When I was a kid in the sixties, Mattel™ introduced a new action toy to take advantage of interest in the Apollo missions to the space, and eventual landing on the moon. Major Matt Mason was an astronaut action figure, who lived and worked on the moon. I spent many a Saturday afternoon playing with Major Mason, sending him off on daring space journeys. Being an astronaut was cool, and as far as I was concerned at seven years old, space was the place! Someday we’d all be traveling, if not living, there. Of course, I never would have made it past the entrance physical to become an astronaut,
But I’ve held on to my fascination with space, living out my fantasy from the safety of my living room armchair. In the last few years I’ve read a few books on space travel. My conclusion: Astronauts went to the moon, so you don’t have to. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with a filthy-rich bastard like Richard Branson or Larry Ellison blowing money going into space; as for me, if I were that wealthy, I could find better, safer ways to spend my money.
My Major Matt Mason toy is long gone, his space-suit sheathed arm, abused from too much twisting, fractured, thus revealing the bendable wire that was his skeleton. Of course, had he been a real astronaut, a tear in his suit would have meant almost certain death, and, since I had lost his helmet, he was a goner long before the space suit accident. But a torn space suit is just one of many ways to die in space; it is amazing our space services have had as few accidents as they have had. Trust me, space travel is just not worth it. Maybe you can afford to travel to space, but wouldn’t you prefer to just buy a fancy boat like Paul Allen instead?
But if you need further convincing, here are some great space books to add to that stack by your bedside:
- Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach. Hilarious examination of all the pitfalls and perils of getting ready for, and going into, outer space. Her description of drinking her own recycled urine is enough to convince you that being an astronaut is just not that much fun.
- Out of Orbit: The Incredible True Story of Three Astronauts Who Were Hundreds of Miles Above Earth When They Lost Their Ride Home by Chris Jones. After the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in a fiery descent, spreading debris across Texas and Louisiana, three astronauts remained in orbit in the International Space Station, with no way to return to Earth. This is the story of their rescue.
- Apollo 13 by Jeffrey Kluger and James Lovell. Formerly published under the title Lost Moon, this is the book that inspired the fantastic Ron Howard movie Apollo 13. James Lovell tells a first-hand account of the failed Apollo mission to the moon, and the heroic engineering improvisation that made the astronauts safe return to Earth possible. The gruesome possibility of the Apollo 13 craft becoming a macabre permanent satellite of the Earth haunts me.
- Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon by Craig Nelson. The story of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 moon landing, arguably the zenith of American space travel successes. Yet, while the story is a heroic victory for American ingenuity, it could easily have been a disaster. Were you aware that Armstrong almost ran out of fuel trying to find a safe place to land the lunar lander? Had he been unable to find a safe spot, Apollo 11 would be remembered as a tragedy, not the iconic moment in American post-war history that we know it as today.
If these for books have convinced you as they’ve convince me to forget about space travel, it is just safer to stay at home, perhaps a book about astronomy would be more to your liking. You can explore the heavens right from your favorite comfy armchair, through the writing of Caltech astronomer Mike Brown, in his wonderfully titled book How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. Brown carefully lays out the argument explaining why our much-beloved former ninth planet shouldn’t really count as a planet, following evidence from the latest advanced astronomical instruments to arrive at his conclusion that Pluto is not a planet. It was a courageous conclusion met by some skepticism but ultimately accepted by astronomers. He didn’t risk his life as the astronauts did, but it was a risky opinion from a relatively young astronomer. Be sure to check out Brown’s web site, a “quasi-weekly column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science…”
But, if I haven’t convinced you to cancel your tickets with Virgin Galactic, or if you just want to relive a young person’s joy and excitement about space, be sure to read Homer Hickam’s charming memoir October Sky. First published under the title Rocket Boys, Hickam shares the story of his early life in Coalwood, West Virginia, and his fascination with Sputnik and America’s race to beat the Soviets to the Moon. Hickam reveals the desperation and poverty of his home in Coalwood, as well as the strength of character and patriotism his humble beginnings inspired, in an authentic voice that brings to life a more innocent time in our country. October Sky is a wonderful book , and it inspired a wonderful movie directed by Joe Johnston, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, and Laura Dern. I highly recommend this book for kids, especially young adults, who may have an interest in science or engineering.
What about you? Read any good non-fiction books about space travel? How about believable fiction? I’d love to here from you, so please comment!