Tag Archives: space

Beyond

If you know me or have followed my blog for a while, you know that I am a big space enthusiast and I love reading the latest biographies and histories surrounding it. So when I saw that I could get an early copy of Stephen Walker’s Beyond: The Astonishing Journey of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space (what a title) I naturally snagged it pretty quickly.

I’ve read a lot about the early years of the U.S. space program, from NACA to NASA, but never much about the USSR program, except for bits and pieces. So to have a whole book mainly dedicated to looking at the Russian side was thoroughly interesting.

Russia only publicized their “space spectaculars” after missions had been successful, which covered their program in a shroud of secrecy during the 1960s, and even beyond. But though no one knew what they were doing, they were as active as the U.S. in training their cosmonauts and preparing the way for manned space flight. Yuri Gagarin, who would eventually be the first man in space, was one of six top cosmonaut hopefuls (eventually whittled down to three in the running for the first flight) who went through a training regimen equally as brutal as the one the U.S. put its astronauts through.

Walker’s book touches on some biography details of Gagarin’s life, but mainly focuses on the progress of the Russian program, similar to other books that chronicle the U.S. program. Where possible, Walker spoke with eye witnesses and descendants of key figures. Other information, finally declassified by the Russian government, was drawn from documents and archives.

Though I would have expected more biography on Gagarin, given the subtitle of the book, I was still very interested to read about the development of the Russian program and learn the names behind some of the men who made it happen.

And even though I knew what would happen (it’s history, after all), Walker did an excellent job putting the reader in the thick of the suspense of Gagarin’s first flight, creating a page-turner as readers breathlessly wait to see if Gagarin’s flight went as smoothly as we were always led to believe.

For history buffs and space enthusiasts, Beyond is a different take on the space race and one that is very worth the time to read.

Contact

As I’ve said before, I’m always on the hunt for a good science fiction book to fill that strange void that’s been left by my favorite movies and shows. And so, when I saw Contact by Carl Sagan when browsing one of my 10 for $1 book sales (I’ll miss those), I went ahead and grabbed it.

Contact follows the life of Ellie Arroway, a radio astronomer who spends her life looking for some sign that there is life beyond earth. When her radio telescopes finally pick up a transmission coming from the star Vega, she, along with her whole team, are launched into action to decipher the message. Once deciphered, they discover the blueprints to some sort of machine, which they build without knowing what it will do. Ellie is selected as one of the five scientists to crew the machine, for whatever kind of journey it takes. What she finds is that she must now balance science and faith in ways she’s never had to before.

I had such high hopes for this book, but I’ve gotta admit that it fell pretty flat. The book took so long to get going. Though moments of action are sprinkled throughout the book, the majority of it felt like filler, and not even particularly good filler. And I didn’t really care for the science vs. religion theme, even though I know it’s realistic. I will say, it didn’t end up being as prevalent throughout the book as I expected from the beginning.

Perhaps it’s that it has been so long since the book was written that it’s just not revolutionary or fantastic enough, in terms of science fiction. Or maybe I’m just picky even though I don’t quite know what I’m after. All I know is, the book was slow and didn’t grab me the way I expected it to. And as an avid reader of astronomy/astrophysics books (when I get my hands on them), I know it’s not because of the heavy science contained within the book.

What I can say is that Sagan’s writing is clean and comprehensive. I’d be really interested in reading some of his scientific writings. And perhaps if he wrote another novel, I’d find it much more engaging.

Endurance

Seriously, sometimes I think I majored in the wrong thing. From a young age, I remember always thinking it would be cool to be an astronaut. For now, though, I’ll just live vicariously through their biographies.

I was excited to see an advanced copy of Scott Kelly’s biography, Endurance A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery. It took me only a couple days to read through it.

Like many astronauts, Kelly got his start as a military test pilot, though the road to test pilot was anything but easy. Kelly had a rough time focusing in school, which meant his grades were anything but stellar. Kelly reflects on how Tom Wolfe’s book, The Right Stuff, was crucial in inspiring him to put his mind to the task of doing well in school so he could reach his ultimate goal of becoming an astronaut.

Once part of NASA, Kelly’s main desire was to fly shuttle missions as the pilot or the commander. Once he’d had a taste of long duration space missions, however, he realized they weren’t so bad either. Kelly’s career culmination was a year-long mission on the International Space Station during 2015-2016. The mission’s main objective was to see how the human body reacts to such a long time in space. Kelly was also able to contribute uniquely to the study because his identical twin brother, also an astronaut, stayed behind on Earth, which meant NASA could compare and contrast data.

The story is told alternately between chapters talking about Kelly’s past–everything from childhood to college to early days at NASA–and chapters talking about Kelly’s year-long mission on the ISS. While it’s a little different technique, instead of starting at the beginning and working to the end, I think it works in Kelly’s case because many people reading his biography will remember the mission, and be anxious to get those behind the scenes glimpses. I think the mixture will inspire people who might otherwise skip to the end to read the whole book.

Kelly is able to write about real danger and emergencies, and write about real tragedies, in a way that captures, I think, the attitude behind so many astronauts, that despite the dangers, the payoff is worth it.

All in all, it was an excellent read. Not too technical and not over-dramatized, Endurance reads like a sit down chat where Kelly tells you his life story, and you’re anxious to catch every word. When this book hits stores in mid-October, whether you love biographies, science, space, or just real-life adventure, this is one book you should make sure not to miss.

The Return

When I saw that Buzz Aldrin had written (or co-written, at least John Barnes authored the book also) a sci-fi book, I couldn’t pass it up.

The Return was written and set in the 2000s. It follows the lives of four people who are inextricably linked. Kids together, Scott, Nick, Thalia and Eddie called themselves the Mars Four and dreamed of going there after growing up in the ’60s. In their adult lives, each one has been individually working toward commercial space travel.

When a routine mission goes fatally wrong, it’s just the beginning of a chain of events that make it seem like someone wants to keep the everyday folks out of space. A bomb set off in the upper atmosphere, putting the crew of the International Space Station in deadly danger, and now only the Mars Four and their individual expertise can save the crew.

The Return is all adventure and action, with a dash of nostalgia. And as it’s written by someone who’s been there, it actually does not read like sci-fi, but more like a fiction book. This isn’t Star Trek or Star Wars, this book reads like something that could happen today, with no magic high-tech gadgets required.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and not just because I love just about anything associated with space. It was fun, the characters felt real and relatable. It had action and intrigue. It was about everything you’d want in a book. Plus, when they did talk about science, it was explained clearly, no fancy jargon and complicated terms, just plain English.

The Return is, however, one of those books that just might turn you into a believer again. Surely the technology is out there, both for commercial space travel and, eventually, for Mars. Some people already firmly believe in that future and are working toward it. After reading this book, you might find a bit of that passion has rubbed off on you too. And even if you’re not signing up for a Mars mission, you might find that you hope we have enough people around who will.