Endurance, by Scott Kelly

… most problems aren’t rocket science, but when they are rocket science, you should ask a rocket scientist (Scott Kelly, Endurance)

endurance.pngThe first thing I want to say is that Scott Kelly’s book Endurance is probably the most informative book I’ve read about the present day space program, and one of the best books of any type that I’ve read in a long time.

Kelly’s account of his year on board the International Space Station (ISS) is fresh, and authentic, a significant contrast to the staged presentations that can be viewed from time to time when the Station crew interact with the public from space.

Starting out as a disengaged school student who hated study, Kelly’s life changed after reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Inspired by that book, Kelly became determined to be a test pilot and then an astronaut. He needed to force himself to become a more engaged student to make sure the path he wanted to take would be open to him.

While most of the book is about Kelly’s record breaking stay on the ISS, in occasional chapters he also writes about the life journey he took to get there. From school days, through his military service and eventually his career with NASA.

Kelly’s identical twin brother Mark also became an astronaut, and Scott’s year in space gave NASA a unique opportunity to observe the effects of long-term space travel, enabling comparisons to be made between the genetically identical brothers to see what effect a year in space would have, and whether it would lead to any genetic changes.

43While aboard the Station, Kelly had numerous crewmates from a variety of backgrounds: Russian, Italian, Japanese, and British, living and working well with them all.
Daily life could be a challenge. He had regular struggles with the temperamental apparatus that removed carbon dioxide from the ISS atmosphere, and he started to recognise when it was malfunctioning by the symptoms he experienced whenever the CO2 level was high.

exp44

There were also occasional problems with the toilet facilities, which was not only an obvious inconvenience, but seriously compromised the reclamation of water in what was intended to be a closed water recycling system. All water, including urine and airborne moisture from perspiration is supposed to be purified and recycled as drinking water.
A saying I’ve come across a few times (though not in Kelly’s book) is the phrase “todays coffee becomes tomorrows coffee”.

The difficulties faced weren’t all technical. Having no means of laundering clothes, crew members were required to remain in the same clothing for as long as they could tolerate it, wearing underclothes for several days before throwing them in the garbage. Outer clothing was worn much longer.

exp45It might seem a strange comparison, but reading this book brought to mind The Wizard of Oz. While the business of space may have a certain “magic” to someone like me who grew up during the beginnings of the space program, Kelly’s book takes us behind the wizard’s curtain. Apart from problems with malfunctioning toilets and carbon dioxide scrubbers (and lack of laundering and bathing facilities),  Kelly’s space walks revealed the damage caused by micro-meteors to the exterior of the ISS, with serious pitting to the surface. Damage that would have fatal consequences to an astronaut  should it happen during an excursion outside.

46While there have been countless amazing scientific and engineering achievements, at times the space program isn’t always as controlled and organised as the space agencies may like the public to think. So much relies on chance – such as the unexpected appearance of an old satellite  in the same orbit but in heading in the opposite direction to the ISS, presenting the imminent possibility of a catastrophic collision.

But even facing such a serious threat, appearances clearly needed to be maintained. Emergency procedures were interrupted for a scheduled PR link-up requiring astronauts to face an interview with an earth based group about more trivial topics. Then after the interview they continued the urgent preparations and  sought sanctuary in the station’s Soyuz capsule in case an emergency evacuation was required.

As his time on Station came to a close Kelly started to think about some of the things he missed – and he provides a quite moving list of very mundane experiences that most of us would take for granted, but to someone deprived of them for a year they have significance.

…I miss the sound of children playing, which always sounds the same no matter their language. I miss the sound of people talking and laughing in another room. I miss rooms. I miss doors and door frames and the creak of wood floorboards when people walk around in old buildings. I miss my couch, sitting on a chair, sitting on a bar stool…

One of the common experiences of those who spend time away from earth, viewing it from above, is the awareness of its fragility, and the lack of visible borders.

At one stage Kelly was interviewed by an American politician who seemed to be concerned about him sharing the ISS with a crew of Russians – as if their interaction could compromise US national security, or other American interests. Kelly was quick to point out that all of the ISS residents, no matter what their national origin relied on each other for their very lives, and would do whatever it takes to ensure each other’s welfare.

To those aboard ISS, maintaining the well-being and life of the crew was more important than political posturing.

… following the news from space can make Earth seem like a swirl of chaos and conflict, and that seeing the environmental degradation caused by humans is heartbreaking. I’ve also learned that our planet is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and that we’re lucky to have it. (Scott Kelly, Endurance)

Apollo, Shuttle and ISS

nasa-patch.jpg

moondustAndrew Smith was interviewing Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke when word came through that Pete Conrad, the third man on the moon, had been killed in a motorcycle accident.

