Star Trek My Brothers Keeper: Republic (C) 1999 Michael Jan Friedman 267 pages
The events of “Where No Man Has Gone Before” forced Jim Kirk to make the brutal decision to kill his best friend Gary Mitchell, after Mitchell had been altered and corrupted by an unknown energy field. Sensing his captain and friend’s enormous grief, Commander Spock approaches Kirk and asks him to tell him more about Mitchell and the bond that he and Kirk shared. Thus begins the My Brothers Keeper trilogy, as here Kirk recounts his meeting with Mitchell and the start of their friendship. Kirk and Mitchell began acrimoniously, but realized both had something to learn from the other. On a training cruise, their respective skills are put to the test when violent ne’er do wells attempt to disrupt a peace conference. Although nineties-era Trek storytelling wasn’t as deep as books from the Relaunch era, Friedman succeeds in showing us a Kirk who is very familiar to the reader, yet not the confident captain we met in the original series, and providing a richer look at his and Mitchell’s growing friendship. Parts of the plot cross into the realm of incredulity (two planets were accepted into the Federation despite being at war with one another, and despite having warp drive they don’t allow anything past preindustrial technology in their capital city?!), but the action exists just to push Kirk and Mitchell to cooperate despite their differences. This isn’t Typhon Pact-level political drama.
Handprints on Hubble (c) 2019 Kathryn D. Sullivan 304 pages
Handprints on Hubble is a unique astronaut memoir, in part because Dr. Sullivan is a scientist first and an astronaut second. Longing to explore, she began her academic life in oceanography before realizing the opportunities the Space Program might offer her. She joined in the class of the Thirty Five New Guys, as the Shuttle Transport System was still being finalized: one of her early projects was to help create the launch checklist for shuttle missions, in fact. When dreams of a large space telescope began to be realized, she was involved extensively in helping figure out how it could be made maintainable by astronauts working in space — developing and practicing procedures and tools that could be applied on a spacewalk. Sullivan lost several friends and classmates when Challenger was destroyed, but the two-year suspension of activity allowed the Hubble team more time to better improve Hubble’s prospects for long-term maintenance. Sullivan was with the team that launched Hubble itself, though she missed the first repair flight, since she’d started transitioning into a career at NOAA as its chief scientist. is more about technical development, engineering, and science than it is a biography or gossipy history of NASA, but it can’t be beaten for someone interested in the development of Hubble — which has only recently been surpassed by the Webb telescope.
The Apollo Murders (c) 2021 Chris Hadfield 480 pages
It’s 1973, and the Apollo program is nearly at its end. One more mission is planned — but it won’t be the mission executed. Instead, the all-military crew of Apollo 18 will be given a secret mission, one even most NASA support staff don’t know about. The Russians are up to something, and it’s vital to find out what. Not only do they have a rover sniffing around on the Moon, but they have a spy satellite in orbit, one that will compromise any and all daylight military operations, Its capabilities and weaknesses need to be assessed, and the rover’s mission on the lunar surface likewise investigated. But even if last-minute mission alterations weren’t a large enough challenge — ops like this require months of sim-testing — there are flies in the soup no one is aware of. Not only do the Russians have more out there than is known, but there’s a rouge element within NASA itself….and they’re perfectly willing to kill to achieve what they desire. The Apollo Murders is a unique thriller, one that begins as a pure technical drama before shifting to one of political intrigue and military action in space. Written by a veteran astronaut, drawing on an often-overlooked aspect of the space race (the USAAF’s Manned Orbiting Lab), and mixing new characters with historical ones like Al Shephard and Gene Kranz, The Apollo Murders is all kinds of interesting.
