I grew up near Cape Canaveral, so the space program was always a part of my environment as a kid. The first Space Shuttle launch happened when I was still a little kid, and all up through high school I loved the familiar rumbling sensation that accompanied a launch. It’s weird that something as amazing as going into space would ever seem mundane enough that we would walk outside during school, watch until the plume had reached the limits of our vision, and then go back inside to resume classes. To some extent, I took the space program for granted because I was surrounded by it, but at the same time it’s something that still has its hooks in me, and I gravitate toward stories about How We Went to Space.
Today’s stack is about space travel—a lot of it is fiction, but with some fun connections to the real thing.
This is the second book in the Lady Astronaut series, and I really enjoyed this one as well. Some spoilers here if you haven’t read the first book! The International Aerospace Coalition has managed to establish a moon colony, and is working on its mission to Mars. Elma York—the Lady Astronaut herself—has been tapped to join the mission, though it’s a late-stage replacement in part due to political pressures and fundraising, which causes some tension among the rest of crew.
Another source of tension is the rise of Earth Firsters—those who believe that all this money being spent on space exploration is a waste, when there are so many problems that haven’t been solved on Earth. For some, there’s skepticism that the climate predictions are real; for others, there’s a recognition that even if a Mars colony is established, not everyone on Earth is going to be able to go, and they know who will be left out when resources are limited.
On board the Mars crafts—two ships carrying the human crew and one uncrewed cargo ship—things aren’t always peachy, either. The copilot of one ship is from South African and refused to serve on a ship that included anyone of color, resulting in a sort of “separate but equal” situation that is severely strained when the ships encounter a string of disasters. I also appreciated getting to know Parker a bit better—he’s the captain of Elma’s ship and has been a thorn in her side throughout the first book, but we get a peek behind the curtain to see who he is behind his flashy astronaut smile.
Even though this is fiction, a lot of the challenges of space travel feel very real, both the technical feat of getting people into space and the political maneuvering required to keep the program funded. It’s easy to read this story and see the prejudices and stereotypes as a thing of the past, but the reality is that a lot of the attitudes held by particular characters in this alternate 1960s timeline are still reflected in our culture here and now.
While reading this series, I’ve also started watching the Apple TV+ series For All Mankind, another alternate history space race, and I’ve really enjoyed that as well. Both this book series and the TV series touch on a lot of similar topics. I think one of the things that strikes me is how improbable the whole thing seems at times—the sheer number of problems that had to be overcome, the importance of balancing public sentiment with what was best for the program, the boundaries that are pushed and tested, and the danger of it all.
After finishing The Fated Sky, I decided to pause for a bit before diving into the third book, The Relentless Moon, not because I don’t want more, but because I want to make it last a little longer.
I finally got around to watching Lightyear recently—I was curious about it because I’m a huge fan of the Toy Story series but hadn’t known exactly how this movie fit into the picture. As it turns out, the premise is that this is the movie Andy would have seen as a kid, the one that kicked off the Buzz Lightyear toy line. So it’s a sci-fi flick, a mix of action and humor, starring the intrepid Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear.
Now, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, then you may want to skip this section (and the book as well) because it does include spoilers about the plot, though some of the things I’ll mention are things you discover within the first half hour of the movie. The film opens with a colony ship, the crew in hibernation, making a side trip to a small planet that turns out to be hostile—but then they get stuck there, without the needed fuel to get off the planet. Buzz takes on the dangerous mission to test the hyperspace fuel mixture in an experimental spacecraft because he feels responsible for their situation.
This art book delves into the look of the film: characters, environments, vehicles, along with the various robots and weapons, and the evolution of the outfits worn by Buzz and the rest of the characters. One of the key concepts driving the plot is that each time Buzz makes his gravity-slingshot trip around the sun, a lot more time passes on the planet than what he experiences, so what we get is a city that grows and evolves very quickly as we see things from Buzz’s perspective. The uniforms change, the Star Command logo changes, the spaceships and the spaceport itself change. Other characters age, while Buzz experiences this all within a very short subjective timeframe.
The Pixar team visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston as part of their research, working with NASA to see how space technology worked. Even though the movie is fiction, they tried to make the space travel feel real. (One fun note: Tom Marshburn and Kjell Lindgren are names that also show up in the acknowledgements for The Fated Sky—seems like they’ve got a lot of writers seeking their expertise!) Another note later in the book shows that the diagrams and equations Buzz scribbles on his cockpit window were actually based on real equations provided by a retired mechanical engineer.
There were a few fun facts that I enjoyed learning. For instance, director Angus MacLane often made ship or robot models out of LEGO bricks, some of which are shown in the book, as a starting point for a design concept. Another is that MacLane is from Portland, Oregon, so the growing city was originally patterned after Portland, with a river running alongside a growing “downtown” area. (That also explains why several of the characters—like Hawthorne and Burnside—are named after Portland’s bridges.)
