Wednesday’s Book Review: “Mankind Beyond Earth”

download (1)Mankind Beyond Earth: The History, Science, and Future of Human Space Exploration. By Claude A. Piantadosi. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Vii + 279. Bibliography and additional readings, index. Hardcover with dustjacket. ISBN: 978-0-231-53103-0. $31.50.

Columbia University Press has caught the spaceflight bug. In the last few years it has published four books relating to spaceflight: Crowded Orbits: Conflict and Cooperation in Space (2014) and Space Race: National Motivations, Regional Rivalries, and International Risks (2011) both by James Clay Moltz; Space as a Strategic Asset (2007) by Joan Johnson-Freese; and this book, Mankind Beyond Earth: The History, Science, and Future of Human Space Exploration. All of these have in common a focus on space policy. They are long on politics, and unfortunately they are short on history.

That is certainly true of Claude A. Piantadosi’s study despite its affirmation in its subtitle that it offers history as well as other elements to the discussion. Piantadosi unflinchingly seeks to “reenergize Americans’ passion for the space program.” He firmly believes that human exploration, settlement, and exploitation of the Moon and Mars is the destiny of humanity, and invokes the image of the “final frontier” as the raison d’être for aggressive space activities.

Piantadosi organizes his book along thematic lines, into three parts. The first part is focused on historical discussions of humans versus robots in space, the nature of the challenge of getting into space and doing useful things there, the biological concerns raised in human space activities, a bit about past missions in space, and the potential for future lunar exploration. In his second part Piantadosi focuses on the inherent problems in going elsewhere in the solar system and trying to live there. In part three of this book the author focuses on targets for exploration in the solar system. First, of course, is Mars and Piantadosi longingly looks forward to a time when humans will journey there. There are a not a lot of other targets in this solar system, but the author does write about asteroids and other possibilities for human activity. He then turns to interstellar flight and prospects for human exploration beyond our star system.

The best part of this book is Piantadosi’s contribution to helping to explain the biomedical issues associated with long-duration space operations. Since he is a medical doctor, this is not surprising. Piantadosi notes the problems of fragile Homo sapiens moving into a realm for which they are ill-adapted. From the most critical—meaning that its absence would cause immediate death—to the least critical these include such constants available on Earth of atmospheric pressure, breathable oxygen, temperature, drinking water, food, gravitational pull on physiological systems, radiation mitigation, and others of a less immediate nature. Every human spaceflight vehicle, every spacesuit, every subsystem of even the most simple design takes this as its raison d’être because of the extreme hostility of the space environment. Rather than concluding that Homo sapiens are limited to their own planet, however, the author is quite excited by the prospect of working on these problems and seeking biomedical solutions to them.

At some level reading this book is like going into a time machine and coming out sometime between the 1960s and the 1980s when arguments based on the frontier thesis, when issues of American hegemony in human space activities, when advocates routinely called for the U.S. to have a space program that was second to none because of the Soviet threat to American activities. There is also the incessant optimism about the future of spaceflight and the central place of government programs in making expansive objectives possible. Piantadosi trots out all of the standard rationales for human spaceflight: geopolitics, human destiny, avoidance of extinction, human nature to explore, you name it. There is really nothing new added to those arguments by the author, although Mankind Beyond Earth offers a relatively fine rendition of longstanding arguments.

If one is seeking a reasonably coherent tract advocating for human space exploration then this is the book for you. If you value detailed references, analysis, and the like you will be disappointed. There are no footnotes, endnotes, references of any type. There is a bibliography by chapter at the end, but much of this is quite generic. I was surprised to see that virtually no NASA History Series publications were cited and by all evidence I could garner from the narrative they did not enter into the writing of this narrative. Finally, if you are critical, have fundamental questions, or value historical accuracy concerning human spaceflight efforts, this book will also be disappointing.

I was struck by the large number of errors in the book. Some of these are relatively minor. For example, the author contends (p. 111) that astronauts performed four Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions. It was actually five missions; it is possible that Piantadosi failed to count correctly because the third one was divided in two and flown at two separate times and labeled Mission 3A and 3B. Other errors are more troubling. The author makes a total mess of the story of the N-1 Soviet Moon rocket (p, 73). For example, he contends that it launched a 95-ton payload into orbit in 1956. No! I really wonder where he found this type of information, but since there are no references there is no way to find out.

Finally, I was puzzled by his assertion, again without any references, that “Historians spend a lot of time analyzing failed societies, often drawing fascinating parallels or projections to the modern social order” (p. 118). I always want to know which historians are being singled out for criticism in such statements as this; I certainly question generic statements of this type. He goes on to suggest that historians have little to offer when it comes to spaceflight because the history “is too young and has no terrestrial counterpart” (p. 118). I take exception to this deriding of historical understanding, but I really object to the assertion that there is not any terrestrial parallels to human spaceflight. There is, and there is a strong historical literature offering insights relative to it.

Overall, Mankind Beyond Earth: The History, Science, and Future of Human Space Exploration is interesting largely because of the biomedical analysis offered. If we cannot resolve the challenges of microgravity, radiation, and other effects from the space environment then long duration spaceflight will not be successfully pursued. At the same time, Piantadosi’s history is pedestrian and more full of errors than allowable. The rationales for human spaceflight are also tired, as well as soft, but Piantadosi certainly presents them in the best light possible.

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