In real life, Apollo 18 never happened: the last few Apollo missions were cancelled to save money, so the last time men walked on the moon was December 19th, 1972. This gives Hadfield room to play, and he invents a handful of new characters and throws them on a familiar stage — though this is unlike any other Apollo mission. In the wake of intelligence that indicates the Soviets are up to all kinds of mischief, the scientific aspects of 18 are quietly dropped, along with its rover: instead, the crew are given a straightforward military mission that involves surveillance , assessment, and — if possible without being obvious — sabotage. The mission is marked by incidents, though: the original commander dies in a freak accident aboard a Bell helicopter, and then the crew realizes their voice uplink with Houston isn’t working. They can hear instructions, but not communicate back — and boy, do they need to communicate, because the Russians have a few surprises waiting. Unfortunately, I can’t comment on some of the most interesting parts of this novel without giving away the astonishing developments. Let’s just say, though, that Hadfield offers us looks at pioneering space combat (think of scout pilots in 1914 trying to hit each other with revolvers, ‘fighters’ having not yet been conceived of), as well as an unprecedented diplomatic challenge. And then there’s the rouge element….and the woman.
Having previously read Hadfield’s space memoir, and being something of an Apollo junkie, I had high hopes for this. They were not disappointed, though there were some oddities, like a 1970s newspaper using 2020s conventions. This is so unlike anything I’ve read that I was spellbound by it to the very end. There’s not much out there in the way of realistic space fiction (Stephen Baxter’s Voyage is the only other book I’m familiar with), so I’m glad Hadfield tried his hand at fiction. It succeeded enormously in my reckoning!
The Burning Blue: The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA’s Challenger Disaster (c) 2021 Kevin Cook 288 pages
So fickle is the human mind that even Apollo could not keep the public terribly excited for very long after the first moon landings, and the Shuttle program — despite its ambition and engineering complexity — only briefly resparked interest. The shuttles were trucks in space, doing routine work. NASA hoped to revive public passion for space (and safeguard its funding) by expanding spaceflight participation, opening seats on the Shuttle to various categories of civilians. The first would be a “Teacher in Space”, using the unique environment of the shuttle to teach lessons in microgravity.The public relations effort was a triumph: the woman chosen became an instant celebrity, and when her flight lifted off, it was under a national spotlight: everyone was watching. And then — the inconcievable. Everyone saw the booster disintegrate, everyone saw the shuttle explode, and everyone saw the lives of the crew snuffed out in a moment. So ended NASA’s civilian inclusion program, and the delusion that traveling to space was ‘routine’. The Burning Blue is both a biography of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher chosen, and a brief history of the impact Challenger had on NASA’s space program.
Despite being a space junkie as a kid (and now), the Challenger disaster never hit home for me: I was only a year old at the time, and I was more interested in Apollo and space stations than the shuttle that bridged them. When Columbia was destroyed in 2003, it became my generation’s space shuttle disaster; Challenger remained a page from the history books, although I got hints from time to time that for those watching, it carried a lot of emotional weight. Having read The Burning Blue, I can understand a bit of that now. Christa McAuliffe was chosen not because she was some uberfrauen to be idolized, but because of her attractive ordinariness and passion for teaching: she became, in the six months of her training, an American sweetheart who everyone watching identified with. She was the layman’s dream, an inspiration, someone who offered hope that one day ordinary people could find themselves gazing at the Earth from space. She didn’t have the ego of some Right Stuff-era astronauts, or even some of the Shuttle era astronauts (my interest in reading about Sally Ride declined considerably while reading this): she was the woman next door, who triumphed through a dream coupled to hard work and an unwillingness to quit. Through her we also get to meet the other Challenger seven, the most interesting of whom (to me) was Judy Resnik: Resnik had already earned her golden wings on a prior Shuttle mission, and was McAuliffe’s mentor after realizing the young teacher was taking this seriously, and not just a pretty face in a PR stunt. Resnik had to struggle with being taken seriously herself, as people prized her not for her labor but for her diversity checklist status: she was the First Jew in Space, the Second Woman in Space, etc. Resnik radiated contempt for this, wanting to be known for her own achievements, past and future — after Challenger, she hoped to pursue training that would see her jump from the middeck seats of the Mission Specialists to the front seat of the commander and copilot — something unprecedented, since pilots and specialists were two different career tracks altogether.
