Archive for the ‘Space Shuttle’ Category

Packing for Mars, Mary Roach

July 15, 2011

Having heard several approving reviews of Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, subtitled “The Curious Science of Life in the Void”, I had expected to like the book. The subject matter – a look at the “less publicised” elements of space travel – also sounded as though it would appeal. Of course, I have been there before: reading a popular, and populist, book on the Space Race and finding it a poor read. That book was Moon Shot by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton – see here.

I soon found myself thinking the same of Packing for Mars.

The “curious science” alluded to in the title is, basically, all those delicate subjects NASA and the like are reluctant to discuss openly: fear, sex, urination and defecation, vomiting, food, etc. Packing for Mars discusses its topics with a combination of cited documents and anecdotes (though it’s careful to label and attribute the latter). Unfortunately, some of the facts are just wrong. The first Briton in space was Helen Sharman not “Helen Sherman” (p 47). The “world’s first rocket” was not built by the Nazis (p 87) – as any half-decent book on rocketry will confirm. And as for this: “‘When technical perfection of the steam engine made the development of railways possible, scientists were afraid that the velocity of the trains would exert harmful effects upon the human passengers.’ The quote comes from an aviation medicine text published in 1943. (Locomotives at that time could not exceed fifteen miles per hour.)” (p 94). At first pass, that reads as though trains could not exceed 15 mph in 1943. Which is complete rubbish – the world speed record for steam trains, 125.88 mph, was set by Mallard in 1938. I believe Roach actually means that when railways were first built, the trains were limited to 15 mph. But even that is not true – the first successful railway line in the world was the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which opened in 1825. In 1829, Stephenson’s Rocket set a speed record of 29 mph.

Perhaps that’s being too picky – although I see little point in a non-fiction work that gets its facts wrong. True, Roach does seem less concerned with background facts than she does in presenting amusing stories relating to the book’s topics. There are, for example, several passages quoted from astronauts’ autobiographies and the Apollo transcripts, describing incidents such as floating turds in the Apollo CM, leaking or ill-fitted urine-collection condoms during Gemini missions, or astronauts having trouble keeping down the contents of their stomachs.

None of which is to say that Packing for Mars is an entirely uninteresting read. There is perhaps a somewhat negative tone, since the book focuses chiefly on failures and embarrassments. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make the astronauts and scientists appear more human, it actually feels as if the book is trivialising their achievements. Admittedly, Packing for Mars is, as suggested by its title, chiefly concerned with the difficulties associated with a mission to Mars, and the incidents it reports are used as illustrations in support of that thesis. Unfortunately, those difficulties as presented appear unsurmountable, which only further cheapens any existing achievements in space and space-related activities.

It doesn’t help that the entire book is written in a style which attempts to make a joke of everything. It is possible to talk about toilets and faeces without giggles, though Roach seems incapable of doing so. Sadly, the humour in Packing for Mars is mostly sophomoric, especially in the footnotes. This has the side-effect of giving the prose a patronising tone, and this works against Roach’s arguments. (A tendency to explain things the reader should all ready know, also adds to the patronising tone.)

Perhaps it’s just me, perhaps I’m not the right audience for a populist science book on this topic. I find the jocular tone and the breezy style of such books annoying. It undermines their authority – and, as a reader, I want to be certain that what I am reading is factual. I want to learn something new, not something incorrect or inaccurate. I need to be confident the author is an expert in the topic under discussion – even if that expertise is only the product of research or interviews. Otherwise, it might as well be fiction.

Packing for Mars could have been so much more – a serious study of the hurdles facing a crew travelling to Mars, for example. Instead, it’s an overly flippant commentary on some of the factors affecting such a mission. Disappointing.

Packing for Mars, Mary Roach (2010, WW Norton & Company, ISBN 978-0-393-06847-4, 318pp + acknowledgments, time line and bibliography)

The Space Age is not over

July 9, 2011

As I write this, the last Space Shuttle, Atlantis, is on her final mission to the ISS. Once she returns, she will be decommissioned and then put on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. She will be a museum piece.

To be fair, the Space Shuttles were pretty much museum pieces all ready. Their design was the result of a series of bad compromises, and the technology on which they are based is forty years old. And they proved considerably more expensive to operate than had been estimated – in 1972, NASA director James Fletcher promised a per launch cost of $50 million (around $250 million in 2011 dollars), but the actual cost was closer to $450 million per launch.

Yes, the Space Shuttle was an amazing feat of engineering, but it was a far from ideal spacecraft. We saw that with both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. It was a hideously complex machine – perhaps overly so – and never met any of the promises made of it by NASA when it was proposed.

I’ve seen numerous complaints online that “the Space Age is now over”, or that people will no longer have the opportunity to fly in space. Er, no. The Space Age wasn’t over when Apollo finished – and there was a six-year gap between ASTP and the first Shuttle launch. And people’s chances of flying in space now are much the same as they were when the Shuttle was flying – almost close to zero. Unless they happen to have a handy $35 million to buy a seat on Soyuz.

