Exploring the Planets book cover

Book Reviews

Some new books looking back and forward at space exploration, and an appraisal of how science is treated in the movies


Space: Past, Present and Future

The Space Age, which opened with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, is now close to 60 years old. That’s long enough for someone to be influenced by space exploration, complete a professional career in the field and retire to write a book of memoirs... which is exactly what Professor Fred Taylor has done in ‘Exploring the Planets’ (Oxford University Press, £25, ISBN 9780199671595). In fact, when he sat down to clear out his office, he realised he’d been a member of “one or more of the investigator teams for robotic space missions to every planet of the Solar System, out as far as Saturn”. With this “wealth of insider data”, he decided to talk to a commissioning editor he knew and a memoir was born.

Although Taylor makes a distinction between a memoir and an autobiography – stating modestly “my own life history is peripheral” – it’s a fine line. The book is written in the first person, based on personal experiences and illustrated with pictures from the author’s photo album. This is not a criticism: it’s those personal recollections that help put an otherwise potentially dry, academic history into perspective and bring it to life.

Taylor’s career really got going in the late 1970s, when he was working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on the Pioneer Venus probe. He tells how his hardware which, having arrived from Oxford, was “subjected to Nasa quality control inspection”. The JPL engineers, he reports, “looking for specks of dust, found a complete spider in one of the flight components”. They “gleefully” presented him with “a touched up picture, showing it wearing a bowler hat and waving a British flag”.

There are many ‘space memoirs’ written by American authors; this is a well-written, sometimes charming, Anglo-centric alternative.

Although the Space Shuttle appears, rather incongruously, on the cover of Taylor’s book, it is only a sidebar to his story. However, ‘Into the Black’ by Roland White (Bantam Press, £18; ISBN 9780593064368) makes it the main feature. Subtitled ‘the extraordinary untold story of the first flight of the Space Shuttle and the men who flew her’, it covers that ground-breaking mission of April 1981 and a crew that embodied the Tom Wolfe’s ‘Right Stuff’.

In the 35 years since STS-1, many books on the Space Shuttle have been published. The difference with this one is that the author is a writer and a storyteller first, and a space buff third at best (following a clear love of aircraft).This gives the text a freshness of discovery. The author assumes little in-depth knowledge among his readers, taking care to explain acronyms and the difference between Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center as early as his preface.

Of course, the key word in the 21-word title, is ‘untold’, which gives the book an unfortunate tabloid flavour. It revolves around the well-publicised worry that thermal insulation tiles would detach during launch or re-entry and not protect the Shuttle as designed. According to the author, “to save Columbia, Nasa had to turn to the National Reconnaissance Office, a spy agency hidden deep inside the Pentagon whose very existence was classified”. He even asserts that “much of the material in the latter part of the book remains deeply classified”, but doesn’t explain how it got past those ‘men in black’.

Ultimately, it’s publishing hype. Yes, they tried using spy satellites to image the Shuttle in orbit to assess the state of the tiles, but the realities of orbital mechanics and optical resolution got in the way. It’s a reasonable tale of the tribulations, but as with so many TV documentaries there’s more ‘build up’ than delivery. That’s a pity, because there is a lot of good stuff in the book about a truly fascinating story of a launch system flying for the first time – with two humans aboard – without a test-flight. Now that’s a tale of bravery, confidence in a new technology and the ‘right stuff’.

Indeed, there is much to celebrate in 60-odd years of space exploration and development, but what about the future? It’s a topic that space writers tend to major in, because it’s optimistic and exciting and to a large extent open to interpretation (or do I mean flights of fancy?).

According to its publicity, ‘Beyond – Our Future in Space’ by Chris Impey (WW Norton, £10.99; ISBN 9780393352153) “dares to imagine a fantastic future for humans in space – and then reminds us that we’re already there”. The author “guides us through the heady possibilities for the next century of exploration”, it gushes, adding that “this is not the stuff of science fiction”.

A problem for authors of mass-market books on space futures is the need for context, the need to bring the reader up-to-speed on this (quote) “avant-garde technology”. The four section headings – Prelude, Present, Future and Beyond – confirm that more than half of the book is history. And much of the rest makes reference to existing research and technologies and how they might be applied to future space exploration.

Most of it will not surprise the space-aware, but they are probably not the target audience. For those who like their history potted and their technology humanised, this could be the perfect primer.

So could the next 60 years of the Space Age be more exciting and eventful than the last? That’s a question for those at the dawn of their careers.

Mark Williamson

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