Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream by Jashua Davis

Book – Joshua Davis’ Spare Parts, expands on his 2005 WIRED article “La Vida Robot” to delve deeper into the lives of four undocumented immigrants whose ingenuity led them to a surprising victory at the prestigious MATE 2004 robotics competition. These four young bright students, Lorenzo Santillan, Oscar Vazquez, Cristian Arcega, and Luis Aranda found acceptance and encouragement from two dedicated teachers, Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi.

Davis does an excellent job describing how the boys assemble their underwater robot “Stinky” out of spare parts, junk, humble in all respects, in the middle of a desert and without access to a pool. He also describes the daily struggles in the lives of the teens, how they lived in constant fear of violence and deportation. The book’s bittersweet ending shows the reality of being a bright yet undocumented student. Despite these young men’s incredible potential, their future is stagnated in poverty as their undocumented status bars them from access to engineering programs, academic funding and military service. However you might feel about the current political discussion on immigration you can’t deny that these young men, and others like them, can teach us something worthwhile about resilience and the American dream.

The film Spare Parts, is based on award winning Carl Hayden robotics team, stars George Lopez and Jaime Lee Curtis. The film isn’t bad, it’s great in fact. My only issues are the predictable, feel-good happy ending, that George Lopez’s character is an amalgamation of Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi and that the more poignant events following the boys’ success at the robotics competition covered in Davis’ book, is ignored.

Spare Parts is available on OverDrive for digital download on Kindle and other electronic devices.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

indexBook – One of last year’s Bluestem Book Award Nominated children’s selections was Susan E. Goodman’s How Do You Burp in Space?: and Other Tips Every Space Tourist Needs to Know.  Mary Roach could easily have used the same title for her endlessly entertaining adult nonfiction offering, but she instead chose Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.

Packing for Mars (also available as an audiobook, digital or on CD) is in many ways the opposite of most stories about space travel.  Expect none of the rose-tinted romanticism of Space-as-Manifest-Destiny narratives that glamorize the patriotic thrill of being first among the stars, or any white-knuckled moments facing down the many terrors of space.  Roach’s down-to-earth focus on the humbler details of space exploration may not justify a John Williams soundtrack, but it makes for a hilarious, fascinating read.

As Roach points out, “To the rocket scientist, you are a problem.”  Humans are the most fallible component in the precise and delicate machinery of space travel, and Packing for Mars examines the many measures that NASA and other space agencies have taken to address our physical and psychological needs in the harsh environment of space.  From an expedition into the remote and otherworldly Canadian arctic where personnel and equipment are tested for moon missions, to the hospital ward where “terranauts” are paid to lie in bed for months to simulate the effects of zero-gravity on bone density, to a parabolic (“vomit-comet”) flight in the upper atmosphere in search of a cure for space-sickness, Mary Roach traveled all over this planet learning how space agencies meticulously plan to reach the next one.  The resulting book provides answers to all the questions about space travel that you never thought of or wouldn’t have dared to ask, conveyed with an irreverent wit that makes reading a pleasure.