Category Archives: Review

Book Review: Packing for Mars (Roach)

I got Mary Roach’s most recent book for Christmas from my parents, alongside Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (which I just started reading today). This was the first time I’ve read one of her books, although a friend of mine did read Bonk and really enjoyed it, plus I’ve only heard praise for her writing. It just came as a bonus that she released one centered on space flight, and I started reading the book midday on Christmas. Spoiler alert: I really enjoyed it!

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Like in the Void by Mary Roach (2010)
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Initial Thoughts: Like I already mentioned, this was my first time reading one of Roach’s books, but based on what I knew of her and her work, I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t enjoy the book or that she would do a poor job covering the era of human (and monkey and dog and mice…) activity in space. I took the book up to my room, lied down on my bed, and cracked open the cover, eager to start reading.

Like most things, I avoid reviews of books or movies, favoring instead what my friends and family think about it. That’s part of the reason why I write these anyway, to give a different perspective on the work as opposed to the newspaper reviewers who almost definitely do not share my tastes. I mean, Tron: Legacy was rated pretty low, but it’s one of my favorite movies (expect a review for that at some point as well)! Anyway, back to the book…

The Premise: This book covers space flight in a way that usually isn’t encountered. Instead of focusing on launches and missions and extraordinary events, Roach instead looks at the behind-the-scenes aspects, the things that you either wouldn’t immediately think about when someone mentions “space travel,” or things that you’d never think of, like paying people to stay in bed for months to simulate the deterioration of bone mass during an extended stay aboard the ISS or a future long-duration mission to Mars or a nearby asteroid.

In saying that, there are still the aspects usually associated with more standard books on the topic: quotes from Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell, visits to Johnson Space Center in Houston, discussions about Mir while in Russia, etc. There’s also a unique insight into things that we know happen, like the astronaut selection process (JAXA, the Japanese equivalent to NASA, documents the dinner containers of their astronaut hopefuls–locked within an isolation chamber–after the meal, but they don’t tell the candidates this beforehand). As someone who knows a fair bit about space, it was great seeing another side to my childhood (and present-day) heroes as well as getting the additional information that comes from her research.

Of course, like her other books, this isn’t a dry science tome meant to bore you. Mary Roach is hilarious! It first hit me on the first page of the book, in the forward/introduction section aptly titled “Countdown” when she discusses the problem with astronauts when compared to machinery:

A solar cell or a thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It does not excrete or panic or fall in love with the mission commander.

Even the sentence right before it is golden, juxtaposing irradiated beef tacos with fuel consumption of launching rockets. That sense of humor is present on every page, even in a subdued manner in the more serious or somber sections of the book, like when she meets the widowed husband of one of the astronauts killed during the 2003 Columbia disaster.

The book’s short 300-some pages are packed with information, with something new on every page, and Roach’s humor causes you to blow through the pages like nothing. The first break I took was around page 80, with my stomach telling me it needed food, and loudly. I very easily could have read the book in a single sitting, and I’d enjoy it!

Final Thoughts: With the end of the book came the last solidification that Roach is a great author. While only one of her other three books really interests me (yep, the one about sex), I will probably end up reading all of them, just to learn something new and read more of her hilarious writing. Plus, I’d be learning something new, which is always high on my priority list, and truly enjoying it. Likewise, even if you don’t have an interest in space travel (and if you don’t, you’ve been following the wrong blog!), I suggest you pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed in the slightest!

Transformers: Dark of the Moon [Trailer Review]

If you haven’t yet seen the trailer, watch it HERE. It’s essential if you want to know what I’m talking about.

Let me first admit that, after the first Transformers, I wasn’t really interested in the story line anymore. Part of it was that, having vanquished their foe, I felt that any sequel would just be to rake in some more cash. Part of it was the fact that everyone suddenly was in love with Megan Fox, especially the adolescent boys that I watched over at camp. Part of it was this parody from Robot Chicken (slightly NSFW at beginning an the end). Yes, I did see the second one once it came out on DVD, and it was a pretty cool story, but nothing more. I don’t plan on seeing the third any time soon, even before watching the trailer.

Well, after taking a break from studying for finals, I left my room to see my two roommates watching the first Transformers, so I sat down and watching the ending fight sequence (I came in pretty late into that, so it was really just the last five minutes of the movie). After, I decided to finally watch the trailer for the upcoming se-sequel, Dark of the Moon, just to see what it was all about.

