Monday, August 17, 2015

The earth gliding below

I read two space themed books during my travels to Texas. I enjoyed both of them.

The first was the novel The Martian by Andy Weir. A crew of six lands on Mars. Just a few days later a strong sandstorm prompts an end to their mission. But a freaky set of events strands one of them behind with the others thinking he is dead and the communication system damaged beyond repair. This lone human has a habitat and resources, but not enough to last until he could be rescued in two years. He handles each issue one at a time and soon things are looking pretty good.

It doesn't take much to figure out the guy will eventually be rescued. The author isn't going to kill him off, certainly not after resolving the first few issues, and especially not in the final chapters. That means much of the story is how many catastrophes can the author throw at our hero that the author has figured out how to get out of (I heard in an author interview there were other problems he wanted to torture his hero with, but couldn't get the survival numbers to work). And, of course, problems appear right up to the end.

Even though the ending was obvious it was fascinating to see how our hero worked through resolving each issue. He was quite ingenious! He was also quite the smart-aleck, so it was a lot funnier than I had expected.

The author self-published a Kindle version, which brought high praise from real astronauts (and a few detailed corrections). A book deal and movie deal appeared within the same week. I look forward to that movie.

The other book is the memoir Riding Rockets by astronaut Mike Mullane. He joined the ranks of astronauts as a Mission Specialist in 1978 just before the Shuttle flew. He went up in it three times before retiring in 1990. He talks a lot about how astronauts think – I don't want to do anything that might screw up another chance at a flight. He explains how that combined with NASA management contributed to the Challenger disaster in 1986. He describes what his flights were like for his faithful wife, who had to go through several scrubs for each launch and what an emotional toll that took.

A recurring theme is what he calls Planet Arrested Development. He grew up in a Catholic school which taught male privilege. He went into the Air Force (served in Vietnam), which reinforced male privilege. His arrival at NASA was the first time he had female colleagues. He and many of his male colleagues treated them as one might expect (one of his flights was nicknamed the Swine Flight). But in working with these women he discovered they were just as competent as he was. His opinion of women changed to the point he could lament his earlier actions.

My favorite parts of the book were his descriptions of the actual flights. And the best parts of those were when he floats to the windows and watches the earth glide by below him.

I get the Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine as a good source of news about space (I rarely read the articles about airplanes). It was a review in Air & Space that prompted me to buy this book. Over the last few years there have been articles about space tourism companies that are creating special planes that would take passengers above the atmosphere for a couple hours (to be ready Real Soon). I decided those aren't for me (that's beside the huge expense). I want more than bragging rights of being in space. If I ever get into space I want to be able to do what Mullane did – watch the earth glide by, and do it with high quality camera in hand. Two hours or one measly orbit isn't going to cut it. Alas, reading about the training Mullane had to go through and the continued hazards of such travel my likelihood of ever getting there is quite small (even if I could afford it). I'll have to rely on Mullane's glorious description.

No comments:

Post a Comment