People have been living aboard the International Space Station for more than fifteen years straight. Building and maintaining it has taken more than 200 spacewalks, totaling around thirty work weeks of effort. And yet, fifty-five years ago, we knew almost nothing about putting humans in space, nor what they could do while there. America's first five spacewalks, part of the Gemini program, were a mess. Astronauts struggled and sweated until they fogged their visor and still didn't accomplish the basic mission goals. They could barely get in and out of the craft, much less do any work out there. It wasn't until astronauts started training under water to simulate weightlessness that they figured out how do to useful work without their spacecraft.
Before all of America's experiments, in March of 1965, Cosmonaut Alexi Leonov took his first trip to space and became the first human to perform a spacewalk. Broadcast live on TV for twelve minutes, the world saw the Soviets had once again outdone the Americans in the space race. But after the cameras cut off, the trouble began. Leonov's suit had inflated like a balloon in a vacuum and he couldn't bend enough to get back in the airlock. Safety margins were small on these early fights, and he didn't have time to mess around. His suit only had so much air, sunlight was going away, and the capsule was due for reentry soon. He was overheating from the effort. He opened the relief valve on his suit, partially deflating it, but risking both the excruciating pain of the bends and delirium from hypoxia. But it allowed the suit bend enough so that he and his crewmate, Pavel Belyayev, could drag him aboard and prepare the capsule for reentry.
Trouble was only getting started. The craft Leonov had reboarded was having its own problems and missed its landing window. Because of limited communications, ground control didn't know, and asked Voskhod 2 how its landing went while it was still in orbit. When they finally did make it to the ground, they were 2000 km off course deep in Siberian wilderness, surrounded by aggressive wild animals, snow, and temperatures well below zero. Their spacesuits were filling with sweat, so they had to take them off an wring out their underwear to keep from freezing. They scavenged their capsule's parachute out of the trees to use as insulation. It took them three days and skiing nine kilometers just to reach a place where a helicopter could pick them up, and return them to civilization. (The full tale and more is in Two Sides of the Moon
by Astronaut Dave Scott and Cosmonaut Alexi Leonov. The relevant excerpt, in Leonov's own words is up at Smithsonian Air and Space magazine
I was reminded the rough-and-tumble, sometimes forgotten and classified history of exploration while reading The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O
by Neil Stephenson and Nicole Galland. It's about a different sort of technological race, one to discover why magic disappeared, and if possible, recreate it before someone else does. It's a collection of memoirs and classified documents (and in one case a PowerPoint deck) revealing the inner workings of a secret agency and its occult ambitions. Just like Alexi Leonov's first spacewalk, the adventures are full of experimentation, risk, and getting out of surprising situations using ones wits.
I hate to say more than that because part of the fun of the book is the revealing of mysteries, reversals of fortunes, and discovering possibilities along with the characters. This is probably the most accessible and downright fun book with Stephenson's name on the cover since Snowcrash
all mixed in with the rich historical storytelling of Galland. I read The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O
in a hurry, but it's stuck with me. After I finished it, I kept picking it up. I forgotten that I'd reached the end, and wanted to spend a few more minutes with the brave people in the heady and dangerous days pioneering a new world.