As a space, and science, fanatic, I couldn’t have been more appalled. Just look at the screen capture which shows the Command and Service Module Columbia on the way to the Moon (about 0:08). Notice that it’s just the CSM, no Lunar Module Eagle, no S-IVB third stage for trans-lunar injection. One of those needs to be shown for it to remain factually accurate: either the LEM is still inside the third stage of the Saturn V (which of course would require them to be slightly closer to the Earth, but prospective’s tough), or the CSM/LEM should be separated and heading to the Moon on their own. Seconds later (0:10, the absolute next scene), the missing LEM is magically shown docked with the CSM, in orbit around the Moon. I mean, I know that the general public is pretty stupid, but even they should be able to notice a missing spacecraft magically appear from one scene to the next. If I actually cared about seeing the movie, I’d hope they change that, or have a smoother transition when showing that part of the story.

The other gripe comes when the astronauts are on the Moon, after they’ve landed and uttered those famous phrases (and at this point, I’m getting pretty happy, since they’re using some of the actual footage from the mission, as well as the actual transmissions between the spacecraft, astronauts, and Mission Control back on Earth). I’ll ignore fake-Neil Armstrong’s really giant leap (0:32), where he leaps from the bottom rung onto the lunar surface, instead of first standing down on the footpad and placing his foot into the regolith, since it was obviously chosen for the “one giant leap” message in Armstrong’s famous words and, again, the general public doesn’t really know about it.

No, the somewhat larger gripe I have with the trailer, past the magic LEM, is when NASA decides to cut transmissions to the Earth to perform their “secret mission on the surface” (starting around 0:44). First, I laughed a little at having Tom Virtue, the Dad from Even Stevens, an old Disney show I watched that also starred Shia LeBeouf, working in Mission Control. Then I tried to figure out what was happening when they fed through the “loss of signal” report from Walter Cronkite (0:54), since they were already on the Moon and that transmission came when the CSM/LEM first passed behind the Moon while both were still in orbit. Then I realized the stunt they were trying to pull.

Most people who look at the Moon know that the same side always faces us. I mean, you can just tell by looking up and comparing the dark mare to what you remember of it as a full moon and determine that it’s not really rotating (Well, it is rotating, but since it is tidally locked with the Earth, it doesn’t appear to be rotating from our perspective. If you do a coordinate transformation to a rotating reference frame centered on the Earth, the only “rotational” motion of the Moon comes from its libration, but we can effectively ignore that). In doing so, if the astronauts landed on the near side, which they did, their transmissions would not be cut out until they launched from the surface to rendezvous with the orbiting CSM. That means that their transmissions could not be cut while still on the surface, not while the astronauts are still picking up rocks. It also means that the twenty-one minutes quoted makes even less sense, since the physical moon would have to be rotating around for that to happen at the same (more or less) speed that the CSM is orbiting. This also means that the shadows on the Moon should be swaying and moving, which is not so.

So, to recap: We have a complete disregard for the orbital mechanics of the Moon, which most people are intuitively away of; a disregard for the actual equipment required to get to the Moon, which is only slightly less unforgivable; a slight change in one of the greatest moments in human history, which is understandable for dramatic purposes; and the smearing of a historical event.

Honestly, if the lunar landings need to be messed with for the purpose of the story (unless it’s alternate history, where you have to mess with the past), you’re reaching too hard without knowing where your hand will fall. Good bye, Transformers, and good riddance.

Book Review: Second Foundation (Asmiov)

If you think it’s strange that I’m reviewing the third book of the original trilogy, there actually is a reason for it. This past weekend, I blazed through Foundation and Empire, and I first read Foundation years back, but since I already started Second Foundation I deemed it unfit to write about either of the other two. Plus, since I’ve just read it, I didn’t want to discuss topics or events that fall in one of the other books, or misplace events. So, without blabbering about this any longer, let’s get on with the review! I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum as best as I can, but if you haven’t read the books before this in the series, then I can’t do anything for you.

Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1953)

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Initial Thoughts: If I remember correctly, I bought this book three or more years ago, along with the first two in the original trilogy, but never read it. I read through Foundation, thoroughly enjoyed it, but never moved onto the sequels. I think that I had it in my mind that the sequels wouldn’t be as good as the first, or I wouldn’t enjoy the story as much (a sentiment still echoed in me not having read anything other than Dune in that titular series), so it languished on my shelf for a few years. Having been back home from college this past weekend, and unable to sleep on a non-college schedule, I decided to read Foundation and Empire late one night, finished it, and packed up Second Foundation in my backpack to take back to my apartment. I was gripped by the story, and Asimov’s writing, once more, and I was excited to read again! What events would befall the First Foundation after being taken over by the Mule? How would Hari Seldon’s plan pan out over the next chuck of time leading to the second galactic empire? Why hadn’t I purchased the other books yet?

