Wednesday, 9 March 2016

International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Earth - David Nixon ***

There is a danger of discounting this square, chunky book, running to over 400 pages, as a coffee table book, and that would be a great shame. It's true that International Space Station has some wonderful photographs - I particularly love an image of the International Space Station transiting the Moon, which I assumed was a mocked up shot, but according to the caption was taken by someone from Australia with a telescope - it's stunning. However, the photographs are not the be-all and end-all of this book, which contains a very detailed text on the history of the ISS, from its initial planning and construction all the way through to 2011, with an epilogue adding information that takes us up to 2015.

There's a reasonable amount on the build-up to the ISS, with some mentions of its predecessors, and plenty on the design stage. In fact this features more so than might be expected, perhaps because the author is an architect - and proves one of the most interesting sections. Overall, the tone of the book is somewhat reverential, and arguably not questioning enough. David Nixon likens the ISS to the Large Hadron Collider, yet a good number of scientists have pointed out that the American Superconducting Super Collider, which would have been more advanced than the LHC was cancelled in favour of the ISS. And where these colliders are involved in fundamental research, the science done on the ISS is mostly trivial, and often could have been done easier and cheaper without human involvement. Human spaceflight is not primarily about science, and this isn't brought out anywhere near enough in the book.

For me there were a couple of other negatives. This is an expensive book, yet it is not printed on glossy paper, so although the photographs are impressive, they aren't quite as high quality as they could have been. And the main body of the text, although it incorporates assorted human interest stories, is primarily about giving us a huge amount of detail on the step-by-step history of the ISS, where an account that concentrated on narrative high points may have been more readable.

Even so, there is an awful lot to get your teeth into here. If you are a space fan, fascinated by the kind of venture the ISS represents, this book is an absolute must, full of juicy details and intriguing insights into what might have been had NASA taken different decisions. This is a landmark book for the field - it's just a shame that it isn't better at putting the ISS into its scientific context (or lack thereof).

Review by Brian Clegg

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