Posts Tagged ‘NASA’

In Sky Walking (2006), Dr. Tom Jones recounts his career as a NASA astronaut. Beginning with the application process, Jones takes us on a journey of becoming an astronaut, flying four space shuttle missions, and helping to construct the International Space Station.

The book provides glimpses into the rigorous training astronauts receive in preparation for their work in space, and in particular, for extravehicular activities (EVA). Before each space flight, the astronauts would complete mock missions underwater using shuttle and ISS replicas fascinating. If you calculate the cost of an EVA, from launch to landing back on Earth, every minute must be immensely expensive. Every manoeuver, every task, has to be choreographed and rehearsed for maximum efficiency and safety. Even small issues easily solved on Earth can become mission-crippling obstacles in space, and Dr. Jones  faced his share, including an irreversibly jammed hatch that resulted in a canceled EVA and an improperly-assembled elbow joint that caused enough pain to make competing that EVA a challenge. An even more dangerous case comes to mind: Luca Parmitano’s 2013 ISS mission during which his helmet began filling with water due to a malfunctioning filter while on EVA. Docking operations between the Space Shuttle and ISS were also fraught with dangerous possibilities, and Dr. Jones’ account of these procedures and the astronauts’ calm but meticulous piloting fascinated me. It may be a good indicator of our finally having made the leap to a space-based, multi-planet society when mishaps like these no longer happen or are more easily resolved when they do.

Another aspect of the book is its account of the lead up, politically and practically, to the design, construction, and operation of the ISS. Not only did Dr. Jones fly a shuttle mission (STS-98) as part of ISS construction, but he played a not-insubstantial role in managing NASA’s ISS Program, including the international partnerships that made it possible. NASA’s interactions with the Russian Government, in particular, make for great reading if you’re interested in how the ISS came to be.  I was interested, but not surprised, by the political, diplomatic and logistical difficulties that had to be overcome to build the ISS. That those obstacles were surmounted reinforces my perception of the ISS as a great example of how the human race can work together to accomplish amazing things. In the book, that spirit is clearly on display by the ISS astronauts (and cosmonauts) themselves whose comradery extends across borders forming a uniquely stateless community in space.

Dr. Jones completes the book with a short passage explaining his ideas and recommendations for how human space exploration ought to move forward. While just a bit outdated now, 11 years later, his thoughts on where we should go next are still relevant. A quick reveal—he’s not a fan of more lunar missions and instead recommends targeting a NEA (near-Earth asteroid) before tackling Mars. Regardless of our next destination, we can all thank astronauts like Dr. Jones for paving the way.

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The Right Kind of Crazy, written by Adam Steltzner with William Patrick, gives a candid glimpse into Steltzner’s career as an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) culminating in his leading the successful Mars Science Laboratory mission to land the Curiosity rover.

Starting with Steltzner’s somewhat atypical childhood, education, and his landing a job at JPL (no pun intended, really), the book spends considerable time discussing people-oriented topics such as leadership and team dynamics and how those human elements are just as crucial to mission success as the design, building, and testing of the actual spacecraft. He also paints a detailed picture of the inner workings of JPL and the people behind its groundbreaking work.

For science geeks like me, especially those interested in how spacecraft work, the book offers an inside view of the entire process, from the initial choices of what technological approaches will be used (air bags vs. sky crane, guided flight vs. blunt-body entry, etc.), to the seemingly mundane but (to me) still interesting aspects of how big to make the rover wheels, what kind of material to use for the heat shield, and whether the center of navigation was correctly input into the software controlling atmospheric entry. Admittedly, I’m a person who made an exhaustive search of ISS hatch specifications (to add verisimilitude to a key action sequence I was writing), and yes—I enjoyed it. Those less enamored of technology’s inner workings might find some of the book’s mechanical descriptions somewhat dry.

Throughout the book, Steltzner develops what amounts to a philosophy of engineering, in part an acknowledgment of the unknowns that always lurk behind the curtain of reality, and the humility that is necessary to succeed despite those unknowns, to always dig deeper rather than be satisfied with the easy answer until you’re “right enough.” As I was reading the book, the recent crash of the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander made Steltzner’s ideas even more pertinent. I would even suggest they apply beyond the world of engineering, to all of science, and even to everyday life. Steltzner points to the search for truth and understanding as a uniquely human quality. I agree.