The Premise: Second Foundation starts off five years after Foundation and Empire ends with the Mule in control of the Foundation and the various trader worlds, along with a number of other systems, and Seldon’s plan has deviated, potentially irreversibly by the Mule’s actions and existence. The catch is that he knows the lore of the Foundations, and based on some mental gymnastics determined that the Second Foundation, the one barely talked about location somewhere on the other side of the galaxy, is the opposite of the first. Instead of nucleics and advanced technology, they posses the technology of the mind: psychology and in particular psychohistory. The Mule knows that this is basically the only thing that can counteract and derail his own plans at bringing about a galactic empire, so he tasks Channis (an uncontrolled individual from Terminus) and General Pritcher with determining its location and traveling there in order for the Mule to figure out what he’s up against.

Fast forward fifty years with the Mule long-dead and the Foundation returned to a relatively close track to Seldon’s original plan, but its citizens have no idea how close, if their close enough, or if their future was already pushed past the breaking point for bringing about the second galactic empire. After knowledge of the Second Foundation became relatively more widespread (relative to what was known before, which was that it existed at the other end of the galaxy), the first Foundationers decided that their best course of action was to try to develop their own fields of psychology, which had been completely absent when Hari Seldon founded the Foundation (and for good reason), in order to combat the growing threat of the Second Foundation. This is mostly carried out by a small group of individuals located on Terminus, although the inclusion of one of the member’s daughter causes its due amount of excitement and drama, especially when she needs to escape from one of the Kaligan spaceports and the ruler of Kaligan himself. Following that escape, Kaligan and the Foundation begin a large-scale war, which the Foundation eventually wins in accordance to Seldon’s Plan (as believed by the residents of the Foundation territories). Following this, they decide to fight and eradicate the Second Foundation, bringing the Foundation back to the path toward the second galactic empire and ending the original trilogy.

Final Thoughts: This book may have been my favorite of the three with Foundation being an extremely close second, especially the second half of the book. Asimov’s writing just draws you in without relying on pages upon pages of descriptions (Tolkein much?); it’s fast-paced, exceedingly interesting, and a fun story to get caught up in. At multiple points while reading, I would audibly exclaim based on what was happening in the story or a major revelation (like the last sentence of the book). The only thing I regret doing is looking at the Wikipedia page for the series before I finished the book (to check which ones I still needed to get) and caught a glimpse of the location of the Second Foundation, which partially diluted that revelation within the story line, but it didn’t dampen my enjoyment of it.

And right now, I’m back to where I was following finishing the first book. I completed the trilogy, with the prequels and sequels coming much later and only after the fans practically begged for them, so I’m worried that they may feel like the Star Wars prequels to me. I’m sure that I’ll buy them, read them, and enjoy them, but I just don’t know when.

Looking back, I think my return to this series came from my changing sci-fi tastes. Back when I first realized that the sweet books about space travel and alien worlds were actually part of an entire genre of literature, I was all about the grand-scale space operas and far reaching stories. I loved Stargate, Star Wars, Ender’s Game and the sequels, etc. for the range of stories that they contained and the imaginative worlds that the characters went to. Then, during the break in Stargate‘s Season 10 run, I started watching Battlestar Galactica which now ranks with The Office as my top favorite show, and around the same time I started reading Ben Bova, who has become possibly my favorite author. I fell in love with the gritty realism, the relative plausibility of the actions (BSG‘s setting still fell into the “space opera”-esque realm, but the human dynamics entrapped me more), and the connection of themes to current events or modern ideas. Now, I think I may be switching back to the first group with the Foundation series and the change in my video game plans, but I don’t mind. The next book I’m reading is actually Ben Bova’s Mars Life, so I may just be merging the two groups.

I will say that, no matter what sci-fi mood I may be in at any point, I will always enjoy the original Foundation trilogy.

