Wednesday, July 2, 2008

"Sky Walking" by Tom Jones.

Lord, no.
Not him.

This guy:

A friend of mine, a fellow Catholic and space geek, was kind enough to e-mail me an article which appeared in a Catholic paper a few years back written by astronaut Tom Jones.

I thought the article was so good that I searched until I found Jones' e-mail address. I dropped him a line to tell him how much I enjoyed the piece.

And then...

He wrote me back. That's right. There, in my inbox, was correspondence from a man who flew four shuttle missions and did three spacewalks to help construct the ISS.
He was so humble and gracious in accepting my praise for his article. He didn't just send back, "Thanks." He made the e-mail personal, responding to the space-related AND faith-related points of my note. He opened with, "How kind of you to write such heartwarming words!" He didn't just nod in my direction. He stopped, smiled, shook my hand, and asked how the kids were doing, figuratively, of course.
I was thrilled, even though I suspected that's exactly how he'd be.

Of course, after the article, my interest was piqued. I didn't just want to know about Dr. Jones' spiritual journey - I wanted to know all about his scientific and personal journey as well. In addition, I suppose I wanted to extend my gratitude for his kind reply. Tom Jones is an American hero, risking his life as surely as Lewis and Clark did, though he risked his not just for exploration and expansion but for the betterment of mankind. Tom Jones is a fine writer. Tom Jones has interesting subject material, duh. But guess what? Tom Jones is also well-mannered. I can't imagine the number of e-mails he gets. (In fact, his website notes that one should have patience when awaiting an e-mail reply "due to the amount of correspondence he receives.") So, yeah. It would have been easy for him to write back a standard form "Thanks for the kind words" bit, BUT HE DIDN'T. A million points, right there. Without hesitation, I went to Barnes and and bought "Sky Walking" and "Hell Hawks! The Untold Story of the American Fliers Who Savaged Hitler's Wehrmacht."
And I was thrilled to learn that he has a National Geographic book, "Planetology", coming out in the fall. Dr. Jones is a distinguished scientist, holding a doctorate in planetary science. I am very eager to read "Planetology."

So I got the book today as I was walking out the door for work. When I sat down at my desk, I opened it.

Holy. cow.

I literally delayed restroom breaks reading this book. Wow! It's phenomenal. It is gripping - hysterical, fascinating, and at times, scary. I finished the whole thing. 345 pages in an 8 hour shift. I could not stop reading.

I laughed out loud several times, particularly in the first few chapters. And I NEVER laugh out loud while reading. It is obvious that Tom Jones is blessed with humility and a fine sense of humor. The bit about Story Musgrave's advice on a funny trick to play while peeing in space had me in stitches, not just because it's a grand idea, but because it's pretty obvious that Story isn't conveying a hypothetical situation - he's actually done it!
And the part about the crewmember who fell asleep while e-mailing and was found not in his bunk but floating peacefully through the cabin, bumping walls here and there, but never moving from his fetal position - what a visual!

It is so accessible, yet in no way is it dumbed down. It is technical without being dense. Paragraphs about TACAN and MECO are interspersed with stories about his wife, kids, and his poor nervous mother, and there is no shortage of hilarity, frivolity, introspection, and awed reverence. I found myself thinking over and over again, "Okay, I could never be an astronaut."
I mean, I was always aware that there's a whole lot of behind-the-scenes, non-fun stuff, but the stories in this book make it pretty clear.
The file footage you see on CNN? That's the glory.
The reality is that an astronaut career is a smelly, dangerous, repetitive, jealous, demanding and sometimes disgusting mistress.
Strangely, with so much of the glory stripped away, I found myself EVEN MORE in awe and admiration of our men and women in the space program. There probably aren't many people reading this blog, who, with a limitless bank account, wouldn't purchase a ticket on the space shuttle if it were possible. (Okay, there aren't many people reading this blog, period. I digress.)
It looks so FUN! It IS so fun! But there are also probably not many people who would go to the trouble of getting a PhD, spend 18 hours a day, 6 days a week at work doing the same thing over and over and over and over again, leave their families week after week, deal with bureaucrats 24/7, go potty in absolutely the most inconvenient and time-consuming way, etc., just for the pleasure of eating irradiated roast beef and drinking Tang in a weightless environment. They are the most dedicated, committed professionals in America, you can take it to the bank. And I'm not just talking about the astronauts - the men and women who make it happen are included in that group, too.

