Book Review: “Infinite Worlds: People & Places of Space Exploration” by Michael Soluri

Infinite Worlds - People & Places of Space Exploration: by Michael Soluri, Foreword by John Glenn. Cover image courtesy of Michael Soluri and Simon & Schuster.

On April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched from Kennedy Space Center into low Earth orbit. Hubble was the first telescope designed to operate in space, so it was able to avoid interference from Earth’s atmosphere – an inconvenience that had limited astronomers since they first looked up to the skies. However, scientists quickly realized that something was wrong; the images were blurry. Despite being among the most precisely ground instruments ever made, the primary mirror in the Hubble was about 2,200 nanometers too flat at the perimeter (for reference, the width of a typical sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers). Luckily, there was a solution.

Hubble was designed to be serviced in space. As NASA writes on the telescope’s website, “a series of small mirrors could be used to intercept the light reflecting off the mirror, correct for the flaw, and bounce the light to the telescope’s science instruments.” A series of five missions lasting from 1993 to 2009 was devised to correct the mirror and perform various upgrades. Despite being the first of their kind, the missions were declared a resounding success – and they enabled the Hubble Space Telescope to remain operational to this day. Many of Hubble’s images are among the most incredible ever produced by mankind, yet few people know anything about the remarkable men and women who made them possible.

ohn Grunsfeld, just before entering shuttle Atlantis for his fifth mission in space and his third to the Hubble Space Telescope. Grunsfeld wrote "Climbing Mountains" for Infinite Worlds. Credit and copyright: Michael Soluri.
ohn Grunsfeld, just before entering shuttle Atlantis for his fifth mission in space and his third to the Hubble Space Telescope. Grunsfeld wrote “Climbing Mountains” for Infinite Worlds. Credit and copyright: Michael Soluri.

See an exclusive gallery of images from the book here.

Infinite Worlds: People & Places of Space Exploration, the latest book from photographer Michael Soluri, documents the people who worked on the last of these repair missions, STS-125 (also known as Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Mission 4 [HST-SM4]). The nearly two-week journey aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis saw the successful installation of two new instruments and the repair of two others. Like the four other shuttle crews that came before them, the men and women aboard STS-125 enabled Hubble to see deeper and farther into the past than ever before.

Michael Massimino, a veteran of the earlier STS-109 mission, is one of these people. Massimino and Soluri became fast friends after a chance encounter, when Soluri asked: “What is the quality of light really like in space?” Following their discussion, Massimino asked Soluri to teach him and the rest of the crew how to take photographs that would better communicate their experiences in space. Astronauts are always taking pictures, but the lighting in space is, understandably, not always ideal. Like Soluri himself in Infinite Worlds, the astronauts repairing Hubble were looking for better ways to communicate the beauty of space travel through photography.

Soluri was granted unprecedented access to document the people and events behind the mission throughout a period of more than four years. The photographs in the book “give deserved attention to a few of the many thousands of people who worked on the Space Shuttle and Hubble Space Telescope programs,” reads an inspiring foreword by John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. Infinite Worlds reveals a side of space travel that most of us would never otherwise see, including the training sessions, tools, and trials that make success possible. NASA, notorious for keeping their employees tightly scripted and inaccessible, rarely grants such access – and with the closing of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, such intimacy may never be seen again.

Jill McGuire, Manager, Hubble SM4 Crew Aids and Tools,  in Mission control in Houson during EVA 4, May 2009. Credit and copyright: Michael Soluri.
Jill McGuire, Manager, Hubble SM4 Crew Aids and Tools, in Mission control in Houson during EVA 4, May 2009. Credit and copyright: Michael Soluri.

Science is a cooperative discipline, but most people only ever see the results. The tireless work of thousands of individuals is often taken for granted and forgotten. Although many people still hold the false idea that scientific accomplishments are made by individual geniuses working in an armchair, now more than ever before we are entering an age where science is performed by large teams working cooperatively. To mention just one example, CERN hosts scientists of more than 100 nationalities. As Jill McGuire, a manager at Goddard Space Flight Center, writes about the field in the book, “the best way to move forward in the business was to get my hands dirty by working with the skilled machinists and technicians in the branch to learn everything I could.”

Infinite Worlds grants readers an exhilarating glimpse into this cooperative world. One particularly inspiring section follows the immediate buildup to the launch of STS-125. The transcript of the pre-launch quality check is paralleled by images of the situation as it happened. Black and white photographs from both cockpit and control room highlight the tension behind “the most risky thing NASA does,” according to Space Shuttle Launch Director Michael Leinbach. He continues, “they were real people with real families, real children, real lives.” Infinite Worlds reminds us of this: the work behind every scientific breakthrough is not magic, but rather the result of talented and dedicated individuals.

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope’s launch and look to the future, a book like Infinite Worlds is more relevant now than ever before. The beautiful photographs in Soluri’s book tell two kindred stories: not only the heroic report of repairing a multi-billion dollar piece of equipment, but also a unique glimpse at the inspiring men and women who made it all possible. Whether humanity’s next missions are to Mars, Europa, or elsewhere, one thing will remain constant – we will only reach the stars through the work of exceptional people.

Infinite Worlds is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, iBooks, and Google Play.

Learn more about Michael Soluri at his website.

Several of Soluri’s images of the SM4’s EVA tools and photos by the Atlantis crew are part of an exhibition at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Outside the Spacecraft: 50 Years of Extra-Vehicular Activity, on view at the Air and Space Museum through June 8. There’s also an online exhibition.

