01/04/2012. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: Portobello. 248 page paperback. Price: GBP8.99 (UK). ISBN 978-1-84627-126-7.
check out: www.portobellobooks.com
Piers Bizony is a journalist who has written several non-fiction books about science and space. ‘How To Build Your Own Spaceship’ is a popular science book which explores the future of spaceflight in terms of the opportunities it will present to those who want to get involved. Although it doesn’t literally tell you how to build your own spaceship, it does contain a lot of material to inspire anyone wondering what is going to happen in the post-shuttle era.
The first chapter is titled ‘When’s The Space Age Coming For The Rest Of Us?’ For me, this encapsulates the point of the whole book. Twelve men have walked on the Moon, although that was four decades ago. A few hundred men and women have made it more than one hundred kilometres above the surface of the Earth, a largely arbitrary height taken as the start of space. Surely it’s time the rest of us got a look in? For that to happen, though, the cost of getting to space is going to have to come down massively. Each flight of the space shuttle cost over half a billion dollars. When Dennis Tito became the first self-funded space tourist in 2001, flying up to the international space station for a week in a Russian Soyuz capsule, it cost him a cool twenty million dollars. However, Virgin Galactic is currently taking firm bookings for brief sub-orbital trips into space aboard SpaceShip Two at a cost of two hundred thousand dollars per person. That won’t get you into orbit and it’s still extremely expensive but the costs are clearly reducing. So perhaps in another decade or two, some aspects of spaceflight will be within the reach of many more of us?
The following chapters look at the theory and practice of getting into space, both in terms of the engineering issues and the economics. One of the points that Bizony makes repeatedly is that NASA has always been full of brilliant engineers but appears to have had very few accountants in its employ. His hope is that as NASA increasingly steps out of the way of space entrepreneurs with innovative ideas, they will be able to open space up in a way that cuts costs and makes a profit, just as the private airline industry did during the twentieth century.
The last couple of chapters look beyond travel to low Earth orbit, considering how readers of the book might play their part in future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. He illustrates some of the innovative ideas that individuals have come up with, from better designs for spacesuit gloves right through to inflatable alternatives to the metal cylinders that the current space station is made from. Throughout, Bizony shows that there are lots of problems still to be overcome and that for many of them, the availability of brainpower is likely to be more important than the budget at your disposal. There really do seem to be things that can still be done by the lone inventor, particularly if you’re prepared to work on the less sexy aspects of space travel such as computer systems, logistics or toilet design!
‘How To Build Your Own Spaceship’ is full of thought-provoking ideas about the future of manned and unmanned spaceflight. Bizony has gathered together a lot of information on the current state of this global industry and he tells the story in an engaging and entertaining way, illustrating it throughout with anecdotes from throughout the history of the space age.
The one criticism I’d make of the book is the limited depth of its coverage. There are a lot of ideas in here but many of them are only touched on briefly, with barely enough detail to point the interested reader in the right direction. I personally would have welcomed a longer book that went into more detail or, as an alternative, a decent set of references at the end of the book to help readers find out more. However, I have been a space geek since the first space shuttle went up in 1981, soon after my twelfth birthday, so I’m probably not the intended audience for the book. For people less geeky than me, it probably hits the right balance between depth and breadth.
I really enjoyed this little book. If you’ve ever wondered whether there’s any realistic future for human spaceflight beyond NASA’s limited hops to low Earth orbit, Bizony will convince you that there is and that you can be a part of it. As for me, I’m off to design a better space loo.
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