The Extraordinary Visual History of the Iconic Space Programme

ApolloJust a quick post to say that my review of Apollo by Zack Scott has been published over at Physics World. It’s a beautiful book about the Apollo space programme, largely made up of illustrations and infographics. To see what else I thought, pop on over to Physics World.

While you’re at it, check out Physics World‘s top 10 books of 2017, revealed today. They’re the top popular-science books that the editors felt would appeal to physicists. I’m keen to read several of them (and I’m not a physicist, even if I do work with a bunch of them!).

Buzz Aldrin: No Dream is Too High

(Photo by talkie_tim)
(Photo by talkie_tim)

Toppings Bookshop event
The Forum, Bath, 3 June 2016

When a friend at work e-mailed round a heads up that tickets were about to be released for a chance to meet Buzz Aldrin, a bunch of us leapt at the chance. It almost didn’t matter what the actual event would be – we’re talking about a man who has walked on the Moon, a genuine living legend. Turns out, he’s promoting his new book No Dream is Too High: Life Lessons from a Man who Walked on the Moon.

The Forum can seat 1640 and the event was a sellout, but with a bit of planning ahead we managed to get ourselves near the front, with a prime view of the 86 year old and his manager, who corralled him through his story, prompted by photos from his life. And I do mean corralled. From his parents (with wonderful foreshadowing his mother was called Marion Moon), to his Air Force career, to NASA, to scuba diving with sharks on his 80th birthday, Buzz was ready to expand at length on every anecdote, to go off on tangents (often related to the more scientific or historic aspects of the tale) and had to be persuaded back on track. Which was wholly delightful.

Continue reading “Buzz Aldrin: No Dream is Too High”

Monsters are always lonely

gardens of the sunGardens of the Sun
by Paul McAuley

This is a sequel to The Quiet War, a space opera that Tim encouraged me to read last summer. Then a few months later he started bugging me to read the sequel, so he could discuss the pair without accidentally spoiling the plot for me, because he couldn’t entirely remember which events happened in which book! It’s actually a trilogy, but neither of us has read part three yet. My review does contain spoilers for The Quiet War, because this book is very much an immediate continuation of events in that book.

I actually preferred this to the first book, as I felt the politics and philosophical debates were more varied, with more views and nuances depicted. Naturally the themes are largely the same: genetic modification; human responsibility for our planet and our fellow man; the endless possibilities of science and whether we should always pursue every avenue; diplomacy; whether good and evil are inherent or a product of circumstances and therefore variable; freedom; love, family and parenting. Just a few small things then!

Continue reading “Monsters are always lonely”

Such innocent words to drop like hot cinders

The Ship Who Sang

The Ship Who Sang
by Anne McCaffrey

As with most of my SF reading, this was a recommendation from Tim and it was one of his most successful recommendations, by which I mean I loved it and was happy to learn that it was the first book in a series.

This really felt like it had an original but somehow classic set-up. In a future with commonplace space travel and human settlements on other planets, science has found a fascinating way to help children born with certain birth defects. Those who are born with a body that is useless but a brain that is high-functioning are trained to become encapsulated brains, plugged into one of the Federation of Planets’ specially designed shells, such as a space ship, fully controlling it in every way. Each “brain ship” is partnered with a “brawn” – an able-bodied pilot whose job is not really to fly to ship (though they can, if needed) but to keep the brain company and be their “mobile half” as they run jobs for the Federation across the known universe.

“Shell-people were schooled to examine every aspect of a problem or situation before making a prognosis…Therefore to Helva, the problem that she couldn’t open her mouth to sing, among other restrictions, did not bother her. She would work out a method, by-passing her limitations, whereby she could sing.”

This book had me hooked from page one, and the way it did that is that we learn all of the above by following the brain ship Helva from her birth, through her schooling and transfer to ship 834 and on into her adulthood as a working brain ship. This is essentially an adventure story, one with plenty of heart and a great character at its centre. Helva is, in her own words, “all woman”, despite her useless body, and she has a wry sense of humour that often wrong-foots her passengers, especially those who think the voice speaking to them is that of a mere ship’s computer!

“He directed his bow toward the central pillar where Helva was. Her own personal preference crystallised at that precise moment and for that particular reason: Jennan, alone of the men, had addressed his remarks directly at her physical presence, regardless of the fact that he knew she could pick up his image wherever he was in the ship and regardless of the fact that her body was behind massive metal walls.”

