Final Frontier: The Pioneering Science and Technology of Exploring the Universe. By Brian Clegg. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014. Acknowledgments, notes, index. 291 Pages. Hardcover with dustjacket. ISBN-13: 978-1250039439. $26.99.
Every year there are several of these types of books that appear, all seeking to sell the possibilities of a bright, exciting future for humans in space. Brian Clegg, a UK science writer, uses his considerable literary skills to excite the public about trips to Mars, colonies in space, mining asteroids, and even traveling into interstellar space. He may be successful in many settings, but having seen this type of hype many times before I’m skeptical of all of his arguments.
Clegg begins with the maxim, human beings are naturally curious and therefore are by definition explorers. It drove terrestrial expansion; it drove the climbing of the highest mountains and the sailing of the broadest oceans. Space, of course, is the final frontier, hence the title of this book. Unfortunately, it is all rather trite. Furthermore, there are so many caveats and subtleties to such statements that they may not be used without significant clarifying explanation. For example, even if we accept that humans are natural explorers there are many ways to explore and not all of them require physical movement from one geographical location to another. Additionally, exploration has been motivated throughout human history by a search for resources of one type or another. Finding something that we want, of course, ensures that we will move there and colonize but absent finding anything that we want will ensure that further movement will be stillborn.
Clegg makes space exploration, up to and including colonization of other worlds, sound so easy. I wish it were. He celebrates the experience of the American West and its movement of overlanders across the Great Plains to Oregon and California. This was truly an epic migration, but he fails to appreciate fully the rush for land and gold that drove that effort. He also fails to appreciate the less desirable aspects of the process of Westering in the United States, the displacement and near extinction of many native peoples as well as the exploitation and extraction of wealth in the most destructive means possible.
He finds unfortunate that Americans seem to have lost their stomach for exploration and longs for a return to an expansive exploration agenda. Like too many other space advocates he hopes for a space race with China, commenting that “as Chinese activity builds it may be that once again the U.S. government will feel the need to flex its muscles and make it clear who has the technological supremacy—and in principle also who has a military foothold in locations where gravity alone has the potential to turn a lump of rock into a more power weapon than a nuclear bomb” (p. 5). He seems not to appreciate that China is not terrifying rival that the Soviet Union was. Mostly, Americans want to trade with China rather than nuke it.
Like virtually all champions of human activities in space, Brian Clegg emphasizes the possibility of the settlement of Mars, He accepts the argument of Bob Zubrin on this, laying out the Mars Direct agenda as the appropriate way forward. He also adopts the terraformation of Mars as a way to turn it into a habitable planet. I wish it were as easy as Clegg suggests.
For Clegg the best means to move beyond Earth is through private enterprise. Great idea, I agree. The challenge is advancing a profit motive? There are some entrepreneurs who want to build rockets and go into space for its excitement, etc., but there are many more who will never become involved until they can see a means of enhancing their fortunes. That is especially true of financiers. Thus far, we have not been successful in finding a monetary driver for going beyond low-Earth orbit. Will it arise in the next half century? Should it do so, nothing will keep humanity from moving outward. Absent that profit motive many of Clegg’s concepts will not be realized.