Book Review: The Guinea Pig Diaries (Jacobs)

I bought this book on New Year’s Eve. Usually it takes longer than a week to get around to reading a newly-purchased book, usually much longer, but this was different. Right now, I am or are supposed to be reading a half-dozen books, some for classes and some for pleasure. I’m reading a few of them simultaneously right now, but I carved out mental space for A.J.’s newest “life as an experiment” books. I didn’t read his second, The Year of Living Biblically, but I loved his first one, The Know-It-All which describes his attempt at reading the entirety of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

But, since this review is about The Guinea Pig Diaries, I should probably start to write about that one, right?
The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment by A.J. Jacobs (2009)

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Initial Thoughts: I originally walked into the Barnes and Noble on Grand River to pick up Christmas presents for my roommates, plus see if any books jumped out at me. I went first to the “comedy” section, saw that there was a new Pearls Before Swine treasury, grabbed it, then turned to walk away. As I turned, however, I saw that A.J. Jacobs had a (relatively) new book out. I picked it off the shelf, read the title and subtitle, and immediately decided to buy it. I loved The Know-It-All because of Jacobs’ writing style and humor but also for the insight into the information as well, and I knew that this book would be no different.

I payed using a gift card (after grabbing a few other things), drove back to my apartment, and left it on my shelf. I didn’t start the book until yesterday, while my roommate and his girlfriend had a discussion and after buying my textbooks for the semester, and I immediately fell in love like I knew I would. Wait, that’s not very rational, which was the subject of his self-experiment in Chapter Five: The Rationality Project (accompanied by Jacobs in his bathroom with twenty-some boxes of different toothpastes). I was immediately pulled back into Jacobs’ writing style with the first page (the last time I read The Know-It-All a few years ago), and I could barely put it down.

The Premise: Jacobs begins by describing the fact that he occasionally performs experiments on himself, and that his previous two books were part of it. Where this newest book differs is that each experiment will last a month or so, allowing him to talk about nine such experiments during the course of the book. He first does research about the topic, whether it is about Multi-tasking versus “Uni-tasking” or how George Washington would shake someone’s hand (spoiler: he wouldn’t shake anyone’s hand). Of course, the prose allows these relatively boring aspects to flow easily, and in no time he turns the discussion to placing cut-out eyes around his home to encourage good behavior or impersonating a movie star.

Since I like the idea behind it, and have in fact done a few somewhat similar things to myself in the past (consecutive hours awake, improve eyesight, TV series marathons, etc.), I was really drawn to the concept once I found out what was actually contained within this book. Honestly, I’ll probably even try out the George Washington experiment, or maybe the rationality one, during this semester. I know that I’ll make a few concessions (shaking hands, for starters), but the essence will still be there.

Conclusion: This book is just over 200 pages long, and those pages go quickly! I barely noticed the flipping pages once I got deep within an experiment, and I just couldn’t seem to take my eyes away. I even read some chapters while watching the History Channel’s The Universe (I own the first three seasons on DVD), which Jacobs would agree with in his uni-tasking chapter. It was funny and well worth the read, and I already have a few friends who want to borrow it now that I’m done. I’ll have to base that decision on who I think will be most likely to return the book in a timely manner, as any rational mind should.

My only suggestion would be to possibly wait until the summer for when it comes out in paperback. Yes, you can get a pretty good deal on Amazon, but the hardcover is still pretty expensive. Hence the use of a giftcard to buy it where otherwise I would have waited or checked the Library…

Book Review: The Case For Mars (Zubrin)

I’m starting something new with this post, and hopefully I keep doing it. Of course, it is dependent on the number of books I can actually read within a given timeframe, especially when you take into consideration my schoolwork and everything else going on in my life. I’m also going to limit this to “first reads,” meaning that all the books that I will invariably read for the third or fourth time in the coming months (Moonwar and Jupiter, both by Ben Bova, at the top of that list) won’t be a part of this book review series, since I’ll be including initial responses and what-not in my dissection of the book. These, however, won’t be full reviews, but more my thoughts on the most pertinent issues or ideas presented in the book, so there will still be a lot of information within the book that I never mention here.

The Case For Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must by Robert Zubrin (1996)
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Initial Thoughts: I ordered this book soon after being selected as a crew member for MDRS 89 as the author is the founder of The Mars Society, and I should read the book that was basically the basis for setting up MDRS and FMARS before actually going to the station. Those I know that had read the book highly recommended it, so I figured the very low cost was well worth it. It was nice getting an actual scientific and factual description of martian colonization, especially since I was able to juxtapose many of Zubrin’s ideas for the “Mars Direct” plan against various SciFi versions of sending missions to Mars, notably Ben Bova’s Mars.

Note: You’ll notice that I’ll reference Bova multiple times in this and future reviews. He is by far my favorite SciFi author, and his Grand Tour series is an excellent read which can be read as a super-extended series, as individual stories, and in any order you want. I highly recommend those books for anyone who likes harder SciFi.

