Book review: 'Haynes Astronaut Manual' by Ken MacTaggart
How travelling into space has evolved from heroic endeavour to a profession like many others.
Tim Peake’s well-publicised 186-day mission to the International Space Station, which culminated in June 2016, undoubtedly galvanised the interest of school children across Britain. How many of those budding astronauts go to space remains to be seen, but there’s arguably a greater chance now than at any other time in the 66 years of human spaceflight.
The new ‘Haynes Astronaut Owners’ Workshop Manual’ by Ken MacTaggart (Haynes, £22.99, ISBN 9781785210617) celebrates the ‘astronaut age’ that began in April 1961 with the launch of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. It is, however, no sycophantic, hero-worshipping lexicon of manned space missions. The author is clear from the start that the role of the astronaut is no longer about “the heroic explorer braving unknown dangers in the cosmos”. Although space travel may not yet be routine, he explains, today’s prospective candidates apply for advertised posts, endure a “comprehensive selection process” and, if successful, “get the job, like any terrestrial employment”.
This pragmatic approach informs the book’s structure, which centres on the process and uses specific astronauts and missions as illustrative examples. Beginning with the obligatory, but nonetheless interesting, review of the astronaut in fiction, it briskly moves to chapters on roles and missions, selection and recruitment, and training. Then, following a section on spacecraft, it covers “entering space”, “life in orbit” and the all-important return to Earth. Each section is well illustrated – predominantly with colour photos – and the book concludes with a glossary and index.
The activities of astronauts no longer have the cultural impact familiar to those who experienced the early Space Age, which is understandable considering that more than 500 individuals have accumulated over 77 astronaut-years in space since Gagarin’s mission. The downgrading of astronaut to ‘mere mortal’ means, however, that publications such as this have an important role to play. In a world where most people’s knowledge of astronauts is shaped by Matt Damon’s potato farming in ‘The Martian’ and Sandra Bullock’s weightless screaming in ‘Gravity’, few know what being an astronaut really means.
As this book makes clear, it’s not so much about exploration these days; more about education and training, construction and maintenance, discomfort and tedium... with the occasional chance to do something extraordinary (like ride on a rocket or stare at a planet rotating below you). Apart from the extreme examples, then, being an astronaut is just like any other profession. Which begs the question: ‘what do astronauts do when they retire?’
The author considers this question in a final chapter entitled ‘life after space’, which sees former Apollo astronauts becoming US senators, company CEOs and artists. Alexei Leonov, for example, took crayons into space to sketch the sunrise and later published books of his paintings; Moonwalker Alan Bean famously mixed lunar dust into his pigments to produce undeniably-original artworks.
Astronaut Leroy Chiao concludes his foreword with a tentative prediction: “In time, some of the human race, perhaps most, will leave Earth for good. One day, perhaps we will all be astronauts.” If he’s right, we’re definitely going to need a manual!
Some other recent books on space and astronomy...
NASA Hubble Space Telescope Owners Workshop Manual – 1990 Onwards (Including All Upgrades) (Haynes, £22.99, ISBN 9780857337979)
The same characteristic Haynes style as the new astronaut manual, but focusing on the machinery behind a project whose stunning pictures have helped bring astronomy into the mainstream. A technical breakdown of Hubble’s design, development, manufacture and assembly is accompanied by some of the best of its many awe-inspiring images of the cosmos.
Eyes on the Sky: A Spectrum of Telescopes by Francis Graham Smith (Oxford University Press, £25, ISBN 9780198734277)
A history of telescopes across the four centuries from Galileo to today’s major international projects like the Square Kilometre Array which use equipment stretching across the whole spectrum from visible light to radio and millimetre astronomy, through infrared to ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays. Radio astronomy pioneer and former Astronomer Royal Francis Graham Smith explains how this technology is helping to give us a more in-depth picture of the nature of the universe.
Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A Strauss and J Richard Gott (Princeton University Press, £29.95, ISBN 9780691157245)
A guided tour of the cosmos by three of today’s leading astrophysicists, inspired by the enormously popular introductory astronomy course that they taught together at Princeton University. From planets, stars and galaxies to black holes, wormholes and time travel, they describe the latest discoveries in astrophysics, addressing questions like how stars live and die, why Pluto lost its planetary status and what the prospects are of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the universe.