Frontier – Patrick Chiles

Humanity’s presence in space is expanding, and with it come geopolitical interests. The United States spaceship Borman is dispatched to assist two billionaire explorers with whom contact has been lost. Meanwhile, a vast conspiracy to disable space assets is unfolding. As the Borman herself runs into trouble, the People’s Republic of China enters the fray.

As in the earlier Farside set in the same universe, Mr. Chiles expands the scope of the story beyond a mere rescue mission into a technothriller set in space. The protagonists are easy to root for, though they fall into stereotypes rather too readily. The Chinese crew members are almost laughable cardboard cutouts. The story is well crafted, with a good pace apart from an excess of expository dialogue in the first half, and the political tensions eminently plausible.

Delta-V – Daniel Suarez

Extreme cave diver James Tighe has just returned from an accident-plagued expedition when he is invited to an interview with eccentric billionaire Nathan Joyce. The latter is planning a mining expedition to an asteroid, and is recruiting suitable candidates. A rigorous selection process follows. The expedition is shrouded in secrecy, with layer within layer of intrigue at every step.

The novel is solid near-future science fiction, elevated beyond the pure adventure aspects by an intricate, if somewhat implausible, technothriller foundation. It seems somewhat beyond belief that thousands of people could keep such a large project a secret for so long, especially given the money involved. The space travel aspects are well developed and quite plausible. The inclusion of secondary characters based on NewSpace luminaries such as Musk, Bezos, Branson and Bigelow is rather entertaining and provides a connection to what, in the real world, is shaping up to be a fierce competition for the space economy. The protagonists themselves, unfortunately, are not very well rounded, down to their stereotypical backstories. That being said, they are easy to root for, throughout their tragedies and triumphs.

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.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate – Becky Chambers

Ariadne and her three crewmates wake at a distant star system after years of transit in slumber aboard the starship Merian. Their multi-year exploration and survey mission takes them to different worlds in the system, each with its individual features and biome. They have dedicated their lives to this mission, for when they return to Earth they will be decades older, and over seventy years will have passed back home. They are a family of sorts, with intermeshing sexual relationships and a strong bond in their motivations. Some time into their mission, news updates from Earth stop arriving. As they are left in limbo, Ariadne and the others must more carefully examine the ethics and significance of not only the mission itself, but also of humanity’s place in the Universe.

Written in Ms. Chambers’s by now trademark gorgeous contemplative prose, the plot is acted out as much in Ariadne’s inner dialogue as in actual action. The drama is intimate, personal, and thoughtful, making the ending that much more poignant. The characters are likeable, pleasant, and very human in their different ways. The lack of interpersonal strife is an interesting narrative challenge, which the author handles with seeming ease. A delightful read.

Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX – Eric Berger

Given unprecedented access to the current and former employees of SpaceX, including Elon Musk, Mr. Berger of Ars Technica tells the story of the first years of SpaceX. The company was a maverick startup that few people in the industry took seriously. A team of scrappy engineers taking on seemingly impossible challenges, unhampered by the bureacratic trappings of established companies. If you needed something done, you did it. If you needed a piece of kit, you bought it. In classic Silicon Valley fashion, Elon Musk hired people he trusted to work hard and get things done, and then let them get on with it, supporting them as needed. Certainly, there were clashes, and setbacks, and mistakes, but the job did indeed get done, and how!

Even knowing much of the story beforehand, reading about the hardships of the early days was fascinating. Reading the words of those actually involved in working insane hours, overcoming monumental challenges, and suffering through long months far from home at the remote Pacific atoll of Kwajalein, makes the story come to life. I had no idea of exactly how tough conditions were, and how many hair-raising situations were dealt with. The fact that SpaceX survived those early years, and went on to become the industry leader it is today, is a testament to power of ideas, and how motivated people can make the seemingly impossible happen.

Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson

Over a hundred and fifty years into their voyage, the inhabitants of a generation starship are only a decade out from the Tau Ceti star system. Despite the massive size of the ship, delicate ecological cycles have been slowly deteriorating over the decades. After arrival, more serious problems crop up with the colonisation effort. The issues are so severe that the colonists are faced with deciding whether to stay, or attempt a return to Earth. Both options are fraught with risk.

While the novel ostensibly chronicles the life of a single inhabitant, Freya, it is also fair to say that the AI running the ship is as much a protagonist. Ship, as it prefers to call itself (or is it themselves) develops over time under the ministrations of Freya’s mother Devi, and much of the novel deals with the emergence of its consciousness. Indeed, many pages are spent debating the nature of consciousness and sentience. Is Ship truly sentient? Can a purportedly sentient being even know if it is sentient?

A lot of time is also spent on the suitability attempting to colonise other star systems, or even other planets in the Solar System. Mr. Robinson’s ultimate answer to this question is rather surprising, but hopeful in its own way.

The narrative feels somewhat impersonal, as if the reader is kept at a distance from the protagonist and even the action. This seems to be a conscious choice on the part of Mr. Robinson, given that the story is told in the voice of Ship itself, even as Ship’s understanding of language and humans develops. An interesting narrative device, and finely implemented.

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.

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.

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.