Skip to main content

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.


Paperback: 
Bookshop.org

  

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Sentience - Nicholas Humphrey *****

The first seventy-odd pages of this book are absolutely phenomenal (pun intended, though still true). We start with a near-stream of consciousness prologue - very appropriate for a book on sentience - and then go on to have a description of the early part of Nicholas Humphrey's career in a wonderfully approachable fashion with a writing style somewhere between a deep conversation and a thought process. I particularly loved Humphrey's description of his heading off to Elba to investigate the paranormal claims of the eccentric Hugh Sartorius Whitaker and his experiences with Dian Fossey (not always pleasant) when visiting to study the 'natural psychologist' ability of gorillas. The book then takes a change of tack, signified by the author heading the next chapter 'To work', as he sets out to build for us his theory on the nature of sentience and 'phenomenal consciousness'. This too is very interesting, but lacks the same storytelling verve. It's also a

The Magick of Matter - Felix Flicker ****

This is a book about condensed matter physics, surely a particularly boring-sounding name for one of the most interesting parts of the subject. It's about the physics of things we encounter. When you think about it, it's quite odd that most popular physics books are about things like quantum physics and cosmology and particle physics that don't deal with things we can put our hands on or see. Of course quantum physics impacts lots of everyday objects through electronics etc., but it's still driven by particles we can't see or experience in a normal sense. Felix Flicker introduces us to two key aspects of the physics of tangible stuff - emergence and chaos (though in practice, chaos only gets a passing mention). Because, as he points out, the problem with purely looking at the particle level is that stuff really is the more than the sum of its parts. The chaos and uncertainty part was handled excellently in Tim Palmer's recent The Primacy of Doubt , but this book

How Your Brain Works - Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo ***

As soon as you see the cover of this book, it feels like it's going to be light hearted and super fun (or at least it seems the authors want it to be this). In practice, it's not. It might have big, Joy of Sex style line drawings and an odd shape with cheap feeling paper, but the content is fairly straightforwardly serious.  In the introduction Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo tells us that 'There are many examples of how amateur scientists add to our collective understanding of nature.' This feels a dubious statement at best - it's obviously true historically when professional scientists didn't exist, but these days amateur contributions are distinctly niche. If you think of any of the really big scientific breakthroughs of the last 100 years, there isn't a lot of amateur input. And using this book certainly won't add anything. Once we get into the book proper, it delivers on at least part of the subtitle 'neuroscience experiments for everyone' - the