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.



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


Popular posts from this blog

Why? - Philip Goff *****

It might seem a bit odd to review a popular philosophy book here, but Philip Goff's content overlaps sufficiently with cosmology that it's appropriate, and that content is fascinating, even though chances are you won't agree with Goff all the way. The point of this book is to suggest that there is purpose behind the cosmos. The main evidence for this that Goff uses is the fine tuning of our universe that makes it suitable for life. Most cosmologists agree that this is odd, but many try to explain it using the idea of the multiverse. With some nifty mathematic-less probability (though he does invoke and describe Bayes theorem), Goff demonstrates convincingly that this argument does not hold up. (You can see some detail of how he shows that it's rubbish here .)  We then take a look at a couple of alternative explanations - a deity, or the universe itself embodying a degree of purpose, which comes under the banner of panpsychism. I didn't honestly find the arguments in

Short Cut: Maths - Katie Steckles (Ed.) ****

As a reader, I'm generally something of a sceptic on the subject of highly illustrated books that cover a topic in a series of two page spreads, but I surprised myself by enjoying Short Cut: Maths . It's described online as a paperback, but it's actually a quite handsome hardback. The book is divided into eight sections (numbers, structures, logic, geometry and shape, functions, probability and statistics, modelling and games) each of which contains six or seven spreads in the form of answers to questions. These range from the straightforward 'How high can you count on your fingers?' or 'Why can't you un-square a number?' to the intriguing 'Can a baby manage a crocodile?' and 'How many hairs are there on a bear?' As is often the case with this style of book, there are several contributors whose names are quite hard to find - as well as consulting editor Katie Steckles, we have Sam Hartburn, Alison Kiddle, and Peter Rowlett (plus illustrat

Consciousness - John Parrington ****

Consciousness provides what is the arguably biggest gap we have in our scientific knowledge. Unlike quantum physics or the detail of cell biology, this is a subject we all experience directly in our everyday lives. We know that we appear to be conscious. But what consciousness really means, if it exist at all and how it can be studied scientifically are all issues that science bumps up against repeatedly. John Parrington starts us of with some basic background to the history of consciousness 'science' from Artistotle, through Descartes to the modern distinction between the understanding of mechanisms for how we sense, remember, react to stimulus and so forth and the 'hard problem' of explaining the subjective sense of being us and our feelings. Parrington argues that our human-style consciousness, which he suggests is different from that of other animals, is a consequence of our use of language and our ability to use tools to radically transform our environment, combin