While the world is enjoying the splendid celebration of science and Matt Damon that is The Martian, those who want to find out more about the realities of space travel and actual planned trips to Mars should head immediately to Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey.
Just to make things clear up front, this isn’t some cash-grab book hanging onto the tails of a huge motion picture, instead it’s a careful and diligently assembled history of the human need to explore, and where this will inevitably lead us.
Impey, himself a university professor with a few astronomy books already to his name, does a wonderful job in charting humanity’s journey from the earliest African adventurers who went in search of better lands, up to the theoretical travellers of the future who will take our species beyond the solar system for the first time.
Along the way he explores the early days of rocket science (with the accompanying political mire), relives the excitement of the Space Race, and explains the challenges facing those who would head out to the deeper parts of space in the years ahead. While this kind of topic does lend itself to an over-technical style of writing – the concepts are themselves actually quite complicated – Impey walks a fine line of keeping the reader engaged while opening up the ideas of Space Elevators, Dyson Sphere’s, and a number of other advanced theories, all without dumbing down or leaving non-engineering people behind.
Illustrations are scattered throughout the book, and prove very helpful in putting visual meat on the cerebral bones of Impey’s explanations. Not that Beyond is reliant on these, as the patient and knowledgeable writing style draws the reader in, aided in no small measure by the author’s obvious passion and fascination with the subject matter.
Naturally there are a few slower parts of the story, with the section on private space travel companies (such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s Space X) feeling a little more focussed on the entrepreneurial nature of their founders rather than the technology itself. That’s not to say that it’s boring, quite the contrary, but it does seem like something of a diversion at times.
The latter part of Beyond turns its attention firmly to long space travel, Mars trips, and how the human body can be affected by the extended journey times that these ventures demand. While many of the difficulties have yet to be overcome, with even theoretical solutions still falling short in some areas, the sheer inventiveness of thought that is going into this field makes for compelling reading. It’s this very resourcefulness and desire to shake off the confines of Earth, and to an extent physics itself, that Impey brings to the fore with such deftness.
In the opening chapter of the book he discusses the supposed ‘Restless Gene’ (which geneticists refer to as DRD4-7R, and which probably explains why they don’t write interesting books), and how the desire to explore is literally hardwired into a proportion of people. Thankfully this also seems to make its way into the occasional writer’s toolkit, with Impey being a prime example.
If you’ve ever looked up a the stars and thought ‘what if…?’, or sat through Interstellar, The Martian, or at a stretch Gravity, and wondered the same, then Beyond: Our Future in Space should be high on your reading wish list. Excellent stuff.