Astronaut Walli Beckwith is conducting an experiment on the International Space Station when an imminent collision leads to an evacuation order. Walli, however, refuses to leave, for reasons unknown to her two crewmates. As they return to Earth, she remains as the sole occupant on a damaged station. Meanwhile, in the Amazon, her niece is conducting aid work in response to a humanitarian crisis. The Brasilian government is ruthlessly chasing native populations from their lands in order to make space for industrial farming and deforestation. The Amazon is on fire.
The plot soon evolves into a very competent action-thriller. Most impressively, Mr. Kluger does not take any drastic shortcuts on realism; events are solidly underpinned by existing science and technology. The characters do feel a bit flat, unfortunately, but this is a page-turner nonetheless.
In an alternate history, the Apollo program flies one more mission, the all-military Apollo 18. At the last minute, the mission parameters change as the Soviet Union launches a spy space station equipped with cameras capable of unprecedented resolution. The astronauts are tasked with disabling it before departing Earth orbit for the Moon.
This is a technothriller with a solid grounding in the technology of the time. The technical details are accurate, hardly surprising as the author is a former astronaut. The plot itself is rather far-fetched, but plausible, and exciting in itself, especially for the space exploration buff. Unfortunately, the plot is often bogged down with overly complex sequences of events as one or another character seeks an advantage or makes a complicated plan. The characters themselves, a mixture of historical figures and fictional ones, are not very nuanced, and sometimes relationship events seem to be created purely without much story purpose. For example, the protagonist’s romance with one of the scientists seems tacked on unnecessarily.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Chris 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.
The 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 veryÂ 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.
Early 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.
This 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.
Subtitled “The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must”, this is non-fiction detailing how and why man should colonize Mars. Zubrin is a rocket scientist and the founder of the Mars Society, and thus knows what he is talking about.
Two of the Mercury Seven astronauts tell the story of America’s race to the moon. Interesting if you are into the space program. It is a decent read, but Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon is a much better chronicle of the events.
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.
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.
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.
For 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.
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 donâ€™t know which side the UPS guyâ€™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 curatorâ€™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.
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 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.
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.