Saturday, 24 July 2010

Stepping Stones to the Stars – Terry C. Treadwell ***

This is the kind of book I would have loved as a ten-year-old. I’m not saying it’s aimed at children, but at the time the whole manned space travel thing was big news, I was happily building plastic models of spacecraft, and I absolutely hoovered up collections of facts about space and space travel.
The book is subtitled ‘a history of manned spaceflight’, but I would make a subtle alteration – I would say it’s a chronicle of manned spaceflight. In a history, I would expect interpretation, comments on the politics, more about the key individuals involved. But what we get here is a bit of historical background, then for many of the US and Soviet manned spaceflight we get details of who went, what experiments they did, what went wrong (something almost always seemed to go wrong), and one or two nice little details picked up from the flight log, or some such source.
The exception is the Shuttle flights, where a whole chunk of them get run through in a few lines, presumably because they were so routine. And that’s the problem, really. This is a book about routine. Of course it covers the big stuff in more detail – Apollo 11, for example, Apollo 13 and the two Shuttle disasters. But the whole exercise gets rather tedious, unless you are a fan of exhaustive detail.
In the end, there are too many basic facts and not enough interpretation. We get little feel for the politics behind the Moon race, or the science of space flight, or the pros and cons of manned spaceflight versus unmanned. Although there a couple of points where Terry Treadwell emphasizes the benefits of having humans on board when something goes wrong, he doesn’t go into the way the Russians had unmanned vehicles ferrying material back from the Moon – or look at the real disadvantages of manned flight in terms of huge extra cost and risk to life.
You might think from the title that there’d be a big section on ‘where do we go from here’, but there’s actually just a page or so. Overall, unless you want a fact book about manned spaceflights, this isn’t a title that is likely to appeal.
ADDED March 2015:
I had totally forgotten this title when I wrote my own book on this topic, Final Frontier, but that is very much aimed at the problem areas described above, with much more interpretation and commentary, and a lot on the future - in essence, what this book should have been for a modern audience.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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