled “Asti Spurmanti”. Las Cruces is spelled “Las Cruzus”. Alan Shepard (the astronaut) is spelled “Alan Shepherd”. To add insult to injury, the author does actually spell that name correctly once. Baikonour is spelled in three ways in the book, all incorrect. Grammar errors include phrases like “going to fight for if-no when-you send me to Congress.” Stylistically, there are gems like “They looked at each other in for a moment, sharing the awful truth they had just shared.”

Then we have the technical errors. I will grant that the author is not an aerospace expert but since the book is about the space program one would think he could get the basics right. Finding a pilot to answer a few questions would have greatly improved the test flight passages. Certainly no pilot would ever “jerk the joystick”. There’s no jerking involved. In fact no pilot would EVER call it a “joystick”. It’s just a stick. ARGH!

Finally, we have the politics. Whittington makes Democrats/liberals out to be misguided and short sighted while Republicans lead America to a brighter future. Even though I might not completely agree, I have no problem with the sentiment being expressed. However, it is all so heavy-handed that it weighs down the plot.

In conclusion. I would say that Mr. Whittington has some real talent. What he needs is a real editor to review the text before publication. Without the errors and with a few style adjustments, this one could have scored four or more Rosbochs.

Red Moon – David S. Michaels & Daniel Brenton

The plot of this story is set in 2019, with humans back on the Moon looking for fusion power fuel, and also in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, at the height of the Moon race. As things fall apart during a Moon mission in 2019, a NASA scientist must travel to Moscow to find out about a mysterious spacecraft found on the Moon. He uncovers a deep conspiracy about the Cold War Soviet space program. Back then, unknown cosmonaut Grigor Belinsky is maneuvered into taking on an unthinkable mission.

I freely admit that I am a sucker for the subject matter. Secret Moon missions? Blending fact and fiction about the Moon Race? Oh my! I just had to read this book. It delivered beyond my wildest expectations. Unlike the deeply disappointing “Children of Apollo“, another independent publication in the genre, “Red Moon” is masterfully crafted. The plot is intelligent and elegant beyond words and moves powerfully towards a breathless climax. Not since early Clancy novels have I read something with this kind of page-turning power combined with depth.

And the characters! Belinsky feels so alive, so real. He is a classic tragic hero, his inevitable fate sealed by his deep drive and desire to do the right thing in an evil world. The whole way Russians are described is so spot on, showing their poetic and melancholy side, their deeply emotional selves, in a way that few Western thrillers manage. What a book! It satisfies on many levels, with the sprinkling of culturally rooted mysticism, the slice-of-life vignettes from the 60s and the believable, three-dimensional characters lifting what could have been just a competent thriller into the realm of the sublime.

Voyage – Stephen Baxter

Definitely my favorite Baxter. Unlike most Baxter fare, there is no “big thinking”, no Xeelee, no looming destruction of the universe. It is, quite simply, a novel of what might have been (and very nearly was) if NASA had been allowed to continue in the footsteps of Apollo all the way to Mars. It is written in parallel perspectives, looking at the mission itself as it runs its course, and at the preparations, political wangling and engineering that precede it. The heroine, Natalie York, is followed closely as Baxter explores her long personal journey in parallel with the preparations, as it becomes clear to the reader (and to herself) just how much one has to sacrifice to become an astronaut. The quiet geologist becomes an astronaut and an unwilling hero as she reaches for the ultimate prize of both her professions. Despite being fiction, it is in my opinion one of the best portrayals of the culture and politics of NASA during the Apollo and post-Apollo era.

Baxter did in fact apply to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, he was required to speak a foreign language and thus failed to get in. In Voyage, his love of astronautics and space exploration clearly shows. If you liked the movie Apollo 13, you will enjoy this book.