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Book Review: Diary of a Cosmonaut

After reading a total of about 40% of:

Lebedev, V. V., Daniel Puckett, and C. W. Harrison. 1988. Diary of a cosmonaut: 211 days in space. College Station, Tex: PhytoResource Research, Information Service.

I am ready to write a review. Short version – highly useful to science fiction writers but tedious.

I read through April (flight training) and May (1st month) thoroughly. I read most of June and then picked out 3-5 days each of July through December.

The book is what it advertises — a day by day diary by Cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev of his May – December 1982 Salyut 7 mission with Anatoly Berezovoy. Despite the Soviet era publication date, it seems pretty honest and in the pages I read made no effort either to sugarcoat the Soviet Union or villify the United States.

The diary format is the book’s strength for researchers and science fiction writers and a great weakness for general readers. If you want details on how to use a space toliet, sleep in a space sleeping bag or how a space station snack bar is stocked (269-70), this book is for you. There are also valuable insights into station/ground control relationships and tensions. Finally, there are many reflections on how Cosmonauts value and miss their families along with interaction during communication passes.

Despite the addition of correspondence to and from the cosmonauts from family, friends and organizations, reading large sections of the diary makes space life seem tedious. Day after day we read about lost sleep, balky experiments, lack of instructions from ground control and the sleep disturbing habits of crew mates. We learn how cold it gets on the station in the morning. Day after day. It’s a little like the movie Groundhog Day in space, apart from a few guest crews. We also learn that Soviet Russia hands out odd honors, such as the “honorary concrete worker” award given to Lebedev on August 2, 1982 by the Krasnoyarsk Hydroelectric power station building project.

Cosmonaut Lebedev isn’t all negativity though. The book makes clear the pride he takes in his scientific work, his respect for his colleagues and the beauty of the Earth he circle. It’s just that the frustration, boredom and lonliness seem to speak louder. Day after day after day.

One interesting aspect of the book is that the diary entries shorten dramatically starting in September. At first I thought this was due to the mission extension given to Salyut 7. It turns out that I missed the translator’s note on page 294:

“After a two year hiatus, Lebedev published a continuation to his diary. The continuation fills in the large gaps in the latter half of the flight. Much of it consists of repetitions of how he felt, his mood, and other routine notes. What follows is the balance of the diary minus the tedium.”

There is a glossary in the back of the book and what I consider to be an inadequate index. On pages 347-348 there is a bibliography that will probably be useful to people interested in the early days of the Soviet space program.

Although I can’t recommend this book as a good read like I can for Jerry Linenger’s Off the Planet, I feel that Mr. Lebedev has provided a valuable service by providing a frank look at what life in space is like. I believe anyone interested in space psychology or writing a story about remote space outposts ought to check out this book.

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