Artist impression of human colony on Mars

Book review: ‘Spacefarers’ by Christopher Wanjek

Image credit: Dreamstime

How humans will settle the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Now that celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission are over, space-minded authors have pivoted back towards the decades-old question of why no one has returned to the Moon for so long.

To his credit, in ‘Spacefarers: How Humans Will Settle the Moon, Mars and Beyond’ (Harvard University Press, £23.95, ISBN 9780674984486) Christopher Wanjek doesn’t waste too many words on the answer. It’s simply a matter of high costs, poor decisions and the fact that it really is ‘rocket science’.

Instead of dwelling on the past, Wanjek takes an optimistic look towards humanity’s future in space – not only on the Moon and Mars, but also on the asteroids and beyond. Before it seems like a rerun of those 1960s utopian dreams of planetary colonisation, with their “golden-lit domes housing a veritable Garden of Eden,” Wanjek bursts the bubble. “Mars,” he says, “is as frigid and lifeless as the Earth’s South Pole, only without the luxury of breathable air”. For sci-fi fans, he even dismisses the idea of growing potatoes, explaining that the Martian soil probably contains “toxic levels of perchlorate that would need to be removed”. Sorry, Watney, in real life you’re toast.

Why would anyone advocate space exploration and settlement? “'Because it’s neat' isn’t a sound reason,” suggests Wanjek. Quoting astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, he cites three reasons why nations or individuals part with large sums of money: “Praise of deity or royalty, war, or the promise of economic return,” finding the third the most relevant to this subject. This is his opening for NewSpace, including the disruptive technologies of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos et al and plans for everything from global satellite broadband to mining the Moon.

While the author argues that there is “little doubt” that we will return to the Moon and explore Mars in the coming decades - in part because private industry has seen the potential for profit from human space activity - he is no wide-eyed Trekkie. Citing an incident of Antarctic cabin fever when a physician “allegedly torched the place to avoid spending another winter there”, he envisages a “nightmare scenario” on the long voyage to Mars “where ‘Apollo 13’ meets ‘The Shining’”. He describes, however, the extensive research on human behaviour in confined conditions done using Earth-based ‘analogue missions’.

The great thing about this book is its balance between optimism and realism, between respect and frivolity. For example, the author’s sense of awe for the 'Rocket Equation' – and certainly for its author Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who “figured out orbital manoeuvring with paper and pencil” – is palpable. However, no doubt cognisant of Stephen Hawking’s warning about each equation halving book sales, he refers to the delta-V in the equation as “that triangle and curly V thing” and makes great efforts to explain how it works (backing everything up with chapter notes).

As for realism, Wanjek is clear that “human space exploration is not a plan B for Earth”. Save for threats akin to the Vogon Constructor Fleet from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “nothing could make Earth less hospitable than Mars”, he says.

However, eventually, “space will be a natural extension of humanity,” he opines and it will “just make sense to be in space”.

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