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.

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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)

Almost Heaven by Bettyann Holtzman Kevles (part 2)

America may have missed out on being the first to send a woman into space, but they did manage an alternative, tragic first: the first female deaths in a space mission.

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Christa Mc Auliffe

Both “teacher in space” Christa McAuliffe and Judy Resnik lost their lives when the shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off.

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Judy Resnik

It was later determined that Resnik survived long enough to activate her personal emergency air-pack, so for some time was aware of the crew’s dire situation and her inevitable fate.
Resnik had been the second American woman in space and this Challenger mission was her second flight.

The tragedy could have set back the opportunities for female astronauts, but eventually, on the post-enquiry resumption of shuttle missions, only one class of female astronaut was affected.

In addition to the flight crew (none of which at this time had been a woman) and mission specialists (NASA employed engineers, scientists and technicians), Payload specialists had been a category of one-off crew members from the corporate world, who were accompanying satellites or science work, on behalf of their corporate employer.

Christa McAuliffe had been a payload specialist, chosen to be the first teacher into space, from where she would conduct educational broadcasts to the school children of America.  After Challenger, the involvement of American female payload specialists  came to an end, although the allocation of women to that role from other nations continued.

Shuttle pilots were restricted to those with military flight experience, and specifically test pilots.

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Eileen Collins

Those opportunities had not been open to female pilots, an outcome that also prevented opportunities in the space program.

The first to break through that barrier was Eileen Collins, who after being the second woman to attend the US air force test pilot school, not only became the first woman to pilot a shuttle, she progressed to be the first woman commander of a shuttle mission.

The possibilities available for Russian women to venture into space remained far more restrictive than it was for Americans, and American women even had more opportunity than Russian women  to join Russian missions. Russian men apparently had a harder time accepting their own countrywomen as colleagues in space than accepting foreign nationals.

To date, only four Russian/Soviet women have been flown into space, only one,Yelena Kondakova, made it to the Russian Mir space station, and one other, Yelena Serova, stayed aboard the International space station (the latter in 2014, long after this book was written).

The first Briton into space was a woman. Helen Sharman won a competition to fly to the Russian Mir for a 7 day trip. Working for the Mars confectionary company, she (to her dislike) was often referred to as the “woman from Mars”.

Another female resident of Mir was American Shannon Lucid, who spent 179 days aboard the station in 1996, at the time setting a record for the most continuous hours in space by a woman, as well as by a non-Russian.

Overall this was a fascinating book about a little-told part of the space program story, but could have been improved a little with more attention to factual detail.

I came across a few basic errors – such as naming John Glenn as the first American in space (he was the third) and that NASA’s T-38 jet were used to give astronauts an experience of weightlessness. That’s a role of much larger aircraft with abundant empty space where passengers experience short periods of weightlessness as the plane flies a series of steep, parabolic climbs and dives.

The T-38 is a two seater jet used for flight training as well as personal astronaut transport between workplaces.

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KC

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Laurel Clark

Published in 2003, its Epilogue brings the book to a close with the deaths of two more female astronauts. Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chawla (KC) were part of the STS-107 crew. Their shuttle, Columbia, broke apart on re-entry during their return home from a 15 day mission.

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For a list of female “spacefarers” – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_female_spacefarers

Almost Heaven by Bettyann Holtzman Kevles (part 1)

almost heavenWith the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing only a few days away, this book addresses an overlooked aspect of the space race.

While America and the world were following the achievements of an all-male astronaut cadre, most of us were unaware of attempts to have a female contingent added to their number.

A group of hopeful women submitted themselves to AND PASSED exactly the same selection interviews, medicals and physical tests taken by the men; and yet their candidacy was dismissed.

When asked about the possibility of the inclusion of women in space missions, the responses from senior men ranged from the predictable comments about space exploration being “men’s work”, to the acknowledgement that women would have to be included at a later stage to cook the meals and keep house on any prospective space station.

Those were the more savoury responses. Others were along the lines of a comment from rocket genius Werner von Braun, who agreed to the inclusion of women because there should be room for 110 lbs of recreational equipment on any mission.

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Sally Ride

The Russians weren’t quite as reticent to fly a woman into space, but they had no altruistic, gender-equality, reasons for doing so. All they wanted was to check another first off the list. After they’d already achieved the first man in space, they wanted to beat America again with flying the first woman into orbit. Once that was done, women were sidelined again, until many years later when America eventually announced that Sally Ride would become the first American woman in space aboard the shuttle Challenger.
The Russians hurriedly rearranged their launch schedule to include their second female cosmonaut in a mission to their Salyut space station.

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Rhea Seddon

Even after women had started to become accepted members of space shuttle crews, attitudes still needed change. When Rhea Seddon had to make an impromptu space walk to literally stitch up part of a damaged satellite, someone in  Mission control commented on the value of her home-maker skills. On hearing that, Sally Ride corrected the man’s suggestion, advising him that Seddon’s stitches “were the work of a heart surgeon”.

 

Apollo, Shuttle and ISS

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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.

*

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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.

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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.

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ISS Tour

I’m in the process of writing about a few books related to the space program.
Until I finish that and get around to posting it, here is a brief tour given by astronaut Suni Williams, demonstrating aspects of daily life on the International Space station.

Apollo Pilot

The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele

apollo pilot

Apollo 7 was the first time I became aware of the American space program. I was 10 years old, and if I recall correctly, my primary school class at the time had a student teacher from Canada, and he made it a topic of interest.

I don’t recall ever knowing about previous NASA space ventures.

Apollo 7  was the first manned mission after the fire that killed the Apollo 1 crew. Another tragic mishap would likely have put an end to American ambitions to reach the moon, or at least set them back sufficiently to let the USSR get there first.

Apollo Pilot tells the inside story of the Apollo 7 mission from the perspective of one of the crew. Donn Eisele’s account is candid, judgemental of his peers and their employers, and at times brutally graphic – like when he describes having to listen to recordings of his deceased colleagues’ death screams when investigating the Apollo 1 fire. As well as his description of having to inspect the burnt out capsule.

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Mission patch

Eisele briefly describes the journey that led to his acceptance as an astronaut. He also details the rigorous selection regime of interviews and health checks that helped to weed out those not physically or temperamentally suitable.

Some of the most interesting and evocative parts of the book are the details he gives of the Apollo 7 mission, from launch through to splashdown; and how it was for three men to live in such close proximity in very restrictive conditions.

There is the sense of wonder at seeing things so few had seen to that point, and the challenges faced in the tasks they needed to carry out in an extended stay in space. An important aspect of the mission was to replicate the time required for future missions to travel to the moon and back, as well as simulating some of the maneuvers those missions may need to carry out.

It’s only a short book, around 180 something pages, but Eisele seems to fit in a lot of experience within those pages. Sadly he died quite young, and maybe if he’d had the time he would have written more. However the last two chapters, one written by his wife Susan Eisele Black , help to fill in a little of what he missed.

The astronaut lifestyle became one of parties and womanising, conducted in private rooms to avoid attention from the press; while their wives were back home in Houston caring for families. While some saw their extra-marital activities as casual affairs, some maintained long-term relationships.

While he doesn’t name those involved, his (2nd) wife’s chapter of the book makes it clear that he was one of the latter kind. His first marriage ended soon after the Apollo 7 mission. He was the first astronaut to divorce, and he married Susan, the woman he’d been seeing during his frequent trips away from home. The divorce seemed to put an and to his career as an astronaut, even though many others later followed the same path without the same kind of recriminations.