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The Spacefarer’s Handbook - Bergita and Urs Ganse ****

I can’t remember when a book exceeded my expectations quite as much as this one did. From the title, I was anticipating a Haynes-style manual packed with facts and figures but light on scientific insight. The assertion on the back cover that it ‘contains everything aspiring spacefarers need to know!’ (complete with exclamation mark) reinforces the idea that it’s a breezy and superficial book aimed at newcomers to the subject. I’ve already read so much in that vein I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new from it. Happily the book proved me wrong. Possibly as much as two thirds of the material was new to me – all of it fascinating stuff that is usually glossed over in popular-level accounts of human spaceflight.

The Ganses, who are siblings, are both space insiders, Bergita working in space medicine and Urs in space physics. So they’re eminently qualified, and they both have the knack of explaining their specialist subjects lucidly, without assuming prior knowledge on the reader’s part. The result is the polar opposite of a Haynes manual – a lot of insight, but relatively few facts and figures. The book is also surprisingly light on historical context. For example, we’re often told about specific events or issues associated with Apollo or Skylab in the 1970s, but not basic facts like what the spacecraft looked like, the size of the crew, the typical mission profile etc. That’s fine for aging nerds like me, who already know these things, but other readers may need occasional recourse to Google or Wikipedia. On the other hand, this does allow the book to focus on more substantial matters that can’t easily be found by googling.

The bulk of the book is divided into four long chapters, the first of them dealing with spacecraft design. This is the place to learn about everything from rocket engines and gyroscopes to carbon dioxide scrubbing, space toilets and Whipple shielding against micrometeoroids. Next comes ‘how to fly a spacecraft’, including both the physics of orbital manoeuvres and the engineering practicalities of thrusters and joysticks. Presumably these two chapters were written by the physicist half of the team, while the medical doctor was responsible for the two that follow.

Space medicine per se is dealt with in the last of the core chapters, and – speaking as someone who is usually too squeamish to read about medical matters – I found it surprisingly fascinating. It’s not so bad reading about ailments such as ‘puffy face and bird legs’, caused by changes in fluid balance in microgravity, or G-measles – tiny ruptures in blood vessels under high acceleration – when you’re not likely to get them sitting at home. Before that, there’s an equally eye-opening chapter on ‘daily life in space’ – ranging from minor irritations like mould forming on airing cupboards, or exhaled CO2 accumulating in a bubble in front of your face, to important activities like space walks and making coffee.

The book was originally published in German in 2017, then translated by the authors into English. If they hadn’t told me it was a translation in the preface, I don’t think I would have noticed... except perhaps for one thing. The word 'spacefarer' – which appears in the title, the back cover blurb (see my first paragraph above) and dozens of places in the main text – is clear enough in meaning, but sufficiently uncommon that my spellchecker doesn’t recognise it. To me it has a vaguely poetic – or possibly tongue-in-cheek – ring to it, which I’m sure the authors didn’t intend. It’s a literal translation of Raumfahrer, which is the standard German word for astronaut. I’m probably being over-fussy, but to me the more matter-of-fact ‘Astronaut’s Handbook’ would have been a better title than the whimsical-sounding ‘Spacefarer’s Handbook’.

That little quibble aside, there’s not much I can say about the book that’s negative. I can think of a few topics the authors missed out, but if they’d included them it would have made the book longer – and since I hate overlong books that would have been a problem in itself. As it is, the book strikes a happy medium between glossy Haynes-style offerings on the one hand, and plodding academic literature – which is the only other place you’ll find many of these topics discussed – on the other. As a final plus-point, the book has an affordable, far from academic-level price tag – so it’s highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the finer points of human spaceflight.


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Review by Andrew May

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