One of the things I appreciated in the book was the author sharing with us (briefly, yet tenderly) his reactions to both Challenger and Columbia. He writes:

I knew that spaceflight carried risk. But nothing in my flying experience prepared me for the shock of January 28, 1986. A graduate student in planetary sciences at the University of Arizona, I had just returned from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where over the weekend I had shared with colleagues the mind-tingling experience of Voyager 2's first-ever spacecraft encounter with the planet Uranus. Back in Tucson that Tuesday morning, I stepped next door from my campus office to the Flandrau Planetarium to watch the launch of the space shuttle Challenger.

With me in that darkened planetarium were a few dozen elementary schoolchildren on a field trip to watch the first teacher rocket into orbit. It wasn't a big crowd; shuttle launches were no longer a novelty. Nevertheless, the planetarium staff and I shared the excitement visible on the young faces as the shuttle soared into a pure blue sky on the blazing exhaust of its twin boosters. We tracked Challenger's upward progress as the cameras zoomed in, filling the giant screen with the shuttle's image and bringing looks of wonder and awe to the faces of the youthful crowd. Just seventy seconds after liftoff, our exhilaration turned to stomach-turning shock. Nine miles above Cape Canaveral, the space shuttle disintegrated before our eyes. A failed rubber O-ring seal allowed the escape of burning propellant gases from the side of the right booster; the scorching flame triggered a structural failure that tore apart the boosters, fuel tank, and orbiter. That churning fireball, I knew instantly, sealed the fate of all seven crew members, but with the children I strained for a glimpse of a miracle - the orbiter emerging safe from the flaming debris. Still hoping, a few of the students clapped as a lone parachute carrying a fragment of one of the boosters drifted toward the sea. But we were wishing for the impossible: Challenger's crew wore no parachutes. As the camera focused on wreckage splashing into the empty ocean, I could see my own horror reflected in the shock and disbelief around me. No one knew what to say; the sudden tragedy had silenced the room. I offered my only thought to the children and their teachers: "Now would be a good time to say a prayer."

Of course, space is a dangerous business, and this book managed to convey that well. It's not just launch and landing that are dangerous. Almost every single moment carries some risk, sometimes before you even leave earth.

Chapter 13 opens with Dr. Jones doing a "mock space walk" at JSC. He's in an EVA suit, the room is a vacuum chamber, and if something goes wrong, he's dead meat.

He writes:

Working in a vacuum was always a hazardous undertaking, even in the terrestrial confines of the vacuum chambers at the Johnson Space Center. During the Skylab program, a test engineer, James LeBlanc, was working at a pressure equivalent of about 250,000 feet when his umbilical popped loose from his modified Apollo EVA suit, instantly exposing him to near-vacuum. Taking the full brunt of an explosive decompression, Jim said his last memory before blacking out was feeling the saliva boiling off his tongue. (Emphasis mine.)

During STS-98, Tom's wife Liz and their two children were in a room at KSC waiting for the launch. NASA administrator Dan Goldin came into the room (normally a very private setting, reserved for just closest family to be apart from everything).
Jones writes:

Liz expected NASA's top official to express appreciation for their support of the crew and optimism for an on-time launch. Instead Goldin's remarks took an unusual direction. "We've tried to make this vehicle as safe as possible." Liz looked at him with disbelief as he continued. "We've tried to make this launch as safe as possible." What could he possibly be thinking? How was Dan going to salvage this one? He followed his thoughts to their chilling conclusion: "But after all... this is space." Goldin pursed his lips, raised his eyebrows, and shrugged. The three wives were stunned. As he left the room it was all Liz could do to voice a polite goodbye.

In addition to the interesting subject material, reading this book gives space geeks a good opportunity to learn more about the men and women and places they already know so much about. Reading about how personable and kind and helpful John Young and Story Musgrave are (I knew it!), or how Mission Control is set up, or what a day in the life of an Astronaut Candidate is like - all this was great fun.

Other high praise:

A 'tell it like it is' flight crew report of living and working in space... An inside story - well told!
-Neil Armstrong

Tom Jones will take you by the hand through the trials and tribulations of being a shuttle astronaut. His vision of where NASA should go in the future should be read by all serious space enthusiasts.
-James A. Lovell

Tom Jones's excellent descriptions take you along to experience the joys, frustrations, training, selection-at-long-last, and life aboard a mission in space. An excellent account.
-John Glenn

WOW! Tom Jones writes as well as he flies, with humor, candor, and considerable wisdom.
-Michael Collins

In short, get this damn book. It is awesome, awesome, awesome.

If I ever get involved in another Astronaut Fan Club...

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