Soluri will give a presentation and do a book signing on April 11, 2015 at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden. Soluri will be joined by four individuals who played key roles in Service Mission SM4: astronaut Scott Altman, the STS-125 shuttle commander; David Leckrone, senior project scientist; Christy Hansen, EVA spacewalk flight controller and astronaut instructor; and Hubble systems engineer Ed Rezac. More information on that event can be found here.

Book Review: “New Frontiers of Space: From Mars to the Edge of the Universe”

You know that friend who’s hopelessly confused about science news, the one who asks classics like “didn’t we just send an SUV or something to Mars?” Are you that friend? Regardless of who it is, you’ve just found their next birthday present.

In TIMEnewest book, New Frontiers of Space: From Mars to the Edge of the Universe by Jeffrey Kluger and Michael D. Lemonick, readers learn just what’s been going on in our universe lately. The book seeks to “explore the latest scientific discoveries within our solar system and beyond,” and it does so with an approach that is unique and interesting for a number of ways – this is not your typical science read.

Throughout this volume, the editors of TIME brilliantly match scientific insight with gorgeous photographs. The physically large book would not only look wonderful on a coffee table or desk, but would be an interesting read for all who are smart enough to check. This is a book that you judge by its cover – and it’s wonderful.

Reminiscent of one of Time’s wonderful science series, the book is composed of about two dozen relatively short articles, with each focusing on a new stimulating insight from somewhere in the scientific world. Topics range from the quirky launch-day habits of the scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to the possibilities of finding life elsewhere in the universe, and perhaps finding remnants of it in our very solar system.

The articles themselves are everything that one would come to expect from one of the world’s leading publications; each one is brilliantly written, and the matching illustrations are as inspiring as they are stimulating. This set up allows for short bursts of sciencey-goodness; perhaps in the form of a daily dose during your morning coffee.

One of the most refreshing parts of this volume is it almost exclusively focuses on recent breakthroughs, it doesn’t seek to be a fundamental introduction to the mysteries of the cosmos – it shows where science has recently landed, where it is now, and where it’s going next. Think of it as a beautifully illustrated crash course on contemporary astronomical news.

In addition to showcasing scientific events, this volume also portray many of the heavy-hitters who help accomplish them. The ’25 Most Influential People In Space’ section was certainly a favourite for me, as it allowed access into a usually dark area of scientific accomplishment – namely, the scientists themselves! Everyone seems to know who the most famous actors in the country are, but now it’s time to learn about some people who spend more of their time socializing with the stars in the sky than those on the red carpet.

I’ll let the Time editors speak for themselves when they say that “space has a way of making sweet, goofy dreamers of us all. Come join us on that mission.”

Book Review: “The Universe in the Rearview Mirror: How Hidden Symmetries Shape Reality” by Dave Goldberg

It’s not every day that you find a Physics book that is both wonderfully thorough and wildly entertaining – but, then again, it’s not every day that Dave Goldberg publishes a book; he’d be quite the busy boy if that was the case. But as writer for the fantastic Ask a Physicist column on (seriously, check it out), professor and director of undergraduate studies at Drexel University, Slate and LA Times contributor, husband and father – he’s plenty busy already. As an avid reader of Ask A Physicist, I was already familiar with his entertaining writing style – but getting to enjoy it in a full-length book was quite the treat.

Enter The Universe In The Rearview Mirror. Although many recent physics books focus almost entirely on the oddities of quantum mechanics, Goldberg steps outside the now almost tiresome discussions of randomness and Schrodinger’s Cat to enlighten readers on a topic less often discussed, but just as (if not more) fascinating – symmetry. Goldberg’s perusal of symmetry extends far beyond your Elementary School-inspired notions of bilaterally symmetric shapes into questions about the origins, shape and inevitable fate of the universe – among many others!

At most times in Rearview Mirror, Goldberg’s style feels more like a discussion than a book – it’s as if your delightfully nerdy friend from college (the one with a knack for identifying stars, he’s convinced it’s a total turn-on) came over for dinner one night to talk about his favorite topic – the mysteries of the cosmos. Even with the conversational essence, Goldberg is sure to never get bogged down in scientific jargon,instead he frequently relies on allusions and analogies to get his point across.

In the book’s first five pages alone Goldberg makes creative allusions to Star Wars, Angels & Demons, Isaac Asimov, The Incredible Hulk, Twilight , and Star Trek. In the world of science writing since The Big Bang Theory, countless authors have tried to appeal to the “nerdy” sub-genre, but the allusions and comparisons in most books typically seem forced, even irrelevant at times. Perhaps due to his extensive teaching experience, this is never the case with Goldberg’s writing – every allusion is spot-on and fascinating, even Feynman-like at times. Never before had I thought of Lewis Carroll’s Alice jumping down the rabbit hole when discussing a black hole, and now I’ll never be able to think of taking the plunge without doing so.

Throughout the slightly-over-300-page-journey, readers explore fascinating conundrums posed as the subtitle of every chapter, concerning topics like Antimatter (“why there is something rather than nothing”), The Cosmological Principle (“why it is dark at night”) and quantum Spin (“why you aren’t a sentient cloud of helium and what a spoonful of neutron star would do to you”). Although each chapter does seek to answer these questions, the excitement comes from Goldberg’s masterful leadership – he paves the way with insightful analogies and surprisingly digestible descriptions of complex concepts (no equations allowed).

Once the journey is over, readers will not only have a thorough understanding of how symmetry truly shapes our universe, but also a plethora of exciting dinner conversations sure to spice up any date – “Hey, did you know that poker can teach us a lot about entropy?”