I like that McCaffrey didn’t present the brain ships as ubiquitous and universally accepted. There are many characters who have qualms about this form of genetic engineering, whether that be for ethical reasons or just their own uneasiness about the end result. There are some thorny issues around their service to the Federation, as they do earn money, but this is deducted against their debt resulting from their training and brain ships can take centuries to pay off and earn the freedom to work for other employers.

“Theoda was talking nervously, her eyes restlessly searching over the supplies in the galley cupboards…’Do you enjoy your work? It must be a tremendous satisfaction.’
Such innocent words to drop like hot cinders on Helva…Rapidly Helva began to talk, anything to keep herself from being subjected to another such unpredictably rasping civility.”

The novel is very much episodic, which makes sense as five of the six chapters were originally published as short stories, but there’s still a through storyline that makes it work as a novel. In fact I’m curious how much was changed from those original stories, because if anything it flows too well as a novel for those stories to have properly stood alone. Perhaps I’ll have to hunt them out and see!

I loved Helva and was completely emotionally involved in her story. I really liked McCaffrey’s style of writing and fully intend to search out more of it.

First published 1969 by Rapp & Whiting. (Selected sections previously published 1961–1969 in various publications.)

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

No-one should be embarrassed about getting sick in space

Packing for Mars

Packing for Mars: the Curious Science of Life in Space
by Mary Roach

This was my first read for the 2014 Popular Science Reading Challenge. It was perhaps a bit of an easy choice to begin with, as I knew Roach’s reputation for humour and I’m already familiar with the subject. But it was still a good, enjoyable read.

Roach’s premise is to look at the nitty gritty detail of what would be involved in sending humans to Mars. But this isn’t about rockets and propulsion systems, this is about the human side – how will people cope with a year or more stuck in a rocket? She looks at this biologically, psychologically, but also at the practical side of things – food, facilities and so on.

“As a gross overgeneralization, the Japanese are well suited to life on a space station. They’re accustomed to small spaces and limited privacy. They’re a lighter, more compact payload than the average American. Perhaps most important, they’re raised to be polite and to keep their emotions in check.”

Roach has spoken to almost everyone who can contribute to this conversation – experts from NASA, the European, Russian, Canadian and other space agencies, university researchers, astronauts – and she really has a gift for picking out the curious details, the facts that make you laugh and learn. She also clearly has a fondness for asking the awkward questions, the things most people don’t discuss, so there’s a chapter each on sex in space, vomit and human waste.

“No-one, not Jake Garn or Rusty Schweickart or Frank Vomiting [Borman], should be embarrassed about getting sick in space. Some 50–75 per cent of astronauts have suffered symptoms of space motion sickness. ‘That’s why you don’t see much shuttle news footage the first day or two. They’re all, like, throwing up in a corner somewhere,’ says Mike Zolensky [NASA curator].”

It’s a genuinely interesting book on a topic that has been extensively researched despite it not being definite that it will ever happen. Roach manages to show great respect for astronauts and scientists while at the same time probing for very intimate facts. She shows a sense of humour about her own curiosity as well as the facts she discovers. But she is also tenacious when she wants to be, doggedly pursuing the truth behind various intriguing rumours.

“It is hard to imagine anyone going through the significant risk and hassle of catheterizing a chimpanzee just to keep him from playing with himself during training sessions. As for the balloon catheter, it was patented in 1963 – two years after Enos’s flight – as a tool to remove blood clots, not to discourage chimpanzee masturbation…Enos, your name is cleared.”

I think what holds me back from outright loving this book is that it didn’t stick closely enough to its premise. Particularly in the second half of the book, it felt more like a book about historical and current humans in space, with some chapters not even mentioning how experience to date in the topic at hand might be extrapolated to a manned Mars mission. And that would have been fine without the title and opening chapters concentrating on the Mars idea. Obviously some historical stuff is necessary, and it’s all extremely interesting, but it isn’t quite the book it sets out to be.

My one other quibble is that early on Roach refers to “US astronaut Helen Sherman”. Oh no no no. Helen Sharman was the first Briton in space. She wasn’t even trained in the US; she trained in Russia with the cosmonauts she flew with to Mir space station. So that’s two errors in one sentence. And I’m by no means an expert in any of this stuff, so how do I know that the rest of the book isn’t riddled with errors? (Obviously these might well be typesetting errors rather than Roach’s own, but it’s still a bit shoddy.)

