DRAGONFLY: NASA and the Crisis Aboard MIR
Publication date 1998
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This is an eye-opening book, in rather the same way as THE RIGHT STUFF. The prose style is different, of course, less wide-eyed, but the net effect is the same: to bring the astronauts, cosmonauts and their bureaucracy-generated support systems down to Earth, as it were. Lest we have been lulled into thinking, via the news media, that it is emotionless professionals circling the planet above our heads, Bryan Burrough's exhaustively researched book functions as a good thunk on those heads.
And lest we thought that the Soviet and American space programs were driven by science, we learn PDQ that the whole thing is politics, politics, politics.
Now, that is scary, lots scarier than any chest-bursting alien critter. Because the real danger is in ourselves.
Bryan Burrough, co-author of the excellent BARBARIANS AT THE GATE, has crafted a detailed look at the inner workings of the US and Russian space programs as they struggle to derive some political benefit out of the post-Challenger, post-Soviet era. It's a refreshing, if sobering, tonic for the flag-waving I'm-all-right-Jack newscasts we've all seen so many times from orbit. We are introduced to several astronauts and cosmonauts, comprising the various crews rotating in and out of MIR.
The book details the events leading up to, surrounding and following the disastrous collision with MIR by an unmanned Progress supply ship on June 25, 1997. By events, I include all the political maneuvering by both the Russian and American governments. Burrough makes the case for human error, but less on the part of the Russian cosmonauts on whom the blame was later pinned than on their hidebound ground control crew, who denied all responsibility.
I found it a fascinating read. The realities of space travel are in many ways far more rigorous than any Hollywood summer space blockbuster. If there's a problem in orbit, it's going to have to be dealt with. The alternative is to die. So, there are many sleepless nights and exhausting days spent tracking down coolant leaks and the like.
DRAGONFLY is a long book, full of fascinating character sketches, and no one, Russian or American, comes off as a complete hero or a complete villain. Rather, what we have here are men and women doing their best to survive and succeed in a hostile environment, often blocked by regulations and rules, often stymied by equipment failures and sheer exhaustion, pushed to their limits with their emotions rubbed raw. And all the while, the spectre of failure in terms of derailed career paths, financial cutbacks and withheld bonuses looms for those on the ground as well as for those in orbit. In fact, the procedural and bureaucratic stuff is actually a little dry – which should come as no surprise.
It should also come as no surprise that money makes the world go round. The bottom line is the bottom line in DRAGONFLY.
Highly recommended, especially for STAR WARS fans now that "The Phantom Menace" has been released and we're back to good old "noise in space" once more. (Don't get me wrong – I'll be seeing the film at least twice while it's on the big screen.) But this is what it's really like out there, guys. Also recommended for SF writers looking for reference on the realities of life aboard the MIR and the interplay between nationalities. I came away from this book understanding more about the Russians and how they deal with crises and problems. As far as I'm concerned, that's worth the price of admission. I'll be reading this one again soon.
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