by Jeff Foust
|“We’re on the cusp of an important transition, where diverse technologies have matured to the point where space travel could be routine,” Impey writes.|
Beyond is his effort to describe this transition. The emphasis, though, should be on “effort,” for many readers may be left unconvinced. General audiences—for whom the book appears to be targeted—may find it difficult to follow his logic. More space-literate readers, on the other hand, may take issue with his arguments and find flaws in his facts.
Impey takes his time making his case for being on that cusp, starting off with a few chapters of history, from the origins of humans through the origins of the Space Age. (The former is used to argue that exploration is literally part of our DNA, thanks to the discovery of a gene that appears correlated with taking risks and craving novelty.) Today, he argues, NASA is in the doldrums, saddled with aging infrastructure and insufficient funding, while entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Richard Branson are blazing ahead with their own vehicles and technologies.
But blazing ahead to where? That’s where the book gets muddled. The later chapters of the book offer a grab bag of topics, from the challenges of establishing human bases on the Moon to Mars and the technologies of telepresence, to searches for exoplanets and even SETI. Even individual chapters can leave the reader feeling scatterbrained: one titled “The Next Space Race” devotes roughly equal time to China’s space ambitions, the dubious lunar property claims of Dennis Hope, the promise of space elevators, and the growth of space commerce. Impey, to be fair, doesn’t try to tie together these four topics very tightly because… well, you can’t.
That chapter highlights a more fundamental flaw in the book. While Impey is a prolific author, publishing more than a book a year over the last several years, it’s the first time he’s written in detail on the topic of human spaceflight, either government or commercial. Impey has done a fair amount of research, as demonstrated by the book’s considerable endnotes (for a book intended for general audiences, at least.) Yet, it reads like he’s done more of a synthesis of all of that reading material, rather than a more critical, and original, analysis.
That means that he often accepts as credible claims that experts in the field would treat, at best, more skeptically. For example, he writes, “India and Japan have plans for a lunar base by 2030.” This claim doesn’t carry a citation, but given India’s lack of human spaceflight experience and Japan’s constrained budgets, such a grandiose goal doesn’t seem feasible. He mentions a report by the International Academy of Astronautics that claims a space elevator is feasible by 2035, but doesn’t say whether that conclusion is widely accepted among engineers and others in the field (it isn’t.)
In the chapter celebrating entrepreneurial space, Impey places on a pedestal four individuals: Burt Rutan, Richard Branson, Peter Diamandis, and Elon Musk. But he doesn’t mention that, after his pioneering work on SpaceShipOne, Rutan is now retired, or that Diamandis currently spends only a small fraction of his time on space. He also doesn’t go into depth about the challenges building SpaceShipTwo, beyond mentioning in passing last October’s fatal crash on a test flight. Suborbital spaceflight has been stalled on that cusp of a transition for a decade, but he pretty much gives the industry a pass.
|A chapter titled “The Next Space Race” devotes roughly equal time to China’s space ambitions, the dubious lunar property claims of Dennis Hope, the promise of space elevators, and the growth of space commerce.|
There’s also a surprising number of factual errors in the book. Impey writes that “seven organizations” competed for the Ansari X PRIZE; the peak number of registered teams was 26. He writes Rutan and Branson joined forces to develop SpaceShipTwo in 2008; they did so in 2004. He describes the X-37 spaceplane as an Air Force project later transferred to NASA; instead, it went from NASA to the Air Force. He claims NASA picked “Tranquility” over “Colbert” as the name of the “next-generation toilet” for the International Space Station; the naming contest was instead for a new module for the station. (And Impey leaves out NASA’s consolation prize of naming the station’s treadmill after the comedian, which, in any case, has to beat having a toilet named after you.) None are individually significant, but collectively raise questions about the quality of his research and the arguments those facts support.
Those errors, and the superficial analysis, suggest an unfortunate sloppiness to Beyond. Perhaps we are indeed on the cusp of a transition in spaceflight. But if you’ve been following this industry for a number of years, we’ve been on such cusps before, only for them to fail for one reason or another. For example, recall the revolution in space access the fleets of reusable launch vehicles private ventures planned to develop in the latter half of the 1990s, only to fall apart because of a combination of technological, financial, and market issues. (You’ll have to recall them on your own, as Impey doesn’t mention them in his book.) Maybe this time is different: we’ll turn the corner and not run into a wall. However, this book is unlikely to convince you of that.