So, please, no more nonsense about the sky falling on everyone’s heads because the Shuttle will no longer be flying. The US has lost a very visible, but not especially effective, means of getting astronauts into orbit. Within a couple of years, either SpaceX’s Dragon capsule will be in operation, or NASA’s MPCV will be. Until then, astronauts will still be visiting the ISS. They will simply be doing so on Soyuz – as many all ready have been doing.

Meanwhile, NASA no longer has to spend billions keeping the Shuttle flying. Their budget has all ready been slashed, but at least now they’ll be able to redefine themselves as more than simply an organisation that supports Shuttle operations. It could even be argued that if the Shuttle had not existed, NASA might well by now have returned to the Moon, or visited a nearby asteroid, or perhaps even sent astronauts to Mars… Admittedly, the ISS would not exist in its present form. But at least we would not be have been trapped in Low Earth Orbit for the past forty years.

So no, the Space Age is not over. On the contrary, it may be about to begin properly after a thirty-year hiatus…

Happy Gagarin Day

April 12, 2011

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin‘s historic flight. On 12 April 1961, aboard Vostok 1, Gagarin became the first human being in space. He madeone orbit of the Earth, in one hour and forty-eight minutes. In order to claim the FAI world record, the pilot has to be in the spacecraft when it lands, but Gagarin actually ejected seven kilometres above the ground and descended by parachute. This only came to light after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It does not not in any way invalidate Gagarin’s achievement.

Today is also the thirtieth anniverary of the launch of Columbia, the first Space Shuttle to reach orbit. Sadly, Columbia was lost on 1 February 2003 when it broke up on re-entry after sixteen days in orbit, killing all seven of its crew.

Gagarin’s flight ushered in over a decade of astonishing achievements in space, by both Soviet cosmonauts and US astronauts. The Apollo Moon landings were, of course, the pinnacle. The Space Shuttle programme – with a design resulting from a series of unwise compromises – never made travel to orbit as routine as NASA had hoped, but after two decades of political vacillation it did finally gives us the International Space Station. It could also be argued that the Shuttle has restricted humanity to Earth orbit for the foreseeable future. The rest of the Solar system, the really exciting missions, now belongs to robots. And now the Shuttle is to be retired. Only two are still flying, and both will be decommissioned later this year.

It would be a shame if the achievements of the last fifty years in crewed space travel were to prove an historical aberration. Yuri Gagarin led the way, and each year we should honour that by doing more in space, by putting into effect plans to take us beyond the Moon, out to where the future of our race truly lies.

Reflections From Earth Orbit, Winston E Scott

March 1, 2011

Perhaps one day an astronaut’s job will be so ordinary that no one will think to write a book about what they might have done. Sadly, that day is yet some distance away and, now that the Space Shuttle is on the verge of retirement, likely to move further away. So, for the time-being, astronaut is still a remarkable career, and there is a ready market for books on the topic. As astronauts go, Winston E Scott (Captain USN, retired) is not especially noteworthy. He was not the first to fly anywhere, or set foot anywhere; nor did he perform any astonishing feat of bravery in space. He holds no records; in fact, he spent just over 24 days in orbit.

But still, he was an astronaut. He went into space.

Scott was born in Florida in 1950, went to one of the first integrated schools in the state, and studied for a degree in music at Florida State University. On graduation, he joined the US Navy and became a naval aviator, flying Kaman SH-2F Seasprite helicopters and then Grumman F-14 Tomcats. He then became a production test pilot, was awarded a masters in aeronautical engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School in 1980, and was selected by NASA for the astronaut corps in 1992. He flew two missions aboard the Shuttle as mission specialist: STS-72 (January 1996) and STS-87 (December 1997). The latter mission is notable as the capture of the Spartan satellite did not go as planned and Scott and Doi, the other mission specialist, had to EVA to perform it manually.

Scott’s autobiography, Reflections from Earth Orbit, is a slim book of 128 pages. It is also copiously illustrated with photographs. He opens with his first flight at the USN’s Aviation Officer Candidates School, and his fear of failing it. Of course, he passes. Scott then writes about his childhood, his years at school (where a teacher had a large positive effect on him), and the years at college. The rest of Scott’s career is interleaved with the events of his Shuttle missions – how he felt during his first launch, what it feels like in orbit, and so on. Scott’s voice is cheery and readable, and he succeeds in giving the reader a good idea of what it was actually like on those two missions. He’s also good with detail – many of which are fascinating, and all of which demonstrate he knows what he’s writing about.

There is very little self-aggrandisement present in Reflections from Earth Orbit, unlike in, say, the autobiography of an Apollo astronaut (Michael Collins excepted). This is hardly unexpected – the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes recruited men of a specific type. They had, as Tom Wolfe put it, the “Right Stuff”. Twenty-five years later and those qualities were less important in the astronaut corps, and might perhaps have even been considered undesirable. Astronauts such as Scott were professional engineers and pilots, they just happened to work in an unusual environment. And then, of course, there was the commute…

Reflections from Earth Orbit is a readable account of one astronaut’s career. It amply demonstrates how much the job of astronaut has changed since the heady days of Apollo.

Reflections from Earth Orbit, Winston E Scott (2005, Apogee Books, ISBN 1-894959-22-1, 128 pp)