Bringing space exploration's history and future down to earth
Space: The Next Twenty-five Years by Thomas R. McDonough. New York: Wiley & Sons. 237pp. $17.95. Space, the final frontier? Thomas R. McDonough's ``Space, The Next Twenty-five Years,'' aims to teach, explain, and provide some insight for the common reader into the issues, complexities, and opportunities that mankind faces in the next 25 years.
A number of studies have attempted to outline for policymakers the course that a committee feels the country should take in the next few years. The report of the National Commission on Space - ``Pioneering the Space Frontier,'' The Solar System Exploration Committee of the NASA Advisory Council Program - ``Planetary Exploration Through Year 2000,'' and most recently astronaut Sally Ride's report outline the thoughts of others on what should happen.
McDonough's text takes a different tack. Citizens need to set the direction of the future through intelligent, well-informed decisions. Should we continue to send up astronauts? Should we attempt to explore space for science, or for industry? Should we go into space at all? These questions need to be raised and answered by the citizenry as a whole. McDonough's approach is to provide some background in simple terms of the challenges, issues, history, and current plans that have been put forth in a number of technical areas. It is much like a round-table discussion with a well-informed, genial host and cameo appearances by a number of experts. The book has many well-chosen quotations from the movers and shakers, dreamers and planners, writers and thinkers who have proposed, written about, or added to the world's space efforts so far.
``Space'' covers a wide scope. The book begins with the history of space exploration, then launches across the many subjects that can be pursued under the general term of space. This includes introductions to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), space stations, lunar bases, Mars, comets, and asteroids, search for extraterrestial intelligence (SETI) and beyond. In each discussion, the reader is introduced in an easy way to the interest and challenge in an area. For example, radio astronomy is likely to continue to play an interesting role in the development of a space program. McDonough gives us some insight into the world of radio astronomy.
``The radio astronomer leads a very different life from his or her optical counterpart. While most optical astronomers climb up desolate mountains to spend frigid nights in an unheated observatory, the radio astronomer can often do the job down in the lowlands. Where the optical astronomer peers through huge versions of lenses that Galileo used (with mirrors usually substituting now for the lenses of Galileo's telescope), the radio astronomer uses something very much like a satellite dish.
``Radio astronomers `listen' to pick up the signals of distant disturbances in the universe. For example, in 1967 a young Irish woman named Jocelyn Ball (now Burnell) discovered strange tickings coming from the sky. She was working in England on a radiotelescope designed by British astronomer Anthony Hewish. She observed that the ticks came about once a second and seemed so artificial that before long they were dubbed Little Green Hen. These signals, however, turned out not to be aliens transmitting to us, but rather the first proof of the existence of a bizarre object that theoreticians had predicted but which astronomers had never seen - the neutron star ... now called pulsars.''
Without this data from radio astronomy, the theory and analysis of black holes, pulsars, and other aspects of modern research would have been greatly hampered. Many of the diverse interests of modern science seem to coalesce in space. Discoveries in radio astronomy affect the development of theoretical astronomy; development of superconducting materials influences the design of particle accelerators that produce data to build particle physics theories, which are verified or confronted with measurements of particles from supernovae.
There are a number of earth-based decisions that need to be made affecting the world's exploration of space. More than just the passage or not of SDI, or the reactivation of the space shuttle, the whole issue of what space progress, how much of it, and when needs thorough discussion and analysis. McDonough poses a half-dozen questions for the near term. (1)How much can the country afford to spend on its space program? (2)How much should be done at taxpayers' expense and how much by private citizens and industry? (3)What do we really want to do in the long term? (4)What about our international colleagues? (5)What about earth-based astronomy? And (6)what about astronaut missions?
This book will allow people not indirectly involved in the space effort to debate and understand the issues raised in this book. Ultimately it will be the will of the citizens that determines the success and direction of the space effort. Where to now, Mr. and Mrs. Public? McDonough's text is a good starting point for deciding.
Paul A. Robinson Jr. is a staff scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.