Zurbin uses a lot of anecdotes and historical comparisons throughout the book, which I enjoyed. I felt that relating the first Mars missions to the initial voyages of Columbus or the expansion across the American frontier makes the idea more tangible to readers, especially since the wealth of comparisons really digs in the fact that a Mars mission is not difficult to obtain with present technology, so long as we remember the lessons of the past of living off the land and using ingenious methods to both get to Mars and survive there.

Mars Direct: Zubrin’s plan calls for two launches every two years to send both an Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) and a crew habitat (Hab) to Mars when the launch window opens, after the initial launch of a single ERV in order for the first crew to have a fueled ERV for when the leave the martian surface 500-some days later. While the two launches may initially seem like having more possibilities for things to go wrong, a la Murphy’s Law, it surprising is also the basis for NASA’s Constellation program (using the Ares I and Ares V boosters), making Zubrin’s mid-90s plan very current given the current situation at NASA.

The extended stay on the surface is because of the availability of launch windows from Mars to return to Earth. The crew could either spend the 500-plus days on the surface, accomplishing a multitude of mission goals, priming the area for the next mission, and discovering things that no one might expect. The other option is a 30-day stay which, in both mine and Zubrin’s opinion, would do nothing more than be “putting boots on the ground” and accomplish very little scientifically, which is of course the reason for the manned mission. His longer stay also exposes the crew to less solar radiation, less time in zero-g, and has less fuel requirements, making it in basically all areas the superior choice for a launch schedule.

One depressing part of the book, for me at least, is definitely the timing of it. I’m reading it thirteen years after its publishing date, and the fact that we still haven’t landed on Mars saddens me. It’s even harder to cope with when he gives a theoretical example using Apollo-era technology that could allow for a Mars mission, and that was forty years ago! We could have been a space-faring race for a quarter of a century, but due to the government and changing administrations, among other problems, prevented this from occuring.

Colonization of Mars: Zubrin goes on the discuss the benefits of having a branch of the human race on Mars, from economics to advancement of technology. While, in my opinion, this option will still be far off (twenty years or more after the first Mars mission) and highly dependent on the government’s backing of the program, it should be the ultimate goal of any Mars mission plan. The human race cannot continue to exist on a single rock, especially when you consider the problems that we face daily from having over six billion people confined to a world we are slowly working to destroy. In my opinion, I feel that a Mars colony should be established to be self-sufficient, making the high shipping costs of raw goods from Earth to the red planet not matter. If the colonists can grow food, mine metals, construct additional habitation areas, and survive, that’s good enough for me and I would gladly hop on a ship out there in a heartbeat.

Of course, Zubrin describes the huge economic advantages to establishing a base, from the large amounts of deuterium (for fusion power), access to the Asteroid Belt, and general materials that we use all of the time (aluminum, iron, etc.). That economic advantage will definitely help convince some pocketbook-minded members of Congress to support it (if they took the time to read through the book) and will help convince people to actually move out there that aren’t astronauts. We can’t just have a bunch of spaceheads running around, now can we?

He also discusses the possibility of terraforming the planet, but this of course would take place over centuries, so I don’t see this as a major point for getting that first mission off the ground; it’s more to give a more grandiose purpose for the second, third, fourth missions. By the time that colonists can walk around Mars in shirtsleeves and a breathing apparatus, we will have invariably already expanded to habitats in the Asteroid Belt and possibly other star systems. I agree that the eventual plan for the human race includes all of these things, but going to Mars just for these reasons is the wrong idea, which thankfully is in agreement with Zubrin.

FMARS and MDRS: After finishing this book, I am that much more thrilled to be a part of an MDRS rotation, and to have the possibility of having an actual Mars mission in my own future, whether I go through NASA or as a civilian. Based on how sluggishly the government invariably moves, we probably won’t have a Mars mission for ten plus years, which would be right about the time that I’ll be applying to become an astronaut. Since astronomers/physicists won’t be high on the priority list for the first few missions, I do have some leeway for getting on a future crew should I become an astronaut.

And frankly, this book made me want to become an astronaut even more! Exploration and going where few, if any, people have gone before were what brought me back into wanting to become an astronaut after my young child phase where every American boy wants to become an astronaut. What cooler job is there than traveling to another planet? I can only hope that we get off our seats and go for it.

Conclusion: There’s no sense in giving a rating for this book, since I hate ratings anyway. I’m just going to recommend this to anyone interested in space travel or Mars, or anyone that’s ever had a dream of scooping up a handful of martian regolith. You’ll definitely have dreams of being that person the entire time you read it.