The lives of these two women and their five crewmates were destroyed in seconds, their craft compromised by a frozen O-ring. NASA could safely launch twelve shuttles a year, but the demands of the government and its commercial contracts were seeing it push well past recommendations and approach twenty launches a year. So frantic was the pace and so demanding was this on the shuttles that parts were actively cannibalized from flight to flight: when Challenger lifted off, she was carrying parts temporarily borrowed from Columbia. Challenger’s own takeoff had been delayed six times before finally getting the go-ahead to proceed on a wintry morning that doomed it. Still, as the investigation that followed showed, the disaster could have been far worse: the shuttle could have exploded on the pad, destroying the tower itself: instead, a fluke (frozen fuel sealing off a compromised area of the hull) allowed the shuttle to clear the tower and even begin its final ascent before the inevitable happened. Cook then follows the aftermath of the disaster, revaling weaknesses in NASA’s chain of command, its working culture, and its partner relationships. Unfortunately, some of those weaknesses returned some twenty years later.
I can’t fairly compare this to any other Challenger books, this being my first: it was successful in making the disaster more real, in letting the reader get to know the crew (McAuliffe, largely) so well before their deaths. It doesn’t go into much technical detail, though. something like Truth, Lies, and O-Rings is probably more thorough on that front. If you’re new to Challenger like me, though, this definitely strikes me as a good starting point.
In reading Bringing Columbia Home, the author referred to several videos — a surviving bit of cockpit footage, eleven minutes prior to the disaster, as well as a tribute video created during the recovery period.
“There’s heavy grief in our hearts, which will diminish in time, but it will never go away and we will never forget,” Crippen said. “Hail Rick, Willie, KC, Mike, Laurel, Dave and Ilan. Hail Columbia.“
Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Shuttle and Her Crew (c) 2018 Michael Leinbach and Johnthan Ward 400 pages
On February 1st, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the skies above Texas and Louisiana, some sixteen minutes from home. Nearly twenty years after the Challenger disaster, the Shuttle program had faded into the background, its launches and landings untelevised and its progress building the International Space Station unnoticed by most. Even the death of Columbia and her crew would soon be overshadowed by the Iraq war, but before that debacle began, something extraordinary happened. Some twenty-five thousand people were drawn together — multiple layers of otherwise territorial government agencies and civilian organizations — to comb the rough country of east Texas and Louisiana amid the last storms of winter, all in an effort to reclaim the bodies of the fallen and to find answers to Columbia’s demise. Bringing Columbia Home is a beautiful history of this extraordinary recovery effort, one that reminds readers that despite human frailties we can be astonishingly noble at times.
The Shuttle Transport System, encompassing both the Shuttle itself and the booster that aides it into space, was a triumph of human engineering. Into the Black, on the launching of Columbia, covered the laborious efforts of the Air Force and NASA to create a reusable ‘space plane’. As complex a craft as it was, a lot could go wrong. One shuttle had already been lost, some seventeen years prior: Challenger blew up as it began its final push to escape Earth’s atmosphere, destroyed by cold-stiffened O-rings. As NASA’s men and women on the ground realized that Columbia had joined her sister ship Challenger in destruction, they could not pause to mourn but instead had to focus on the painful task of finding out answers. As reports of falling debris filtered in, the outlines of a search area began to take shape. Local law enforcement and state forestry agencies were soon working hand in hand with FEMA and NASA to organize a comprehensive recovery effort. Astonishingly, there was no feuding over turf, something so common in investigations: the massive undertaking was broken into different parts and divided among agencies as appropriate. As impressive as this coordination was, it wouldn’t have been possible without support from the people of east Texas and Louisiana, who not only provided boots on the ground but supported the search teams being flown in, helping to feed and shelter thousands of new arrivals — many of whom carried the burden of knowing the men and women they were searching for. As journalists swarmed in like locusts, invading the privacy of mourners and even attempting to capture video of remains being recovered, the people of places like Lufkin closed ranks around NASA and protected the privacy of the dead and those who wept for them. Astonishingly, every member of the crew was located, and enough of Columbia was found to enable NASA to figure out what had happened, using physical remnants in conjunction with the data recovered from Columbia’s flight recorders. During launch, insulating tile from the booster flew off and impacted Columbia’s left wing, fatally compromising it and dooming the craft. Even had Columbia’s crew known about the impact, they had no way of investigating the scope of the damage, or repairing it.
