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Too Far from Home

by Chris Jones

Once you get over the unalloyed miracle that is space flight, the days of astronauts are in some ways as pedestrian as those of their earthbound compatriots, consisting largely of sleeping, eating, talking, bodily functions, and work of some kind.

This is a source of both fascination and frustration in journalist Chris Jones’s book about the three astronauts – two Americans and one Russian – whom the world all but forgot in the aftermath of the space shuttle Columbia disaster of February 2003, which killed all seven crew members. With all shuttle flights suddenly grounded, the astronauts serving on the International Space Station suddenly found themselves without a ride home.

The story follows Ken Bowersox, Nikolai Budarin, and Don Pettit from their launch aboard space shuttle Endeavour in November 2002 to their death-defying re-entry five months later above the steppes of Kazakhstan. In between, readers learn a little about many elements of American and Russian space flight, as well as the effects it has on the bodies and minds of its participants and their families.

For large swaths of the book, there is a dearth of drama, which is not entirely the fault of the writer. Many of the quotidian goings-on in space are not sexy, at least from a literary standpoint. There are tests and experiments, endless recording of data, e-mails, and radio communication, as well as repair jobs big and small. With space flight, as in regular air travel, the drama is often all in the take-off and the landing. Jones portrays these white-knuckled times well – times when, as he rightly (if rather too often) points out, one cracked seal, damaged O-ring, or errant piece of foam can mean disaster.

As a primer on the space race between the U.S. and Russia, the book isn’t bad at all. Gripping drama, however, it mostly isn’t. As callow as it sounds, this book is about the guys who made it back. Call it morbid curiosity, but I found myself wanting to know more about Challenger and Columbia, the two great space disasters of the last 20 years.