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Space Exploration – Carolyn Collins Petersen ***

Normally when I’m reviewing a book I start by accentuating the positive. But with this one I’m going to begin with a negative, because I want to make a point. Why do publishers insist on marketing books at the wrong audience? The first thing you notice when you pick this one up is a strapline from Publishers Weekly: ‘A handy reference for space fans and professionals alike’. That sounds great to me – I’ve been a fan of space exploration for 50 years now, and while I’m not exactly a professional I’ve written several books of my own on the subject. So there’s nothing I’d like more than an up-to-date, pocket-sized reference book.

But that’s not what this book is – not by a long shot. A reference book has to be organised in a way that helps the reader find the specific fact they’re looking for very quickly. That means either a strictly logical arrangement – typically alphabetical or chronological – or else a really good index (this book doesn’t even have a bad index). Another thing a reference book needs is easily extractable facts and figures – so the reader can, for example, quickly compare the thrust and payload capacity of different launch vehicles, or disentangle the timeline of NASA’s robot missions to the outer planets. But you’re not going to find anything like that here.

I could go on, but I’ve made my point. This isn’t a reference book, and it won’t be much use to a reader who’s already familiar with the subject-matter. Instead, Carolyn Collins Petersen’s book is something the packaging barely hints at: a wide-ranging introduction to the history and achievements of the space programme, ideally suited for readers who come to it with just the haziest understanding of the subject – gleaned, most likely, from sci-fi movies and the occasional headline-making news item.

Viewed in that way, it’s a pretty good book. Petersen covers all the essentials – from the early history of the space race, through the Apollo Moon landings and the shuttle era, to the International Space Station. She also talks about robot missions to Mars and the other planets, space-based observatories from Hubble to Kepler, Gaia and beyond, and emerging players in the space business such as China and the private sector.

The price the reader pays for this wide coverage is, not surprisingly, a certain degree of vagueness and superficiality (made all the more irritating by the back cover’s promise of a ‘detailed examination’). However, that shouldn’t be a huge problem for the people who will get the most out of this book. I’m thinking of, say, avid sci-fi fans in their mid-teens – who hopefully will be inspired to delve into the subject more deeply in future. And that can’t be a bad thing.
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Review by Andrew May

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