Smith set himself the challenge of interviewing the surviving moon-walkers to get their insight into the privileged experience so few men had.

The book is part biography, part road trip and part nostalgia, as Smith records his attempts to meet and speak to a variety of men, some of whom had always been reluctant to speak to the media.

As someone who had grown up with the space race, Smith’s quest is never an exercise of mere reportage. To him (and to me – a man of similar vintage) it is also one of personal reminiscence, but it is much more than a revisiting of the familiar.

It was through this book that I first found out that Apollo 12 had found life on the moon. Part of their mission was the recovery of parts from a Surveyor unmanned space craft that NASA had previously landed on the lunar surface. The recovered part was found to have a surviving colony of micro-organisms on it, possibly deposited by a sneezing earthbound technician preparing Surveyor for its lunar journey.

Smith also suggests that, despite the historical achievement, the rush to beat the Russians to the moon may have been detrimental to the US space program, leading to the development of a throw-away, one-purpose technology at the expense of developing a more sustainable approach to space exploration. The ongoing viability of the  later space shuttle program may also have been compromised in a similar way, as will be mentioned later.

*

high callingOn February 1st 2003, space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, killing all seven crew members. Rick Husband was the commander of the mission. A book about the investigation into this accident is the subject of an earlier post on this blog.

Evelyn Husband and their children, were waiting for Rick’s return at the Kennedy Space Centre, and it was clear that something was wrong when the clock counting down the time until the shuttle’s return, passed zero and started to count upwards.

She wrote High Calling only months after she lost her husband.
It is the story of Rick’s desire to become an astronaut, the difficulties he faced trying to be accepted into NASA’s space program, and the Christian faith motivating him, no matter what the career outcomes.

Rick Husband seems to have been a well-liked team leader of a very close-knit crew. Their bond strengthened by the extra time together caused by launch date delays. Husband’s STS-107 mission was leap-frogged by several other missions, their launch finally coming after STS-113.

The flight had added significance with the first Israeli astronaut being part of the crew, increasing security concerns prior to launch.

It’s a challenging book on many levels, potentially raising questions about God, faith in Him, and the value of prayer. “Why (or how) could God allow such a thing to happen to a crew headed by a devoted Christian?”

Rick Husband faced life with a favoured bible reference  in mind.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”  (Proverbs 3:5-6)

*

BoldThis is one volume of the Outward Odyssey: A People’s History of Spaceflight series. I think there are at least 18 different titles in the series.
Bold They Rise covers the space shuttle program from its beginnings through to the Challenger tragedy.

The authors write about the development of the shuttle and most of the missions within that time period.

The development of the shuttle was hampered by shortsighted political considerations and the ensuing design compromises that were made to ensure funding.

The shuttle’s design was much larger and bulkier than was necessary, mainly to obtain military dollars. Those design compromises were supposedly needed to make assumed military use of the shuttle practicable. However, it also meant a higher per-flight cost on all missions because of added bulk and weight.
Ultimately the shuttle was never used for the type of military flights for which those expensive

The book gives details of most mission personnel and objectives, with nothing too technical to baffle the average reader. The authors relied a lot on archived, recorded reminiscences of astronauts involved in those missions and I particularly enjoyed those memories and anecdotes of the astronauts involved.

*

9780099513247

Bold They Rise ended with the Challenger tragedy.

At the heart of Too Far From Home is the later loss of the space shuttle Columbia, commanded by Rick Husband whose story is told in High Calling .

This book is about one of the consequences of Columbia’s loss and the inevitable, temporary halt to the shuttle program.

Three men, two Americans and one Russian, had been living on the International Space Station and were intended to be returned to earth by shuttle in March 2003. Donald Pettit, Kenneth Bowersox and Nikolai Budarin were the crew of ISS expedition 6.

Exp 6

Expedition 6 crew

The Columbia incident left them stranded, extending their stay indefinitely.

Written with the co-operation of the Astronauts and wives involved, the book not only delves into the experience of life aboard the partly built ISS, when there was no idea of how or when they would come home, but also the effect on families at home.

The solution finally chosen had  no guarantee it would work, and when things didn’t go according to expectations, the astronauts’ wives got a taste of what it was like for those waiting for the return of loved-ones on Columbia. Fortunately without the permanence.

Their “escape” from the ISS via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft could have led to a public (and political) loss of appetite for manned, American space travel if there had been another disaster immediately after the shuttle loss.

However,  the mostly successful use of the Soyuz had long term benefits that continue into the present, eight years after the ending of the space shuttle program. Since that time all manned travel to and from the ISS has been courtesy of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

roscosmos.jpg

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus

Re-blogged from my Onesimus Files blog. Please click on “view original post” to access complete article.