Bringing Columbia Home is a sad, but beautiful history, absolutely moving in what it captures — the generosity of ordinary people, the willing sacrifices of searchers, some of whom lost their lives attempting to find the crew, and the determination of NASA’s engineers to find answers even in their pain.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald Robertson
Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2022 Crusader, Ben Kane. It followed Richard the Lionheart as he traveled abroad from England, mixing it up with Mediterranean potentates as well as Saladin.
New release you haven’t read yet but want to
An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the World Around Us, Ed Yong. Yong did a great book on bacteria a few years ago. I need to finish this year’s science survey first, though.
Most anticipated release for the second half of the year
Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions that Define Us, Russ Roberts. My introduction to Roberts was through his podcast, which at the time was more oriented towards economics. Over the years Roberts has shifted more towards conversations about human flourishing.
Biggest disappointment (so far!)
Amazon’s “Warmer” collection. Almost none of the stories were interesting, and their SF content was unoriginal at best.
Biggest surprise of the Year (so far!)
Favourite new author. (Debut or new to you)
James Holland. I would have finished his WW2 trilogy if people didn’t keep bringing me books in the hospital..
Newest fictional crush
Not something I do.
Newest favourite character
Sergeant Tanner from James Hollands’ WW2 trilogy.
Book that made you cry
Bringing Columbia Home, Michael Leinback. A history of Columbia’s breakup and the massive undertaking to reclaim her crew’s bodies, as well as the remains of Columbia herself, and to piece together what happened to the Shuttle fleet’s flagship. I was moved not only by the ego-less cooperation of so many different organizations, but the generosity of various east Texas communities and the amount of volunteer labor that made it possible to house and feed over 20,000 people involved in the search.
Last year, in observance of the anniversary of Apollo 11’s successful lunar landing on July 20, 1969, I planned for a week of space-exploration reading. I may have gotten a little carried away and kept reading astronaut books until the mood finally passed in late August, but it’s time to go to space camp once again! I’ve got 2-3 titles planned, with one almost read already. I’ve updated last year’s list with the 2021 reading, and they’re arranged not in the order read, but in the period they cover, roughly. The huge omission is nothing for Skylab, which I hope to remedy in the future: Forever Young would be the ideal book, as Young has the distinction of serving as an astronaut on an Apollo mission, on Skylab, and in the Shuttle fleet. Bolded titles are particular favorites, and A Man on the Moonis the boldest of the bold. I can’t recommend it highly enough. For new readers, “Space Camp” takes its name from a summer program for kids hosted by the Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama. If you want to do your own space camp, check out this list on goodreads!
I expect to leave the recovery-suite of the hotel at the end of this week and eturn home, though I’ll be returning to Birmingham every two weeks for checkups for the next few months. During this multiweek siesta, I’ve mostly occupied myself with IT classes on Coursera, watching Star Trek, and reading. Some of that reading has been science.
Most recently, I read Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art, an appraisal of contemporary Neanderthal research that argues Neanderthals were far closer to us in their behavior than previously appreciated. Their range was broader, for instance, with Neanderthal remains found in every climate but wetlands, and their tool-making abilities were still sophisticated (making use of composites), if not up to Sapiens standards. I was personally amazed by how intricate some of the science involved here was, allowing researchers to read the history of a given community through recovered teeth, for instance, or rebuilding the layout of Neanderthal camps through studying the soil. The writing is often exquisite, far more poetic than one would expect from a book on archaeology. A sample:
“Time is devious. It flees frighteningly fast, or oozes so slowly we feel it as a burden, measured in heartbeats. Each human life is marbled with memories and infused by imaginings, even a”s we exist in a continuously flowing stream of ‘now’. We are beings swept along in time, but to emerge and view the whole coursing river defeats us.”
Shortly before Kindred, I read through Lisa Randall’s Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, an impressively ambitious work that spans disciplines from cosmology to geology. After first explaining to the reader what dark matter is and why it ‘s important to understanding the universe, Randall shifts to a history of our local solar system and argues that fluctuations in the Milky Way’s own cloud of dark matter periodically send space debris into our neighborhood, leading to events like the destruction of the dinosaurs. We mammals owe part of our existence, then, to something which doesn’t interact with light. The cosmology was a bit over my head, though admittedly trying to read it in the hospital probably didn’t help.
