- Hardcover: 400 pages
- Publisher: Pantheon Books; 1 edition (1 Jan. 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0375421505
- ISBN-13: 978-0375421501
- Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 2.6 x 23.5 cm
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 4,937,605 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age Hardcover – 1 Jan 2004
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About the Author
Greg Klerkx is a former senior manager of the SETI Institute, an independent space exploration and research institution based in California’s Silicon Valley. Trained as a journalist, he won numerous news-writing awards and now divides his time between London and San Francisco. <b>Lost in Space</b> is his first book.
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Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Mr. Klerkx has an ax to grind. In summary, the book is pro-private rocket launches, pro-space tourism, and pro-manned Mars mission. Which means the book uses 355 pages to show how NASA is not the proper government agency to sponsor and support such activities. Some very neat parallels are drawn between the early commercial aviation industry and the X Prize and SpaceShipOne. Unfortunately, the story always comes back around to bashing NASA, its current and recent leadership, and the current presidential administration.
Read this book only if you want to see some NASA bashing. If you want to learn about private efforts to reach space and the effort to prepare for manned travel to Mars, find a different book.
Klerkx does represent that NASA, after its heroic age leading up to the Apollo moon landings, got hardening of the mental arteries. Struggling just to survive as a sinecure for government bureaucrats and a jobs program for engineers, it became less and less venturesome, less and less innovative. As budgets and head count fell away, it became increasingly the captive of corporate aerospace giants. Today, among many space enthusiasts, it is regarded as a roadblock rather than an ally. Klerkx presents their case.
As a longtime space enthusiast myself, I encounter this point of view all the time. Its advocates are a dime a dozen. What makes Klerkx different is that he's a trained journalist and makes a stronger case than I would have thought possible. It helps that he writes well -- he knows how to interview people and make their lives interesting to the reader. Just incidentally, he writes grammatically. Even the typos are rare in this book. I would have to read it clear through a third time to find any, and I could probably count them on the fingers of one hand.
The book interviews a lot of people, many of whom once worked for NASA, but were axed in budget cuts, or becamse disillusioned and quit. Obviously their stories share a bias, but there are too many of them to brush off easily. Some had illustrious records in the glory days. Some have pursued outstanding second careers. Some doggedly stuck to space-related endeavors at great personal risk and sacrifice. Some put up astounding amounts of their own or other people's money. They believe what they are doing.
It you attend space-related conferences, you've probably met some of these people, or passed them in the hall among the throng. Klerkx's book would be worth getting if only for its bios of some very interesting, but mostly unsung, people.
That said, what about Kerkx's thesis? What if all of it were true: that NASA has become stagnant, uses every trick in the book to remain the gatekeeper of American space efforts, and is captive to giant aerospace corporations (down to just two of them, by now)? Even so, would it make sense to blame NASA for what has happened, and is still happening? I think the point is arguable. If you venture outside the smallish circle of space frontierspeople, you quickly discover that the vast majority of the public are either like the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, which wants the money returned to the taxpayers, or like any of the many lobbies for rival government expenditures. They may admire space achievements in a survey, but they don't want to spend more on it than they might, say, on a fireworks display.
NASA may have its own bureaucratic imperatives for seeking control of what Americans do in space, but in the last analysis it is a public agency. In the last analysis, the fault for its paralysis lies with Congress, which in turn reflects public opinion, which isn't at all in the space enthusiast camp.
Beyond that, there's a much mightier force than NASA, all but ignored by the "private space frontier" fans. Can we really believe that if there had never been a NASA, the opening of space would have been left to the discretion of several thousand inventors and entrepreneurs? Control of space is a MILITARY ASSET. The historical accident is not that the moon program was launched in a time of international rivalry. The accident is that a disastrous choice of engagements in Vietnam gave a bad name to military rivalry in American folklore. Therefore, thirty years after the moon landings, their motivation is regarded as foolishness. But the technology of guided missiles and of reconnaissance from space is a serious business, and there is no chance that the government would have stayed aloof from developments if NASA were out of the way.
This observation is all the more pungent now that we're militarily engaged on the home front as well as abroad. If the eccentric, kindly professor can build a rocket in his garage and launch it from his back yard, so can the demented terrorist living in a cave.
Still, I, like Klerkx et al., have spent a lifetime wishing for an open space frontier,one in which ordinary folks like us could personally participate. One has to hope that somehow the societal obstacles will dissolve. And I do applaud the efforts of the private players.
