Saturday, September 14, 2013

Sky Walking

Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir
© 2007 Tom Jones
384 pages

Although the exploration of space has a scientific edge, the first astronauts were not scientists: they were military pilots. Thomas Jones is no exception, establishing the foundation for his career in NASA as an Air Force pilot, but his aspirations for space were definitely those of a man of science, not those of a hot-dogging jockey out to set records and prove his manliness. A member of the astronaut class of 1990,  Jones took part in no less than four Space Shuttle missions,  advancing science as a mission specialist. Jones' Sky Walking is one of two shuttle-era astronaut memoirs, the other being Mike Mullane's Riding Rickets; and of the two, Jones is easily superior. This detailed memoir, grounded not just in memory but in Jones' mission logs and letters home,  offers a look at NASA in transition as the age of the space race gave way to one of geopolitical cooperation in the building of the International Space Station -- a project Jones had a hand in. While a shuttle memoir doesn't ripple with explosive excitement like that of an Apollo astronaut's,  Jones is a sturdy guide to NASA of the 1990s -- a thorough and professional author whose attitude combines Right Stuff-era dutifulness with a scientist's excitement at what new knowledge science missions in space might produce.

Although his career spanned over a decade, Jones never sold that idea to his wife. When he applied to be an astronaut, it was over assurances to her that in the unlikely event that they accepted him, he'd be in the program for four years at most -- a year of training, followed by a couple of flights 'up'.   Jones brought something to the program that NASA administrators liked, however:  he was chosen for his first mission before more senior astronauts who'd waited for years for their first flight into the black, and remained a popular choice for a series of missions thereafter, totaling four. Jones' first two missions were expressly scientific, as he helped deliver and begin operating a new form of orbital radar operated from the shuttle that  allowed data receivers on the ground to see far more deeply into the Earth's crust than ever before. Jones' latter missions were tied to the International Space Station: after his crew proved the feasibility of orbital construction procedures, he delivered and established the Destiny laboratory module, the core of the International Space Station. Although each of these missions were successes, the memoir is not without its disappointments: on his third mission, Jones and his companions were frustrated to find that they'd endured months of  rigorous mission-specific training and faced the prospect of rocket-fueled death to get into space, only to arrive in orbit and find their door wouldn't open to let them do their extravehicular work -- or spacewalk.  The birth of the ISS program was not a storied triumph, either:   although Jones chiefly chronicles his own missions, NASA's general history of the time is provided as context.  NASA in the 1990s was an agency struggling to find a purpose for itself. The moon was forgotten in the history books and the shuttle program firmly operational.  With Mars out of the question and the government not particularly supportive of any big projects, NASA was left with half-considered plans for a space station called "Freedom". Bumbling bureaucracy and chronic budget overruns sapped virtually everyone's enthusiasm for it: even Jones and the other astronauts, for whom the station would be a guarantor of work,  regarded it with skepticism. The International Space Station wasn't planned as such; it emerged as a product of compromise.

Those interested in the shuttle program will find Jones' memoir of interest, as he's generous with  details. His missions have far more appeal than those of fellow shuttle memoir-writer Mike Mullane's, whose shuttle  trips were classified runs for the Department of Defense.(Without being able to say much about his missions, Mullane used much of his ink to complain about NASA politics and tell bawdy stories.)  Although Jones' story easily  holds interest, it doesn't exactly command it:  Jones isn't an aggressive author who screams "LOOK AT ME!"  He writes not just as an astronaut, but as a science educator, and so the work requires some focus on the part of the reader. As much as I appreciated Jones' professional style, the occasional glimpses of his personality, like his account of being mesmerized by the slow-turning globe under his feet, kept the work from being reading too much like a debriefing.  The resonance these lapses in the military staccato added would have helped the memoir connect even more easily with general readers, though the odd few dry moments scarcely detract from Sky Walking's appeal. Jones' memoirs offer readers an education into the intensive, prolonged training that astronauts endure, a story of NASA scientists at their finest, and a look into the birth of the International Space Station, inspiring despite its difficult birth. With the shuttle program behind us, and the next crew vehicle Orion not yet operational,  it also provides a look back to the days when American astronauts flew high on ships of their own.


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