Walking a mile in another person’s shoes will give you a great impression of their life and possibly a pair of sore feet. Feet can even get sore while walking in the zero gravity of space, as Tom Jones relays in his memoirs entitled, Sky Walking. His days as a NASA astronaut fill the pages while he recounts his training, missions and follow-up debriefing. His shoes, like everyone else’s on this planet, are unique. But for those wanting a taste of space adventure, these shoes are especially good to read about.
Being an astronaut is more than safely sitting in a cozy cabin on a quick trip above the clouds. In particular, aside from the few tourists who’ve gone up, astronauts are an essential cog in the aerospace machine. They must whirl about, controlling experiments here or blasting thrusters there, so as to complete their mission. Errors aren’t allowable, so only those who’ve shown the ability to deliver under pressure get a chance. Most astronaut candidates have already fulfilled ambitious requirements before entering NASA. They have doctorates in a technical degree, are accomplished medical doctors, or are military test pilots. Yet, these are just entrance prerequisites. Once part of the astronaut club, each person must continually adapt and learn new skills and new activities. Every flight into space comes in its own unique colour and each can bring its own harrowing challenges. Though everyone has the right stuff in their own way, astronauts have a particular set of proven skills for their tasks way up high.
Jones’ memoirs take the reader through all of his times of his life when NASA predominantly figured. He begins at the moment prior to being accepted at NASA, through his sojourn with NASA and concludes at his moment of departure. During this, Jones went through basic training, mission selection, specialised training, and four flights. This is a personal memoir and serves to highlight the emotions of the moment. Jones writes well of his anticipation when applying to NASA, the excitement of making a large change in his personal direction, together with the worry of beginning a new career. However, once installed in NASA, Jones provides colourful vignettes of moments in training, interaction with other astronauts, and stresses on family life. His recount of those times includes vivid renditions of the shuttle’s launch, working conditions in the crowded shuttle cabin, as well as his opportunity for a close encounter with space during an EVA. It is his rendition of the moment in a warm, human perspective that makes the book enjoyable to read and informative of the life of an astronaut.
In fairness to any government employee, Jones’ job is not all smelling of roses, and he conveys his sense of frustration. For instance, he notes his need to focus on the smallest elements of the space mission such that the larger picture fades from site. He does note his time as a capcom and as a representative for the Astronaut Office to the International Space Station program. However, his comments relating to these times don’t expand on the discussion. Even the purpose of his space missions seldom rise above a brier notation similar to what one would expect from a press release. If a reader wants to understand more of the science or the bureaucracy, this book has little to offer.
On the other hand, this memoir does wonderfully embellish space flight and working in space. Jones, using his astronaut vantage point, provides an authentic and detailed chronological list of events for each of his space flights. Sometimes the details are too intensive and appear to be almost verbatim transcripts from digital recorders or communications traffic. Even his renditions of his training time on Earth appear to be lifted directly from a logbook. The consequence of this approach is that the prose in the book comes off stilted and overly technical in places. As well, though Jones was fortunate enough to have flown in four missions, his descriptions get repetitive. There was little to separate the emotions of the fourth launch from the first. Yet it is the emotional content and the personal renditions that make this book special and unique. Sifting through the tech talk to perceive these moments makes the reading detached at times, but often it remains a special review of one person’s flight into space.
For those interested in learning about life as an astronaut, this book is perfect. Jones provides the highs, quite literally, and the lows of the job. He also ably shows that it is, after all, a job just like many others and he’s just one more person of many who strives to help our life on Earth. He brings in his concerns about family and friends, the shuttle disasters and the challenges of bureaucracy. But mainly he recounts the wonders and joys of being in space.
Shoes tell a lot about a person. Space boots tell a lot about an occupation. Tom Jones in his personal memoirs, Sky Walking takes the reader along in his foot steps from neophyte astronaut to experienced space traveller. With it, he has set a colourful walkway for others to amble down.
Review by Mark Mortimer