So far, 2012 has been a good year for collections of shorter works by prominent authors. I reviewed William Gibson's Distrust That Particular Flavor, which I loved, and then turned my attention to Neil deGrasse Tyson's Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. I enjoy Dr. Tyson's style, which is both approachable and informative, and appreciate his message.
Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. He likes to tell the story of how, when he was ten years old, he visited the Planetarium for the first time and knew, right then, that he wanted to study space. In many ways, his vision of space exploration recalls that of the 1960s, when President Kennedy rallied America to reach the moon before the Soviets. That message comes across clearly in his latest book.
Why, How, and Why Not
Tyson divides Space Chronicles into three sections: Why, How, and Why Not. In the Why section, he identifies the main reasons that convince politicians to fund space exploration: economic return and military advantage. In the famous Kennedy speech mentioned earlier, the president urged the American public to back his vision of a moon mission as an answer to the threat posed by the Soviet Union's successful launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. Arguing that sending a manned or robotic mission to the moon or Mars might make for great headlines, but it probably won't convince Congress to loosen its purse strings in the current economic environment.
There are, of course, many other reasons why we would want to explore space, both in person and remotely. The search for extraterrestrial life continues, more powerful satellite-based telescopes will probe almost to the edge of the universe, and examining our neighboring planets will grant greater insights into the history and future of the Earth. When you combine those benefits with the possibility of technological spin-offs, such as breakthroughs in mammogram analysis derived from techniques developed to harvest useful data from the Hubble Space Telescope's initially fuzzy images, the case seems obvious.
In the How section, Tyson describes the technologies used to overcome Earth's gravity, propel objects through space, survive once you get there, and to look around a bit. He starts by describing the chemical and nuclear propulsion systems currently in use, as well as the solar sail, which capitalizes on the sun's light to push satellites across space. Photons are almost massless but they do travel at the speed of light, which means that even particles with their miniscule mass can transfer momentum to a ship if you know how to catch them. He also goes into some detail on the Hubble telescope, describing its role, benefits, and the repair missions used to extend its useful life. Just like the Mars rovers, Hubble is doomed to fail one day, but it has already provided enormously useful data for astrophysicists to mull over.
Tyson tackles several objections in the Why Not section, but the main one is cost. NASA's individual projects are expensive, especially when one involves sending something into orbit or beyond. Even so, he points out that NASA's annual outlay accounts for half a percent of the total United States budget. He very correctly compares those figures to the United States' annual military budget, implying (but never arguing directly) that cutting a costly or doubtful weapon system would make up the difference easily.
Unmanned missions are much more economical, but don't capture the imagination the same way that manned missions do. The goal of manned missions is to gain knowledge and to push our technologies ever further as we invent new ways to survive and, perhaps, thrive in space and on Earth. Manned missions also have the benefit of sending a human with an active, engaged mind who can prioritize tasks and recognize interesting phenomena in ways that a machine can't .
I enjoy Dr. Tyson's writing style. He's approachable and knows when to use everyday language or get a little technical. I wish there was less repetition among the pieces, but that's par for the course when you're advocating a position and you have the chance to write and speak frequently on a subject. I also appreciate that he included the text of the law establishing NASA and NASA budget information for several decades. These appendices establish the facts on the ground and provide a common reference for discussion. As he's fond of saying in another context: "You can have your own opinion, but you can't have your own facts."
Tyson is a passionate advocate for space exploration, both as a policy advisor and as an educator. I believe Space Chronicles supports his positions effectively and makes a compelling case for renewed exploration beyond low earth orbit.
Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 20 books and has created more than a dozen online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.