That's the big picture. Before we part company, I also have a smalltime point to make. Klerkx repeatedly characterizes the L5 Society as "O'Neill's L5 Society". Actually, Gerard O'Neill kept it at arm's length. The organization was seeded at the second of the Princeton Conferences on Space Manufacturing Facilities, which was indeed organized by O'Neill. A group of participants, including me, put our names on a list of those eager to set up a grassroots organization. O'Neill, however, was rather edgy about the idea, and did not promote it. His own persona was better represented by the Space Studies Institute, subsequently set up to do research that would demonstrate critical technologies. O'Neill's value to the movement lay precisely in the fact that he was a physicist with a proven track record. Involvement with the hoi polloi (never free of kooks) could only impair that value.
In the view of Klerkx, it is time for NASA to let loose the reins of manned spaceflight, and allow private corporations go into space on their own. He presents his case that NASA stifles competition at every juncture while making his claims of incredible capitalistic prosperity in space. What he then goes on to claim, in an irresolvable paradox, is that NASA needs free market competition in manned spaceflight, but that because the required investment is so huge, no private company could afford it. His solution involves privatizing the shuttle and ISS. So let me see if I have this straight...he wants the US to foot the bill to develop manned spaceflight capabilities, but then just give it away? He doesn't say it quite that bluntly, but a large portion of the book details essentially that viewpoint.
He tends to vilify many NASA managers, some deservedly (like Dan Goldin), and some not. He also embraces some of the most arrogant and obnoxious of all the alternative space gurus, particularly the seemingly insufferable Robert Zubrin, although to his credit, he does adequately detail the personality conflicts that go everywhere Zubrin goes. He also adulates the Space Hab on Devon Island as doing extremely valuable research for Mars preparation. It may be fun to dress up in toy spacesuits and ride ATVs around in the arctic mud, but I hate to break it to you, Greg: Mars isn't like Devon Island, and this is basically Space Camp for ubernerds.
High on my list of issues with the book is the willingness to accept any data presented by the alternative space movement while simultaneously disregarding much of NASA's data. He repeats the mantra of low cost access to space endorsed by the alternative space movement that a truly low-cost, reusable vehicle is feasible, with claims of costs as low as $500-$1,000/lb for orbital insertion, versus $3,000/lb on a disposable launcher and $10,000/lb on the shuttle. I guess he wasn't paying attention in the early 1970s when the Nixon, Ford, and especially Carter administrations were preaching this exact same miracle of cost effectiveness for the shuttle.
Another theme permeating the book is that "normal" people should fly in space at a reasonable cost. Towards the end of the book, he even espouses the view that shuttle passengers don't really need training to go into orbit with the convoluted reasoning that 777 passengers don't need to know how to fly the plane in an emergency. That's true: of course neither do the shuttle payload specialists know how to fly the orbiter. At a half-billion dollars per launch, I think it is only responsible of NASA to expect that everyone onboard is put to some productive use. (This goes hand in glove with the adulation of Dennis Tito that runs throughout the book.)
The closing chapter is the weakest of the bunch, a trend which other reviewers have also noted. It essentially combines a lot of platitudes about the future with no concrete recommendations on how to help NASA (though there are a few pie in the sky theories aired.) There are lots of things I would like to take NASA to task for, notably the huge lack of focus in the shuttle and ISS, but at least I am willing to admit that NASA has strengths too, a virtually unimaginable concept to Klerkx. Only in the last pages of the book among much adulation for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute does the real motivation of Klerkx become evident. In a passage dealing with the cancellation of the DC-X (which actually was a shame) he laments that the Stockholm Institute claims that in 2001 the governments of the world spent $772 billion on defense (although many institutions not as politically far left estimate a much lower figure.) Klerkx is dismayed that US spending allegedly accounts for a third of that, and laments this waste (without mentioning, of course, that the US provides about three quarters of all the world's peacekeeping forces.) His true colors as an anti-government, anti-military leftist become apparent, and make his vehemently anti-NASA stance then appear for what it is. The best illustration is the following passage which speaks for itself: "It may well be that one of the best, and most optimistically subversive, uses of military spending is to pursue better, cheaper and more reliable spacecraft. After all, the $60 million the military spent on the DC-X...kept at least $60 million from being spent on bombs." It finally all makes sense: Klerkx spends the whole book railing on government based development programs, then complaining when they are cancelled; the truth is he wants the government to pay for the development and hardware, and then give it all away. I'm sorry Mr. Klerkx: the real world doesn't work that way. (Heaven forbid the military would have anything to do with it, after all they only sponsored most of the programs, including the shuttle in part.)
The book gets two stars for presenting some interesting information, but if I had to do it over again I would have never bought this book or wasted my time reading it. NASA has problems, but none are as big as the holes in this book.