LEAVING EARTH: SPACE STATIONS, RIVAL SUPERPOWERS AND THE QUEST FOR INTERPLANETARY TRAVEL
By Robert Zimmerman
ISI, $27.95, 544 pages
REVIEWED BY CHARLES ROUSSEAUX
Every spectacular spacecraft failure proves the same thing: Space travel is a tough, expensive, risky business. Computers crash, rockets explode, probes miss planets and satellites smack into the atmosphere. And then there are human tragedies — the Challengers, the Columbias.
Yet for every glitch, space travelers find a fix, for every disaster, they find a renewed determination. Sometimes the solutions happen in mid-mission, sometimes, they aren’t found until the accident review board finishes its work.
Space enthusiasts worried about where the manned space program is headed will take some heart from reading Robert Zimmerman’s “Leaving Earth: Space Stations Rival Superpowers and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel,” in which the author tells how determined men and women have mastered, if not totally overcome, many of the hazards of living in space.
Mr. Zimmerman shows that space, for all it’s promise, can be a Murphy’s Law paradise, in which everything goes wrong, often at exactly the most critical moment. There are the physical difficulties — the hostile environment outside and the constricted spaces inside space stations. There are physiological challenges of space sickness and bone loss, and the psychological challenges of boredom and claustrophobia and of mismatched teammates stuck together in inescapably tight quarters. Then there are the technical difficulties — balky computers, leaky space suits, tools that don’t work well in zero gravity. Perhaps the greatest problems are created by politicians and space bureaucracies.
As Mr. Zimmerman notes in describing the experience of those on Skylab, “Without gravity, nothing behaved as you expected,” starting with showers. All unsecured items, ranging from silverware to tiny droplets of water, behaved just as should have been expected in zero gravity, namely by floating away.
As Mr. Zimmerman makes clear, the difficulties were there from the outset. On the first mission to occupy the first Russian space station, the guidance system of the crew’s rocket malfunctioned, forcing cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov to steer manually. However, once the craft arrived, he couldn’t confirm that it had fully docked with the station. When he tried to undock for a second try, he couldn’t get the claps to release. The craft didn’t have enough fuel or oxygen to try again, so the crew never made it inside (where a malfunctioning oxygen replacement system would have awaited them) and so had to return to Earth.
The adaptive ability of astronauts and cosmonauts was also evident at the outset. On the first manned mission to the Skylab space station, astronauts Pete Conrad, Joe Kerwin and Paul Weitz deployed a sunscreen to reduce the interior temperature from 130 F, and found a way to fully release a stuck solar panel, even though there were no handholds nearby. As Mr. Conrad exclaimed upon landing, “We can fix anything!”
As missions got longer, computers improved, tools were adapted, and scientists determined that bone density loss could be controlled by constant exercise. However, challenges continued to crop up. The adaptive ability of astronauts and cosmonauts was put to it’s limit aboard Mir, where Russian and American crews had to deal with, among others, an almost catastrophic fire, a collision with a re-supply ship, a series of difficulties with the oxygen regenerators (culminated by their failure) and a coolant leak, which, Mr. Zimmerman reports, “Made the overheated station smelled like a car repair shop.”
But those problems were also beaten back. The fire was extinguished, and the crews managed to rig an atmosphere recycling system until a replacement arrived from earth, work around the coolant leak and repair most of the damage caused by the collision.View Entire Story
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