But those fairly minor gripes aside, this was a very entertaining and informative book.

Published 2010 by Oneworld.

Source: Borrowed from work.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2014 Popular Science Reading Challenge.

Triumph and tragedy

T-Minus: the Race to the Moon
by Jim Ottaviani (author), Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon (artwork)

I think this comic book is strictly aimed at children but that didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying it and learning all sorts of new facts about the space race. And I live with Tim and have been to Kennedy Space Center, so I consider myself reasonably well versed in this stuff.

The story begins in 1957 with the text “T-minus 12 years” and ends (except for a short postscript) in 1969 at “T-minus zero”, the moment when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. The story inbetween shows both the Russian and the American teams of scientists, engineers and pilots, not to mention the politicians who had their own ideas about going into space. There’s more detail about the Americans, possibly because much more information about them is available to an American author, and not every question I had was answered, but overall this was an impressive and entertaining summary of historical events.

Most of the missions get their own panel with a list of pertinent details: rocket used, launch date, flight duration, etc. Deaths and other disasters were not lingered on, which I actually found a little difficult, but there were enough of them to make it clear how immensely daring the astronauts and cosmonauts were. These men and women (the first woman in space was Russian Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 – I didn’t know that before today) really were braving the unknown, human guinea pigs essentially. Early flights went up before having figured out urine disposal or temperature control. There’s a scene where cosmonauts discuss not taking much food on a 2-day flight because the smell in the capsule made them feel too queasy to eat.

There are a couple of jumps back in time to show the development of the science behind space travel, though I’m sure another book this long could have been written/drawn on that subject. The story is reverent without painting everyone involved as perfect. NASA engineer Caldwell C Johnson is picked out as being a workaholic who rarely saw his family, lost track of days of the week and didn’t stop to celebrate each victory on the way because he was already immersed in the next challenge (or indeed the one after that). Russians are shown mocking American failures and achievements, not to mention covering up the cause of Laika’s death and keeping many other details secret. Interestingly, the book does mention that the American and Russian teams met up every so often to discuss their work and that these meetings were friendly affairs, but no detail is given. I don’t know if this is because it’s all classified or if there were no details important enough to pick out for this abbreviated history.

The full-page bibliography reveals that most of the authors’ sources came from NASA, including mission transcripts, but they also spoke to astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Alan Bean. They also say that they didn’t read one particular book they found because it was only available in Russian, which sounds like a bit of a rubbish excuse when researching Russian history. Surely they could have found a Russian speaker to help out? However, they did do a lot of research (they provide a web address for the full list, described as a stack of books “more than ten feet tall”) and it shows.

I heartily recommend this to any adult or child interested in the space race, but I would also be interested in learning more about the Russian side of things.

Published 2009 by Simon & Schuster. Available from GT Labs.

Little Friday review

Little Lost Robot
by Paul McAuley

This is actually a short story, not a novel, that Tim had been trying to get me to read for some time. It was first published in Interzone, which has been home to some excellent science fiction, so I finally gave it a go.

The story begins impersonally, describing the “superbad big space robot” as it travels through the universe, fulfilling its killing mission. Gradually it becomes more and more personal. The machine has four “subselves”, programs I suppose, that run it together, in collaboration. They repair damage, formulate tactics, arm weapons and discuss their next move. Over time the robot has taken a lot of damage, including to its memory, and this is where it gets interesting.

It’s such a short story that I’d rather not give away much more than that. I found myself a little doubtful that I would like the story at first. It was a robot at war, described distantly and with reverence. But the story slowly zeroes in on the robot’s Librarian subself, imbuing it with something approximating personality, self-doubt, humanity even. It’s a very cleverly written and structured piece and toward the end I definitely felt warmth for this cold space warrior.

It probably helps, reading this, to have some familiarity with computing terminology. The robot uses a combination of strictly mechanistic terms (time periods in teraseconds, rather than being broken down into years) and oddly human terms (anger, loneliness, tenderness).

The story wasn’t what I expected. The title suggested to me something cute and sweet, maybe Wall-E-like and, though there are similarities, that’s not what this is. This is the super-efficient soldier slowly revealing his inner humanity and it’s definitely touching, but it’s not cute.

Published 2008 in Interzone 217. You can read it here or listen to it here.

Nominated for the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction 2008.