Author: Chris Jones

Broadway Books, 2007

Filed under: Nonfiction, Literary

Don Pettit—genius scientist and American astronaut—was a last-minute replacement for the space team “Expedition Six,” a three-man crew who would spend an extended stay on the International Space Station (or simply, as its residents call it, “station”). Expedition Six’s supplies and rations were sent to station before Pettit was named to the team, so he had to make due with the clothes and the menu of the man he replaced. The shirts were too big and there was no coffee. NASA allowed Pettit only the small ration of space coffee that he could fit with him on his shuttle ride to station. They weren’t trying to be tight-assed, it’s just difficult and expensive to send stuff into space. Pettit would have survived without coffee, but in space, it was important to have even that small ration, a reminder of life on earth.

Let me take a step back. Out of Orbit‘s flap copy will tell you the “harrowing” tale of three men on a fourteen-week mission in the International Space Station. The men must overcome the tragedy of the Columbia explosion, which killed seven of their friends and grounded the shuttle program. With no shuttle scheduled to relieve them, the men are stranded, orbiting the earth without a ride home. Eventually, NASA decided that the men must descend back to the earth in an outdated Russian Soyuz capsule, which was, “at best, a long shot.” The book jacket would have you believe that this is a tale Michael Bay would be happy to turn into a blockbuster.

Luckily for the reader, Chris Jones doesn’t write with the same hyperbolic tone his publisher uses to sell books. Out of Orbit is less about the tragic Columbia crash and the extended mission it created, and more about space coffee and space dessert and space toilets and what really accounts for living as far as a human being can live from home. Pettit and his fellow crew members—American Ken Bowersox and Russian Nikolai Budarin—spent years training for the rigors of space, only to become history’s most highly trained janitors, a paradox Jones cleverly utilizes to move the narrative forward.

In some ways, Out of Orbit is also the story of The International Space Station, a unique product of U.S.A./Russia cooperation. Jones presents a detailed, enlightening history, which shows how two former enemies ended up collaborating on the same project. The book also highlights the differences between the two space programs and how each has contributed to life on station—the U.S. with precise calculations and technological advances, the Russians with a make-it-work attitude and cosmonauts with titanium-plated nutsacks.

Jones is an exceptional journalist. Through extensive interviews with the crew members and former NASA officials, Jones is able to recreate Expedition Six’s stay on station down to each man’s thoughts about his own isolation. Jones writes about station as if he has been there, which of course he hasn’t. More remarkably, this book is a highly detailed story of a NASA mission written without the approval of NASA.

Jones is a staff writer at Esquire (I highly recommend the article he wrote about a soldier’s last trip home, as well as his recent profile of Roger Ebert.) The structural choices he makes in Out of Orbit reflect his day job. Jones jumps from subject to subject, using the change in focus to highlight his themes. He mirrors life in space with life on earth. He juxtaposes the International Space Station’s ongoing construction with the history of space exploration. He contrasts Pettit and Bowersox’s dreams of becoming astronauts with the mostly menial tasks each performs on station. An outline of the book’s structure would make a composition teacher cringe, yet Jones makes it work. He is the perfect tour guide—one who is passionate about his subject, but slightly more concerned that you don’t get lost along the way. And the prose is quick and simple, with just enough metaphor to keep your mind working, just enough suspense to make you want to read more.

If you are into science fiction, this book will probably make you cry. After all, you won’t be able to read this and believe Star Trek-like space exploration will ever be possible. But if you want to see how life in space actually works, Out of Orbit is certainly worth reading.

Similar books: The Right Stuff (Wolfe), Of a Fire on the Moon (Mailer), Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months aboard the Space Station Mir (Linenger).