When the space shuttleColumbia
disintegrated in February 2003, all but paralyzing NASA, it presented the space agency with a very pressing problem: What were they going to do about the three guys stuck in space?
The members of Expedition Six -- two Americans and a Russian -- had been orbiting in the International Space Station for more than two months the day Columbia fell apart. Suddenly they found that they were circling the earth with no real idea of when or how they'd ever get home.
Esquire magazine writer Chris Jones wrote a terrific article about the men of Expedition Six, and now he’s expanded it to a full book, Too Far From Home: A Story of Life and Death in Space. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come off as well as you’d hope.
Jones can be an engaging writer, with a casual tone that leaves space geek-speak far behind (You’ll probably never read a more nuts-and-bolts discussion about taking a shit in space) and a restless eye for detail.
That eye for detail can be wonderful: we learn that prior to liftoff, the $1.7 billion shuttle is protected by some dime-store plastic owls, so that woodpeckers don’t roost in its corners. It can also be too much: we learn, for some reason, that after the first shuttle flight in 1981, “congratulations poured in from the Canadian parliament, Italian president Sandro Pertini, and the Polish soccer nut who had become Pope John Paul II.” (Gee, congrats from the Canadian parliament and Sandro Pertini? Wow.)
Even at a relatively slim 284 pages, Too Far From Home often feels padded. There are biographies of relatively irrelevant players; there’s purple writing about living in the desert or being in space (“Like the call of the waters that saw heartsick sailors pitch themselves off the backs of ships to be swallowed by Mother Ocean, deepest, blackest, emptiest space has always drawn astronauts.”)
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Some of that can be expected when you’re writing a mission that involves a lot of waiting around in uncertainty. But it’s a shame, because when Jones does have something to tear into, he does it with glee. Expedition Six’s return to earth is a great set-piece: A software glitch triggers a violent descent and lands the Russian capsule hundreds of miles from the target area; while flight officials and relatives deal with the deja-vu horror that yet another crew might be dead, the three astronauts are lying on their backs in the grass, unable to move much because gravity is walloping them, reveling in the newly rediscovered joys of birds and wind and trees.
Astronauts are notoriously difficult interviews, and it’s obvious Jones didn’t have the great good luck of Tom Wolfe, who had Princeton raconteur Pete Conrad to guide him through the ins and outs of The Right Stuff.
Jones makes a game effort here, and space fans will enjoy it. But casual readers interested in long-term space flight, and the terrors and wonders it holds, are still better served by Bryan Burrough’s Dragonfly, about the space station Mir. -- Richard Connelly
Too Far From Home: A Story of Life and Death in Space, Doubleday, $24.95