Lastly, Darwin Comes to Town was my favorite among this lot. While we tend to think of cities as something apart from nature, that’s wrong on two levels: first, the human built environment is no less natural than the termite-built environment, or the beaver-built environment, at least in principle. All three involve the building species in question using and altering the natural environment to better suit their needs, and all three result in an altered ecosystem that alters the gameplan for other species. Secondly, our cities are saturated with nature, and are increasingly more diverse than the countryside immediately outside them, marked as that area is by farms reliant on monocultures. Cities aren’t patchwork quilts of ecosystems: they’re far more intricate than that, being fragmented mosaics of thousands of micro-ecosystems: every back yard in a given neighborhood has its own array of species, to say nothing of the variety of mini-environments that cities offer to animals looking for new opportunities. There are often similarities between the environments animals’ genes are conditioned for them to thrive in, and the environments they find themselves working : some birds are as perfectly happy flitting around bike racks as they would be around shrubs, or using window ledges and rooftops as the cliffaces of their ancestors. The book reviews ways in which living in the human environment is pushing evolution, creating subspecies that are perfectly adapted to the new environment: there are subspecies of mosquitoes, for instance, that live only in London subway tunnels! I finished this one shortly before going into the hospital and it will remain one of my favorite science books for the year, I think.
Letters to an American Lady (c) 1967 C.S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper 150 pages
I was pleased recently to discover that Letters to an American Lady, a collection of letters from C.S. Lewis written to an anonymous southern woman in the 1950s and 1960s, was on sale. None of the letters are especially long; most, in fact, are nothing more than a paragraph dashed in haste, as Lewis was increasingly popular at the time and beset with bags of mail, especially around Christmas and Easter. Readers are only privileged to see one side of the conversation, though Lewis usually refers directly to the contents of the lady’s — “Mary’s — letters in his own, so some context can usually be discerned. Those who are familiar with Lewis’ prose and nonfiction will find a different Jack here, one who is merely writing to a friend on the ordinary events of life. Jack and Mary talk about their cats, and commiserate over the bad weather or their respective health problems: Lewis likens them to failing automobiles, who after decades of service continually need their parts replaced. For Lewis, though, the letters were also something of a ministry: matters of spirituality are a mainstay in the letters to Mary, as they were in Lewis’ letters to Dorothy Sayers, though Lewis appears to provide more succor to Mary than the other way around. His letters to her no doubt helped him remind himself of that which he already knew: he frequently encourages Mary to not compound the problems of life by worrying over them incessantly, but instead take things one day at a time and live in the present as much as possible. He even references Marcus Aurelius, though sadly not in this context: the Stoic emperor-philosopher reminded himself of that same lessons in his Meditations. Also included in this collection are one letter written to Mary by Joy Davidman, who reflected on the grace she’d experienced in her own infirmity, and some (in ’63) written to her from Walter Hooper, Lewis’ late secretary who had the unenviable responsibility of keeping Mary up to date on Lewis’ declining health as he entered into a coma in late summer ’63. As someone who regards Lewis not merely as an author, but as a strange kind of friend — someone I’ve “gotten to know” through his letters, books, etc — this was a welcome look into Lewis’ less academic side, and one which was especially moving as he entered, unknowingly, the last few months of his life and did so counseling Mary on how to face her own death with grace and dignity.
“The precious alabaster box which one must break over the Holy Feet is one’s heart. Easier said than done.”
“The only reason I’m not sick of all the stuff about——is that I don’t read it. I never read the papers. Why does anyone? They’re nearly all lies, and one has to wade thru’ such reams of verbiage and “write up” to find out even what they’re saying.”
“We are all members of one another and must all learn to receive as well as to give.”
“The great thing, as you have obviously seen, (both as regards pain and financial worries) is to live from day to day and hour to hour not adding the past or future to the present. As one lived in the Front Line ‘They’re not shelling us at the moment, and it’s not raining, and the rations have come up, so let’s enjoy ourselves”. In fact, as Our Lord said, ‘Sufficient unto the day'”