Carl Sagan said that mankind would have to explore space to survive. Yet budget and programme cuts mean NASA has to pay Russia $62.7 million per astronaut they carry to the International Space Station aboard Soyuz vessels. Written from an American point of view, but ultimately the view of humanity's future, this factual book reassesses the benefits and difficulties of space exploration.
Robots are cheaper and easier to send as explorers than to send all the support systems required by fragile humans. Yet manned space missions have given spinoff benefits, such as Teflon, better prosthetics, telemedicine, better preserved foods, better kidney dialysis machines and advances in aviation safety. Space science has given us satellites, so improved communications, forecasting and views of changing climates - and detection of near-flying asteroids. Research will benefit humanity, whether in the field of pure physics or seeing if a biodome can grow enough food to support life on the Moon.
Claude Piantadosi supports returning to the Moon, as a testing ground for the survival systems we will need to explore Mars. He analyses problems at NASA, explaining that when innovators get stifled by red tape and budget cuts they skip off to private industry. We have come an awe-inspiring distance since the start of the twentieth century, when heavier-than-air flight was first achieved by the Wrights. We have landed a robot on Titan, Saturn's largest moon, and Mars Rovers trundle across that planet and send back data.
Biomedicine explores how we can live under stressful conditions, such as a year or more in space. We see comparisons with Tibetan and Andean populations, each of which has found a different physiological adaptation to altitude. Polar explorations and undersea work are all steps along the journey. Space exploration to date is of course reprised, including the tragic accidents and misfires. Living off local and recycled resources is the only way to establish a stable habitat beyond the Moon, as the cost and difficulty of resupply would be prohibitive. The current technology for space travel is explained and combinations can be used, from solar power to nuclear power. Recycling and discovering local water and oxygen are top priority for any new base. Growing food and providing nutrients will be vital, as away from sunlight our vitamin D levels drop, and combined with microgravity our bones become brittle. The author explores the currently understood physiological alterations of space travel on astronauts, from osteoporosis to cancers. Radiation is a major hazard, both solar and background. And what to do with the trash, from human waste to food packaging? Is it ethical to start a waste dump on Mars?
As to where we can go, Venus is unfortunately a hazardously hot environment so Mars is the obvious challenge. We could also visit small bodies such as asteroids - the large Ceres would be a good target - or some moons of large but further planets, such as Titan and Ganymede. As for other stars, we would need fast propulsion to reach those in any reasonable timeframe.
I was astonished that Piantadosi still thinks Mercury is tidally locked to the sun (page 56). Possibly this was just badly phrased? We know now that due to orbital factors we see the same face each time it comes around, but the small planet does rotate and each 'day' on Mercury lasts two of its 'years'. A certain level of astrophysics is required to get the best out of this book, but even looking up the Lagrange points on a site like Wikipedia will give helpful diagrams (there are diagrams in this book too) and astronomers from teens to adults will be fascinated. So many combined sciences are represented that we can see biologists, medics, engineers, chemists and mechanics will all be needed if Earth people are ever to call another planet home. If one section is outside your experience the next section may prove easier to understand. The omission which surprises me most is that of the Three-D Printer, by which an astronaut could insert a diagram for a tool or other item and the printer would build it layer by layer. We are also told nothing about intelligent glass and graphene.
As a lifelong science fiction fan I enjoyed catching up with some of the latest space exploration science in MANKIND BEYOND EARTH.