While the book does include some trivia in some of the captions, the bulk of it (after a foreword by Andrew Stanton and an introduction by Angus MacLane) is the art itself, often provided without any commentary. Sometimes it doesn’t even include a character’s name on the page with their designs, which feels like a strange omission. I personally like having a bit more of the stories behind things: why does Commander Burnside have a robotic arm in this illustration? What’s the deal with these various robots that were never seen in the movie? But if you like concept art, especially futuristic vehicles and spacesuits, this is a fun book to flip through.
As I said before, I grew up watching Space Shuttle launches—even if we didn’t go out to the launch site to see it close-up, I lived close enough that we could step outside into the yard and watch it once it got above the treeline. I’d been to Kennedy Space Center enough times to know a lot of trivia about the shuttle, and in particular I’ve read a lot over the years about the Challenger disaster and what caused it. Even so, it’s still amazing to me to delve into the story of how the shuttle came to be and the technological hurdles that engineers had to leap to make it all possible.
This book (published last year) celebrates the Space Shuttle program, which ran for 30 years from 1981 to 2011. It collects a lot of photographs, paired with essays by NASA Chief Historian Roger D. Launius, to paint a portrait of this spaceship that was used for 135 missions and served for a long time as the symbol of American spaceflight. It was not without its setbacks and failures; Launius includes those in his history but ultimately chooses to focus more on the triumphs.
This book lined up well with my current read of the Lady Astronaut series and watching For All Mankind, just to serve as another reminder that much of what’s happening in those fictional stories is inspired by the real history of the space program.
Tim Peake is a an astronaut from the European Space Agency, and spent over 26 weeks in space in total. He began taking photos of Earth from the International Space Station, documenting both natural landscapes and human-made constructions. This book is a collection of his photos, each paired with a map showing where the ISS was at the time the photo was taken. This book focuses a bit less on the space station itself—in most instances the photo does not include the station or any spacecraft, and is instead focused entirely on Earth as its subject. It’s definitely a perspective of the Earth that we don’t often get, whether it’s the northern lights seen from space or a giant bloom of swirling plankton in the ocean
This book is a bit of an oddity—I’ve seen lots of “art of” books for movies, but this is the first time I’ve seen a book like this for a theme park. Of course, it’s not just any theme park—it’s a Star Wars–themed park, and the reason there’s an art book for it is in part because the park itself was designed to have a story. Unlike most other theme parks, where you’ll enter the fictional world for the duration of the ride and then exit back into what’s obviously Disney World or Universal Studios, Galaxy’s Edge was conceived as an in-universe location, one in which everything from the rides to the shops to the restaurants was supposed to look like something that could exist within the Star Wars universe. That’s a big challenge, of course, making something that fits Earth-bound building codes while attempting to make you feel like you’re at a small outpost on a distant planet.
Because of this, designing this theme park had to take into account things like how it fit into the Star Wars timeline, which characters could potentially be present, and so on. The book includes a lot of concept drawings and sketches, explaining how the Black Spire Outpost came to be and the sorts of characters who populate it. One thing that stands out in some of the concept art is that, in addition to characters who look like they’d belong in a movie, there are often Earth tourists as well, just incorporated in the scenes to show what it may look like once the park opens.
I particularly liked the ways that the shops and restaurants—and, yes, I know, it’s all there to make money for the Disney Star Wars empire—are designed to look like something from that part of the universe. The idea of having a gift shop that does not have a bunch of “Star Wars” or “Disney” branding on everything seems like a cool change from the usual theme park stores. And even the fact that all of the Coca-Cola products had new, Aurebesh-language logos, is a fun touch.
There are descriptions of the rides and attractions, and some of the challenges in building them. For instance, it’s one thing to build the Millennium Falcon for a movie where it will only be seen from certain angles and won’t be touched—but if you want people to be able to walk through it and see it up close, then it can’t be just plywood and foam anymore.
The book doesn’t include photos of the completed park for comparison, so if you—like me—haven’t yet been to the park, it’s hard to know exactly which ideas actually made it through to the finished product, but it’s a lot of fun to see some of the wild concepts that were tossed around. A grill made from a podracer engine, a giant aquatic bartender, a big furry creature that would wander around the park and interact with guests… maybe these will make it into a future theme park. At any rate, the book definitely made me want to go visit the park someday!
My Current Reads
My current read—also space-related—is the upcoming Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty, about a woman who has a natural knack for solving murder mysteries, which is an unfortunate necessity because murders seem to take place wherever she finds herself. Now she’s on Eternity, a sentient alien space station, where she hoped to avoid being tangled up in murders by, well, avoiding humans altogether. But now there’s a shuttle full of humans on its way and she’s got a bad feeling about it… It’s a fun ride so far and I’m curious to see where it goes! Not as much actual space travel and space tech so far as I’d hoped, though.
Disclosure: I received review copies of the books in this column. Affiliate links to Bookshop.org help support my writing and independent bookstores!