Non-Fiction Reviews


Columbus in Space

(2018) Julien Harrod & the European Space Agency, Century, £7.99, pbk, 112pp, ISBN 978-1-780-89931-2

 

Europeís Columbus module was added to the International Space Station in 2008, and for its 10th anniversary in space, the European Space Agency commissioned this review of its history and accomplishments. As the primary biological research module on the ISS, with its facilities frequently being updated, it is a major success story. As of 2018, nearly 1,000 experimenters from 23 nations had performed research on the ISS, with more of them in biology than other discipline. Twelve pages of charts at the end of the book summarise the activities to the end of 2017 and those forecast for 2018; they follow a detailed description of the facilities, and before that a spectacular photo album.

Clearly, Julien Harrodís brief was to accentuate the positive in all of this, and there is a great deal to be positive about. I wish that I could close this review by recommending the book to anyone wishing to research this aspect of work on the ISS, either for factual purposes or fiction; but unfortunately the historical introduction is so positive that it could give a completely false impression. As it reads, Columbus was designed for the ISS from the outset and followed smoothly on from the use of Europeís Spacelab module on the Space Shuttle, and the timeline for this is presented as a winding road, ĎFrom Vision to Missioní, starting in 1983. A more accurate representation of the actual process would have been as a game of snakes and ladders, starting far earlier, and at the very least, the loss of the Challenger shuttle and the breakup of the USSR should be marked as major turning points. Thereís no indication at all that Spacelab was originally to have been the precursor to Europeís independent, free-flying Columbus space station, tended by ESAís own space shuttle Hermes, nor of the long and painful changes of policy and cancellations, as a result of which a modified version ended up as a permanent constituent of the ISS. As history, itís like saying that that in World War 2 Britain, the USA and Russia were in opposition to the Axis from the invasion of Poland onwards, in complete unity throughout.

There isnít a book that I know of which tells the Columbus story from that historical perspective. At the time, I was following it from the US viewpoint in weekly issues of Space News, NASA publications and others, and from the European viewpoint, via the quarterly ESA Bulletin, On Station and other ESA publications. There were some extremely forthright reports on both sides of the Atlantic. I have tried to summarise the saga within a book of my own, on the story of winged space vehicles, but that publication deal has fallen through and I donít know of anything equivalent.

Harrod does give some idea of the difficulties of working aboard the ISS, but itís mostly in terms of the detailed planning, even choreography, which the ground planners have to undertake to let the astronauts work round them, giving the impression that despite the complexity it all works smoothly. The closest he comes to mentioning outright stress is where he says, ďThe Dutch company behind the fans in Columbus takes some pride in having produced the quietest fans on the Space Station. Many astronauts have remarked that Columbus is the most relaxing place on the outpost...Ē. It does not sound like much, until you remember that there are fans in every compartment and they are on all the time. For anyone researching life on the ISS, the book to have in the other hand as they read this one is Endurance, Scott Kellyís account of his 12-month mission aboard it. Kelly remains proud of the ISS, which he helped to build, and of what he accomplished while on it, but his narrative is the most candid that Iíve read and leaves one in no doubt why he resigned immediately when he got home. One begins to see why NASA plans to leave the ISS and move to a newer model at the end of its current commitment in 2024.

Undeniably, the international scientific community, and Europe in particular, have gained far more from the Columbus laboratory as part of the ISS than they would have from it as a free-flyer, intermittently manned by small crews, as was originally planned. It is a great engineering accomplishment, a scientific asset and a triumph for international cooperation, and this book puts due emphasis on all of that. But it is important to say that the book tells only half of the story, and anyone trying to gen up on it should be aware of that.

Dumcan Lunan

 


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