Onesimus Files

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus is the testimony of former Muslim, Nabeel Qureshi.

I’d come across Qureshi several times over the past year or two, mainly seeing that he had some YouTube videos. For some reason I didn’t pay any attention to him or his videos when I was looking for testimonies of Muslims turning the Jesus.

seeking findingThe book is excellent. It covers his early life growing up as a Muslim, his attempts to prove the truth of Islam to a Christian friend, and then how his own studies led him to consider the truth of Jesus.

He faced a difficult struggle before he could finally turn away from his life-long religion to embrace and accept the gospel, but God was patient and revealed Himself to Qureshi, over time.

I don’t think I’ve come across anyone else’s testimony in which they spent years of diligently searching and studying everything they could to…

View original post 304 more words

Royal by Robert Lacey

royalI recently saw the TV series The Crown, a fictionalised, behind the scenes view of the British royal family based on real historical events.

I’ve had Robert Lacey’s Royal for over ten years but hadn’t read it until now, when I wanted to see how close the TV series came to depicting real events.

The book was written not long after the death of Princess Dianna, so it’s now about 20 years out of date.

While mostly focusing on the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II, Lacey places her story within the context of royal celebrity originating in Victorian times.

The author’s respect for the current Queen is clear, but it doesn’t extend so much to those involved in the Charles-Diana soap opera that drove the monarchy into crisis. While Lacey doesn’t portray Prince Charles in a favourable light, he also bursts the bubble of sainthood created around Diana.

Lacey reveals quite  a few interesting insights into modern royal history, such as the fact that Alice Keppel, Camilla Parker Bowles’ great grandmother, was also mistress to the Prince of Wales of her time (later Edward VII). But unlike her descendant, Keppel didn’t have her relationship with the monarch-to-be legitimized through marriage.  [Charles and Camilla’s marriage was still a future event when the book was written].

Overall it was a fascinating book, an enjoyable insight into the privileged but difficult experience of the world’s most well-known monarch. While there is an inevitable distance created between the royal family and their “subjects” – Lacey is able to show a much warmer side of the Queen than would have been shown of earlier generations of her family.

 

 

 

The Pastor and the Painter, Cindy Wockner

Almost two years ago I reached 300 books on my “Books Read” list. A list I started late in 2009. I wanted to mark that milestone with a “worthy” title, and chose Schindler’s Ark , a book of recognised literary merit (Booker prize winner), addressing something of significant historically importance (the Holocaust).

I have now reached book number 400, and chose a different kind of book about people and events a lot closer to home. As a Christian and a painter, I took a personal interest in the events explored in this 400th book.

Reading The Pastor and the Painter was a little like reading a book about the Titanic. The tragic conclusion has already been well publicised.
However, the important part of this story is what happens before that conclusion: a story of crime, politics, redemption and the victory of finding faith in God.

Andrew Chan (the pastor) and Myuran Sukumaran (the painter) were killed by an Indonesian firing squad, upon the order of the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo.

Chan and Sukumaran as accused leaders of the “Bali Nine”, had been sentenced to death by a Bali court for drug trafficking a decade before the sentence was finally carried out. Pleas for clemency were denied.

As a journalist, Cindy Wockner reported on the Bali Nine case from the beginning and was able to spend a lot of time with the nine Australians imprisoned for trying to smuggle drugs out of Bali to Australia. She developed a friendship with Chan and Sukumaran and had frequent access to them to report on their plight as they fought and lost their fight to avoid execution. Her book was written to continue their fight, obviously not for themselves, but for others who remain on death row in Indonesia.

Not long before his death, Sukumaran painted a portrait of the man who would demand that the executions be carried out. On the back of the painting of the president, Sukumaran wrote “People Do Change”, stating the fact that everyone apart from the president seemed to recognise – that the two men whose lives were being taken from them were not the same men who committed the crime a decade before. They HAD changed.

The men sentenced were young, irresponsible, angry, unco-operative and undeniably guilty of the crime.
The men being executed 10 years later were repentant, responsible and highly respected by those with authority over them in jail. Unlike many in their position who buried their despair in drug use, Chan and Sukumaran turned their lives around and went to work developing and running training programs and various other activities for other prisoners within the jail.

Chan studied for Christian ministry and started a church within the prison.
Sukumaran developed his artistic skills and was mentored by Australian artist Ben Quilty; sharing what he learned through holding art classes for fellow prisoners. Paintings were sold and proceeds used for various causes, including raising money to pay for life saving surgery for a female prisoner.

While many in the past have had sentences reduced, sadly, for others Indonesian law would remain inflexible.

Laws are like spider webs: if a fly or mosquito gets near, it gets trapped, but if a wasp or bee goes near, it breaks it and leaves. The same applies to the law: if a poor man strays he gets caught, while the rich and powerful exempt themselves from the law and walk away.

