A soaring science book

Dragonfly – the terrifying story of Mir, Earth’s first outpost in space

By Bryan Burrough

As a boy, I had always been under the impression that NASA astronaut Michael Foale was from the same part of the world as me. I knew him to be from Louth, a village not far from my own hometown of Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire. I am sure that the Grimsby Telegraph described him as a local lad. Foale’s humble beginnings filled me with admiration and gave me a connection to outer space when he served aboard the space shuttles and Mir. However, it turns out that Foale grew up the son of an RAF man and an American woman. The family moved around a lot – Foale’s childhood included only a stint at an air force base in Lincolnshire.

This is one of the many difficult truths Burrough reveals in his compelling book about the joint American-Russian missions aboard the space station Mir in the mid-nineties. I am sure that Burrough didn’t perceive Foale’s background to be a major factor for his reader, but it resurrected in me the passion I had for space as a boy. Burrough has filled his book with the wonder, joy and admiration I haven’t felt for years: towards astronauts, engineers, scientists, pilots and the programmes that pull them all together. Burrough’s book trips along through the intricacies of the bumbling shuttle-Mir programme, an unlikely alliance between the strangest of bedfellows – the Americans and Russians. As a skilled journalist, Burrough gained access to every single important voice, from the ground crews to the political administrators and even the astronauts themselves. I can tell that Burrough put in weeks and weeks of research time in interviewing them and crawling through files and Mir-to-Earth communications records.

From all of this he has crafted a gripping account, centred around the fire, the so-called Near Miss and the almost-fatal collision when the space shuttle Progress struck Mir and tore a whole in its frail shell. The courage and smarts of the people who patched up Mir is astounding, but not half as intriguing as Burrough’s representation of the bickering and political point-scoring behind the scenes. Here lies Burrough’s real story. Here his talent shines. What an immense achievement.

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