The Fated Sky
4.5 stars, actually.
This is the second book in the Lady Astronaut Universe continuing the story after the end of the second book where Elma is piloting ships between the Moon and the Moon base while her physicist husband stays at his NASA job in Kansas (this is an alternate universe where a meteor strikes the Earth during the 1960’s causing devastation and forcing the world to look to space as a way to save humanity).
Only when a routine landing goes bad, the resulting politics gives Elma a second chance to satisfy her space-thirst: a berth on the ship going to Mars.
Kowal does really great research and then presents a lot of the rocket/astronaut science in believable ways: Elma’s having to stuff the zer0-g practice suit designed for men due to an air bubble, the pull of the tether lines during an EVA, and her piece-de-resistance; the nastiness of zero-g diarrhea.
Sometimes the (to me) gobbly gook of call-and-response of long strings of numbers around terms like “yaw” when they were launching or doing burns or whatever just made me skim right over whole sentences. I can’t fault that authenticity feeling, but it didn’t contribute to my sense of action or narrative arc.
Much more interesting for me was the depiction of the politics and hurt feelings necessitated by the choosing of people for amazing space jobs in the context of 1960’s racist and sexist USA. Elma has to contend with her nemesis, Captain Parker, from the prior book, and their evolving understanding of each other was the best part of the book; alongside Elma’s realization of her own white privilege and tendency to do things like “white-splain” a black astronaut’s experience being assigned only the most routine cleaning/maintenance jobs in the Mars rocket back to them.
There’s lots of cute details in this that kept me reading despite the somewhat slow pace of the plot itself– how Elma makes Chocolate chess pie in space, Parker’s interesting in cursing in multiple languages, the code Elma inserts into her messages for her husband. But sometimes the cutesiness got a little too saccharine (i.e. any mention of sexual heat being cast in terms of rocket ships and launch preparations).
Anyway, definitely worth reading to see how Elma gets to Mars!ama