Review: The Politics and Perils of Space Exploration
by Jeff Foust
|Space advocates seek a magic bullet—a book, a television series, a social media personality—that will lift that veil of public ignorance and thus lead the nation and the world into a glorious new space age.|
That seems to be the motivation for Linda Dawson, a former NASA shuttle flight controller who is now a lecturer at a University of Washington campus. One of her students, she recalls in the preface of The Politics and Perils of Space Exploration, thought the first man to walk on the Moon was Lance Armstrong. “I felt that if my students were confused about the existence of NASA today and its relationship to private space enterprises, then others were most like equally confused,” she writes.
The book, then, is a sweeping, high-level overview of the current state of public and private sector space efforts. Dawson examines what NASA and other space agencies are doing, as well as various companies, in particular SpaceX. The book includes a fair amount of discussion of the history of spaceflight and the role politics has played, as well as technology development efforts.
While the intent of the book may have been high-minded, its execution falls short. The problems are evident in the opening paragraph of the preface, when she recalls asking her students “how their cell phone transmits and receives data.” “Several students knew that satellites were involved but didn’t understand the underlying concepts of geosynchronous orbits.” Of course, satellites in geosynchronous orbits have little to do with how the vast majority of cell phones transmit and receive data: they communicate with terrestrial cell phone towers no more than a few kilometers away, not satellites 36,000 kilometers away.
Much of the book is often little more than restating NASA press releases and various other articles, without offering much insight or demonstrating deep knowledge of the subjects. A section early in the book on NASA’s budget is devoted to debates about authorization bills, rather than the appropriations bills that actually fund the agency. Later, in a discussion about the Space Launch System, she notes, accurately, that “specific plans for the SLS missions are still being solidified.” But then, she continues, “The first mission was an unmanned test, sending the Orion capsule around the Moon and back to Earth. It was successfully completed in December 2014. The second mission plans to send astronauts to explore an asteroid orbiting the Moon.” That description is, needless to say, extremely flawed.
|While the intent of the book may have been high-minded, its execution falls short.|
The book does answer one of the questions in its subtitle—“who will compete?”—with its broad discussion of the various countries and companies involved in spaceflight. It doesn’t, though, really address the second: “who will dominate?” The book doesn’t draw many conclusions at all, in fact: the book’s final chapter is on technology developments, and then proceeds abruptly into the index without a concluding chapter to tie things together and, perhaps, answer that question from the title.
For that poor student who thinks a disgraced bicyclist is the first man to walk on the Moon, or wonders if the space agency is in business today, The Politics and Perils of Space Exploration is certainly better than nothing. But for all the flaws of the book, perhaps the real problem is the belief there’s a magic media bullet that will turn disinterested and ignorant members of the public into informed, enthusiastic advocates. It’s space activities themselves that need to be engaging and relevant to the public.