Document Created: 1December 2007
Air & Space Power Journal-Winter 2007
Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir by Tom Jones. Harper Collins Publishers (http://www.harper
collins.com/hc), 10 East 53rd Street, New York, New York 10022, 2006, 369 pages, $26.95 (hardcover).
Most readers of Air and Space Power Journal probably wanted to be astronauts at some point in their lives. Some may still strive for this goal, and a select few others may actually be astronauts. Readers who fall into any of these categories or simply have an interest in manned spaceflight will love Sky Walking. Written by former astronaut Tom Jones, a veteran of four space-shuttle flights and holder of a PhD in planetary sciences, this exceptional book captures both the technological and human aspects of a profession so many aspire to yet so very few attain.
The memoir relates a chronological journey of astronaut life, from the decision to apply to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), through the five days of interviews and testing, selection and initial training, to assignment of the first mission. It also offers detailed descriptions of all flights. Jones avoids using a redundant, cookie-cutter approach to recounting each of his four missions. Instead, he describes precisely the eight-minute, 40-second launch sequence on one flight; the minutely scripted schedule of daily life in orbit on another; the 45-minute plunge through the heat of 3,000 degrees of reentry, which he took for granted until Columbia incinerated in 2003; and the ballet-like series of maneuvers involved in successfully docking with the International Space Station (ISS) on his last mission.
The author skillfully describes both the technological aspects of each shuttle mission in layman’s terms (a feat in itself for most PhDs) while simultaneously providing plenty of information about the human elements of astronaut life. His first two shuttle missions—Space Transportation System (STS) 59 and 68, launched in April and September 1994, respectively—utilized his unique academic background with the Space Radar Laboratory, which mapped Earth’s surface while it remained in the shuttle’s large cargo bay. During these missions, he proved himself—something astronauts continuously do because of the keen competition and small margin of error in their work. This mind-set is summarized in the astronaut’s prayer “God, please don’t let me screw up” (p. 172).
Engineers, scientists, and other technical professions are often criticized for their lack of humanness, but Jones is clearly an exception. Some of the most memorable aspects of his memoir are his descriptions of the “office” and home life of astronauts. Although training for missions makes for long days, when astronauts are awaiting a crew assignment, they involve themselves in various projects: assisting crews in training, escorting family members during missions, making public appearances, and so forth. Clearly, astronauts experience few dull moments and contend with many demands on their families.
For Jones, a very human aspect of spaceflight is his deep faith. He recounts celebrating mass with his crew in orbit and receiving communion. He also describes how his parish priest attended the launches and had a prayer service on the beach at Cape Canaveral for the crew, their families, and friends. His descriptions from space reflect his strong beliefs: “Never have I felt so insignificant, part of a scene so obviously set by God” (p. 316).
His third mission involved dispatching and retrieving an ultraviolet spectrometer satellite and an aborted extravehicular activity (EVA), or space walk, when the shuttle’s pressure door jammed, the latter described as the biggest disappointment of his astronaut career. His fourth mission (and the book’s finale) included docking with the ISS and his long-awaited and intensely trained-for EVA, which he terms “sky walking.” These missions, STS 80 and 98, flew in November 1996 and February 2001, respectively. The thrill of sky walking on STS 98 compensated for the lost opportunity on STS 80.
Jones’s ability to relate the absolute wonder and thrill of spaceflight is captured in his description of sky walking around the ISS during his third and final EVA:
Pivoting around my grip on Destiny’s forward handrail, I drank in the panorama unfolding around me. Directly in front of me, twenty feet away, the tail of Atlantis split the Earth’s horizon. Straight up, the glittering solar panels of the Space Station spread like golden wings across the black nothingness of space. To either side of the now-empty payload bay, the royal blue of the ocean and its swirling white clouds rolled past. Behind me, the bulk of the Station plowed forward like a vast, unwavering star cruiser, slicing through the heavens toward a horizon a thousand miles distant (p. 316).
This memoir reveals many additional fascinating points: the ineptness of NASA management at times, the poor planning and management of the ISS, the incredible difficulty of working with the Russians, the one-in-76 chance of a catastrophic failure that astronauts face each time they fly, and the fact that Republican administrations supported NASA more strongly than Democratic ones.
Although the book provides many other exceedingly interesting stories and superb descriptions of the challenges and thrills of a shuttle astronaut, it does suffer from a few minor flaws. The ending seems a bit abrupt and fails to give readers enough insight into the future of manned spaceflight after the shuttle program concludes. Also, the descriptions of scientific experiments occasionally bordered on the tedious. But Jones’s exceptional writing skills, logical organization, and thoroughness make these blemishes very minor and easily overlooked.
Sky Walking is an outstanding memoir that anyone even remotely interested in manned spaceflight will find difficult to put down. I highly recommend it, especially to the next generation of astronauts who will fly the crew exploration vehicle, the successor to the space shuttle, which will take men and women to the moon, Mars, and beyond.
Col Phil Bossert, USAF
University of Houston
and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author
cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of
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