Monday, May 25, 2009

Book Club: Dragonfly

An Epic Adventure of Survival in Outer Space
NASA and the Crisis Aboard Mir
Bryan Burrough
HarperCollins, New York, USA

This book took me a very long time to read. I’m not sure when I started it, but it was certainly more than a year ago. I’m not sure why, exactly, I took so long to read 519 pages about space exploration, a topic close to my heart, but there it is.

Rather than speculate about my own surprisingly slow reading pace, there’s one issue that this book presents to me obliquely that I’d like to discuss. I don’t normally talk much about my personal philosophy here, but I have to in order to discuss this book. I’m an atheist, and a philosophical materialist. This does not mean I’m in it for the possessions, rather I have yet to see anything to convince me that there is “something more”. I never think of anything about my life in a “spiritual” context; indeed I don’t actually know what that word means. I am not emotionless, but I do not subscribe to any ideas concerning supernatural or paranormal influence on my thoughts or feelings. In short, I completely agree with the statement “that which cannot be measured does not exist”.

That bit of personal background is necessary, I think, for my description of an issue raised in my mind by Dragonfly. Before I get to that, though, I think I need to tell you about the events described in the book. Dragonfly is an extremely detailed, very thoroughly researched investigation into the events that occurred aboard and around the Mir space station in the summer of 1997.

To oversimplify the situation, at that time the USA needed more experience with long-term space flight and space stations because of the upcoming International Space Station (ISS), and Russia had that experience in the form of continuous operation of Mir for several years, and was in need of both foreign good-will and hard currency. A partnership was drawn up, and American astronauts visited Mir for several months at a time over a period of a couple of years.

Unfortunately, a number of serious crises afflicted the station, culminating in a very serious on-board fire and a damaging collision with an unmanned resupply vessel a few months later. As I said, this book provides an amazingly detailed account of these and other events, so I won’t describe them more than that. These events had a range of effects on the many people involved, including a dramatic change in the relationship between NASA and the Russian Space Agency; this change was mostly positive, with greater trust and cooperation from 1998 onwards.

The issue that struck me most about the complex story presented here is never explicitly mentioned in the book. Not once. But it struck me as central to the story of unfortunate decisions, poor communications, and conflicting personalities. Magical thinking pervades the entire story.

Astronauts, engineers, and the vast army of ground controllers, doctors, administrators and so forth who are employed in space are much better educated than the general public. Yet within NASA and the Russian Space Agency, superstition and fuzzy-headed woo seems shockingly abundant. Throughout this book, mention is made of the prevalence of magical thinking within these institutions, but never is there any suggestion that this is odd, and frankly, dangerous among people who make life-and-death, hundred-million-dollar decisions on a daily basis.

The examples from this book I can think of off the top of my head include the photograph of the cosmonauts a few days before their launch, apparently seriously considering the advice of a local astrologer. Not astronomer, a professional group of scientists one would expect to have at least some contact with spacefarers, but an astrologer. At one point late in the tale, one cosmonaut must be laboriously persuaded to accept experimental apparatus aboard the station, because it includes a study of cancer cells, and he is afraid this is both a bad omen, and a carcinogenic risk to himself. Did he drop out of high school?

Among the NASA astronauts, there are several cliques. Besides the alarming implications for necessary teamwork and solid professional relationships among people living in an extreme environment and close quarters, one of the cliques is described simply as “the Christians”. Wait, what? There are a large number of astronauts whose primary description is derived from their religion? What about the astronauts whose primary description is derived from their training, from their specialization? Why are astronauts not referred to as being doctors, engineers, scientists, pilots?

Even as we struggle to go beyond this tiny planet, we carry our baggage of superstition and foolishness with us. I am disappointed.


BB said...

this scares me. almost enough to pray for help.

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