As a child, I was fascinated by astronaut Sally Ride’s book To Space and Back, a book she wrote for kids about what it was like to be an astronaut and live in space. Her accounts of the day-to-day challenges of making something as simple as a sandwich in zero gravity and the amazing pictures that showed astronaut toilets and spheres of floating orange juice captivated me. It is this book I thought of when I began to read Chris Jones’ interesting (and at times, nerve-wracking!) book Too Far From Home, which details what life was like for three astronauts during a nearly five-month stretch aboard the International Space Station.
Ken Bowersox, Don Pettit and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin’s stint on the ISS was to be just a routine few weeks living in space and monitoring the ongoing scientific experiments on the ISS. That all changed on January 16, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart during landing, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Left with their grief and horror in the insulation of space, the astronauts would quickly come to realize that the Columbia disaster also affected them in a more practical way. The Space Shuttle was responsible for bringing up the replacement crew to the ISS team after the current team’s stay was complete, and also provided the current crew’s way home. NASA’s grounding of the shuttle fleet following the tragedy put the ISS astronauts’ return to Earth on permanent hold while their cohorts on the ground tried to figure out how best to get them back safely. They would later hitch a heart-stopping ride back to Earth aboard a small, Russian capsule called Soyuz, surviving 8g’s during a steep ballistic reentry (later found to be due to faulty software) and landing miles from their target destination. The Russians lost track of them during reentry and for several hours had no idea if the astronauts were alive or dead.
Amazingly, the three astronauts were in no hurry to get back to Earth. Jones’ story details the minutia of orbital life, and his descriptions of the isolation and leisurely pace of life in space, compared to our hectic lives on Earth, were really eye-opening. I could definitely understand the attraction of the ISS for these men and why they were reluctant to leave. Jones’ descriptions of how the astronauts strapped themselves down to a dinner table in order to eat in a quasi-traditional way, and how tasteless food can become for astronauts due to stuffed nasal passages were hilarious. I loved how astronauts would use packets of taco sauce as collateral on board, sprinkling it even onto Rice Krispies just so they could taste something. His detailing of the Columbia disaster and its aftermath, as well as the dangers inherent in space travel and space walking were very vivid. I appreciated how brave astronauts have to be to help us learn more about how we can live and travel in space.
I really enjoyed this book overall. It wasn’t too technical and gave a great overview of what it would be like to be an astronaut and live in space. Even after their traumatic trip home, Don Pettit has returned to space twice more and is currently residing again on the ISS.