(Andrew Chan – from The Pastor and the Painter)

The absurdity of executing fully rehabilitated young men, who had not only turned their own lives around but had made significant contributions to the rehabilitation of their fellow prisoners, became even more extreme when the time came for them to be transported to the place where they were to be held prior to facing a firing squad. It was a full-on military exercise with armoured vehicles, armed soldiers and fighter jets escorting them on their journey.

On 27th April, two days before he and Myuran were executed,  Andrew Chan married Febyanti Herewila, a local church minister he’d known and loved for some time, in a small ceremony within the prison.

All up, about 20 people gathered, After Muran led them in prayer, he started singing ‘Bless the Lord’, a song also known as ‘10,000 Reasons’, and one they all knew and loved.

There was still some time for jokes amid the sad pall that hung over the Besi prison visiting area. As Myuran got stuck into some more junk food, someone told him it wasn’t good for him.

He smiled. “There are worse ways to die”.

(From The Pastor and the Painter)

On 29th April 2105, at 12.25am, Andrew and Myuran and six others were brutally killed by Indonesian president Joko Widodo. The weapon used: firing squad.  They were strapped by the elbows to wooden crosses and sang until their voices were silenced by almost 100 simultaneous gunshots*. The song in the video above is the one cut short by the fatal bullets.

executed

The eight people who were executed in Indonesia on 29 April 2015. Top row from left (including two of the Bali Nine): Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, Nigerian Okwuduli Oyatanze and Nigerian Martin Anderson. Bottom row from left: Nigerians Raheem Agbaje Salami, Silvester Obiekwe Nwolise, Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte and Indonesian Zainal Abidin. Two others (not pictured) who were scheduled to be executed were given a temporary reprieve. Photograph: The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/29/bali-nine-who-are-the-nine-people-being-executed-by-indonesia )

 

____________________________

* There were 12 marksman assigned to each victim, firing a combination of blanks and live ammunition.

The Commando (the life and death of Cameron Baird VC. MG.) by Ben Mckelvey

The Commando, is a biography of Cameron Baird the 100th (and to date last) Australian Victoria Cross winner who was killed in Afghanistan in June 2013.

It was quite a disturbing read, although I’m not sure it was intended to be so in the way I found it. It was written to honour a ‘hero” but (to me) it did more to expose a lot of uncomfortable issues related to Australia’s part in the war in Afghanistan and what it did to the special forces troops trained and posted to serve there.

It shows how Baird and his regiment lived to kill and were always impatient to be sent out on a mission to hunt down the “Taliban”. (The author notes at the beginning of the book that he used the term “Taliban” as a kind of generic name for any hostile Afghan – who weren’t necessarily associated with the religious group, but were assumed to pose a potential danger to western troops).

At one stage Baird and his Australian colleagues were used as the weaponised arm of the American Drug Enforcement Agency, with the aim of destroying Afghan drug cultivation and manufacture: basically as guns for hire, because apparently the US Government wouldn’t allow US troops to be used for that purpose.

Among his colleagues Baird was considered lucky because he died in action on one of the last missions in Afghanistan. Those surviving colleagues have found it hard to settle back into everyday life. One of the men interviewed for the book killed himself not long after giving the interview.

I’ve read or seen accounts of the other three Australians awarded a Victoria Cross for their service in Afghanistan and I was left in no doubt why they were deemed worthy of the award. However with this account I wasn’t so sure about the reason for Cameron Baird’s award. The book just didn’t make it clear why his final action stood out from what his colleagues had also done to earn his posthumous VC.

I feel some discomfort writing this because it might come across as being critical of Cameron Baird, a man who gave his life in service of political decisions made by his country’s leaders. That’s not what I want to do. He was clearly a very likeable man, fully committed to whatever he set his mind to – whether that was football during his youth or his military career as an adult. He wasn’t a man willing to compromise to make do with a second rate effort or to be happy with anything less than a first rate outcome.

Any deserved criticism needs to be directed at the political and military systems that train men to become killing machines but do little to help them return to normality when those “skills” are no longer required.

Hope and Persistence

These two books show humanity at its worst.

Firstly through the evils of the war in Syria that has made so much of that country impossible to live in.
Secondly through the treatment of those trying to flee the horrors inflicted upon their homeland by both governments and terror groups.
And lastly by the western nations that again close their doors to people in desperate need.

But despite all of that, many of those who have needed to flee from everything they’ve known, worked for and loved, have somehow drawn on those rare human virtues that can lie dormant until adversity of the worst kind is experienced.

hopenujeen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part of the story of A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea by Melissa Fleming is perhaps better told by the author herself in this video.

And the story of Nujeen Mustafa: