How to Astronaut: Everything You Need to Know Before Leaving Earth by Terry Virts is exactly what the author describes in the subtitle. He talks about everything involved in becoming an astronaut, both now and when he was in training. Virts worked both on the space shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS). The space shuttle program ended some time ago, so that gives you a vague idea of the timing.
Terry Virts began his career as a fighter pilot and then later moved on to the astronaut training program. So, he knew his physics and knew how to fly, had lived with intense pressure to perform with accuracy and lived with a certain amount of risk. But, danger as a fighter pilot and its intensity level of training paled by comparison to the training to become an astronaut.
In How to Astronaut, Virts walks readers through the process of becoming an astronaut, from learning to speak Russian (now an absolute requirement because Americans and Russians work together and the ISS missions take off from Russia) to learning to handle weightlessness, to practicing space walks. He also talks about such everyday things as the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the experiments they perform, how they exercise and why a certain amount of daily exercise is crucial to an astronaut's health, how to use the bathroom in space, how they keep clean, and (yuck) how they clean the toilet. He describes disasters that have taken place and what happens when one does (for example, the loss of a supply ship that blew up and how it impacts astronauts on the ISS). There are a lot of interesting details that I found utterly fascinating.
After yesterday's news about the Russian anti-satellite missile test and the resulting scramble to safety by the ISS crew members, it occurred to me that I needed to update my review of How to Astronaut because space debris and its dangers are discussed in the book. In fact, I think I can safely say I would have been concerned about Russian aggression but otherwise probably not blinked at the news if I hadn't read this book. But, space debris is a significant danger both to the International Space Station and future hopes for space travel. Terry Virts goes into some detail about how different countries have handled such tests, the preferred method being to only do them at such a height that the resulting debris will reenter the atmosphere and burn up harmlessly. Otherwise, it remains in orbit around the Earth perpetually and because of that, the ISS has to make maneuvers several times a year to avoid debris, which could not only damage the space station but kill everyone in it.
I also neglected to mention how Virts goes into the realities of long-term space travel (radiation danger, in particular) and why travel to Mars is plausible but what would be involved in such a mission, including the supplies necessary, the need to find a way to protect astronauts from space radiation, how such a ship would need to be assembled, and the best way to fuel a long journey. On that same note, he goes into what it would take to do space travel along the lines of what we've seen in science fiction TV and movies and why it's unlikely we'll ever encounter other living beings outside of Earth — because of the sheer length of time it would take to get to the closest potentially habitable planet. Fascinating stuff.
And, one last thing . . . Space Force. I was dubious about the concept of the Space Force, thinking it some weird thing that the last president came up with to look cool, until someone I know explained to me that the job of the Space Force is protecting our satellites and was formerly the mission of the US Air Force but merely separated into its own unit to focus on that particular mission. Yesterday's anti-satellite missile test shows why it's necessary. Having said that, I still think it is badly named and has been poorly described to the public and that's probably the main reason so many people have scrunched their faces up and wondered aloud at why it even exists. There was not yet a Space Force, at least in the early part of How to Astronaut, but the author hinted at the fact that it might be coming. I can't say whether or not the references to a potential space force have been updated because I don't have a final copy of How to Astronaut but I did find it of interest that he knew it might be coming.
Highly recommended - Especially recommended for fans of all things outer space/NASA and nonfiction lovers. My husband has recently met a former astronaut so I had a lot of fun telling him what I'd learned about the process of becoming and being an astronaut and he's planning to read the book soon. My only problem with the book was that occasionally I got lost in the science and felt like I was drowning in acronyms. There are far too many acronyms!!! But, that just goes with the territory if you're an astronaut, apparently.
The most interesting anecdote, in my opinion, was one about learning to deal with zero gravity. Back in his early training days, there was still a plane that went up and arced down in a parabola to cause a few minutes of weightlessness. You may have seen Howard Wolowitz, the astronaut character from The Big Bang Theory inside the padded plane when he was doing his training. That's exactly what Virts describes; however, this type of training is no longer done in the US and the reason why is what's most interesting to me. Virts says the US had been doing this for decades and it was affordable. But, then someone decided to privatize the zero gravity training and it became, in the process, dramatically more expensive. Instead of bringing back the old program, now canned, they eliminated it completely. So, if you want to get zero gravity training in the old plane-dropping-precipitously way, you have to go to another country.
Having said that's my favorite anecdote (it's partly because I'm of the opinion that privatizing government work is generally, although not always, a bad thing — and I have a business degree so that's the kind of thing that really piques my interest), there are a lot of entertaining and fascinating stories in How to Astronaut and I'm glad I read this book. Terry Virts keeps it light-hearted and has a great sense of humor.
I received an ARC from Workman Publishing in 2020 and it kept moving from one TBR pile to another till I finally decided its time had come. My thanks to Workman for the ARC! How to Astronaut was published in September of 2020, so it's readily available for purchase.
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