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on March 5, 2002
"Off the Planet" is Jerry Linenger's memoir of the five months he spent aboard Mir, the Russian space station, but whether or not you will enjoy reading it depends entirely on how you get along with Linenger, a world-class contender in the Narcissism stakes.
While he claims his ego is only moderate compared with other jet jockeys, he is -- for once -- being modest. He believed early on that nothing is worth doing if it can't be done in public. He tells of watching the Apollo 11 astronauts walking on the moon and how he wants to be just like them, not for the adventure or thrill of exploration, but because of the attention they drew. When he was selected to join NASA, he didn't just phone his wife and say, "Honey, I'm in." No, he waited until just before their plane took off for their vacation and had one of the pilots make the announcement.
If you can set Linenger's ego aside for a moment -- and you know it would take a bulldozer and a couple sticks of gelignite to do it -- you'll find that he's written an excellent, richly-detailed account of his experiences in Russia and in space.
The U.S.-Russian joint effort came very close to being one of NASA's biggest failures. Originally designed to last five years, the station had been up for 11 and was literally falling apart. Warning alarms went off regularly. Hoses split, releasing antifreeze that the astronauts breathed. Devices broke down. There were numerous power failures. Garbage and broken equipment built up because there wasn't enough room in the spacecraft to get rid of it. Russian mission controllers lied to the astronauts about the dangers they were facing, berated them for failures that were not their fault, and treated the American astronauts like idiot step-children.
Then there were the life-threatening accidents. During Linenger's time aboard, a fire broke out in the equipment supplying oxygen. Despite the efforts of six men, it burned uncontrollably for over 15 minutes before putting itself out. Not only was no investigation held to determine its cause, but the Russians minimized the damage and blamed the astronauts. This censor-and-blame attitude wouldn't have been countenanced in NASA, but for the sake of U.S.-Russian relations, they went along with it. If the fire hadn't burned itself out, there would have been six dead men in space, and NASA Administrator Dan Goldin would have been held responsible for putting American astronauts into danger. It's clear from Linenger's account that only the heroic actions of the astronauts and cosmonauts kept the station running for as long as it did.
The book goes into great detail about the nuts-and-bolts of life aboard Mir: the sounds, the smells, the daily schedule and relentless work needed to keep her flying. Linenger is a generous host, willing to reveal everything. One of the more fascinating sections described his earth-observation duties. Driven by his desire to become "a world-class geographer," he goes into detail about how he accomplished his goal. I'm fascinated about how some people can do so much while others -- myself included -- do so little. Time management, for me, is limited to finding a watch I can wear longer than two weeks. Watching Linenger at work is worth more than any motivational speaker.
"Off the Planet" is an admirable book. Linenger is an excellent storyteller, and writes clear prose. He describes the scientific and technical aspects in terms understandable to the general reader. But, unwittingly perhaps, he also provides a glimpse inside Jerry M. Linenger, M.D., Ph.D., and shows us the seed inside his egotism. His galaxy-sized self-regard can be annoying on the page, but from it came his ability to accomplish much. It drives him to be the best at whatever he's doing, no matter what. And as a result, for five month, it really was Jerry's world, and we were just along for the ride. After that harrowing voyage of the near-damned, he's earned his bragging rights.