Published on August 12, 2007
"Too Far From Home": An extraordinary story, filled with events that even in themselves
Too Far From Home: A Story of Life and Death in Space
Published by Doubleday, 2007
Available at Asia Books, Bt850
Reviewed by Paul Dorsey
David Bowie's dangling astronaut Major Tom ("Here am I sitting in a tin can, far above the world, Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do") is ready with his lost sailor's lament the whole time you're reading "Too Far From Home", the true story of three tenants of the International Space Station who got left behind.
Chris Jones, a terrific writer, is almost as good as Bowie with the poignancy of it all, but it's a harder mood to carry through a whole book than it is through a four-minute song. The way Jones told the story first, for a US magazine, won him a national award and the book contract. He had to take a carefully balanced piece of work and stretch it, and there's always going to be structural peril in that. Nevertheless, this book is a dandy.
In November 2002, Americans Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit and Russian
Nikolai Budarin were carried to the space station by the shuttle Endeavour. Two
months later the Columbia exploded and the rest of the shuttle fleet was grounded
indefinitely. So much for their ride home in March.
This is an extraordinary story, filled with events that even in themselves
might make terrific movies in the style of "Apollo 13". The litany of mini-disasters
aboard the Mir station, naturally unreported at the time, are all thrillers
waiting for someone like Harrison Ford to sign on for the shoot. And how is this for an image: when you cry in space, the tears gather in puddles around your eyes, "refusing" - as Jones puts it - to run down your cheeks.
I didn't know that, but real spaceflight buffs do, of course. The websites where they confer over the nuts and bolts of going extraterrestrial are livid with Chris Jones, accusing him of grossly overdramatising every potential danger and oversimplifying all the technical gear, as well as just plain getting some things wrong.
He ought to stick to sports, his original beat for Esquire magazine, they fume, though it's doubtful they'd say the same about Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, a pair of jock journalists if there ever were.
You can't argue with the astrogeeks, but you can swallow a pinch of
salt and then thoroughly enjoy the way Jones describes the ride of Expedition 6, as the veteran Bowersox, the nerdy Pettit and the almost stereotypically bearish Budarin were officially designated.
Having begun the book with Neil Armstrong, Jones takes many more detours from the story of Expedition 6 to examine the big picture and explain how we got to this point - the space race and the US-Russian cooperation that followed, the flights that went bad and the missions that succeeded.
We learn some honestly appalling things about how the astronauts are selected and trained and what the wives go through, much about the different spacecraft, a few jarring anecdotes about space superstition, and even the secret to defecating in zero gravity: propulsion. I did not know that astronauts require vast quantities of spices and condiments either - evidently their taste buds shrivel up so much up there that the only way to enjoy food is to suffuse it in chillies and sauces.
But this is all trivia amid Chris Jones' big-picture poetry about what kind
of man it takes and how that guy went from visiting space to learning how to inhabit it. He uses terms like "the hard art of isolation" and "the geography of isolation" to capture the astronauts' loneliness, and truly nails it with a metaphor of the space vehicles' windows, the thin, transparent membranes that separate them for everything and everyone else they can see through it.
In a meditation on the fact that most astronauts hail from farm communities and wind-blown oases like Phoenix, always rural or at least out on their
own, Jones writes:
"There's another, better reason why astronauts are born lonely. City kids don't have the room nor the need to dream. The lights and chaos burn away their imaginations. The only decent dreaming gets done out here, in our wider landscapes, in our deserts and canola fields, those beautiful places where we don't even have to look up to see all of the sky at daybreak and every last star at night."
Finally, after much hand-wringing in the wake of the Columbia horror, Nasa gulped and gave the Russians a go for the only real option left open for Expedition 6: send up a Soyuz capsule with two replacement astronauts and bring the boys home. The trio finally whacked into
Kazakhstan on May 2, 2003, after a ride back that was certainly no easy glide.
"Too Far From Home" is about a bumpy mission that toyed with tragedy, but Chris Jones steers it smoothly across an ocean made serene and majestic by its sheer