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The Greatest Adventure - Colin Burgess ***

The history of our space exploration has involved a very small number of people going into space at huge cost and at the loss of a good number of lives - yet it is something that remains of interest to many, and seems to fit well with the human urge to explore new frontiers. Even trivial excursions like Richard Branson's quick skip to 100 kilometres makes big news. There has been some backlash about show-off billionaires (and it's true of some), but this misses the bigger point of the advances being made in our ability to explore the solar system. In The Greatest Adventure, Colin Burgess sets out to give us a detailed history of the space race and our space-going achievements so far.

I would say that Burgess largely succeeds with one big hole. Let's get that out of the way first. Over the last decade or so, the nature of the space business has transformed hugely. US manned space vehicles have always been commercially built, but were government funded, planned and controlled. Now, with companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin providing the whole package far cheaper than NASA ever managed, there is vastly more opportunity for human space exploration. I'm not talking little hops to the limit of the atmosphere, but proper space flight. Burgess only covers this in an epilogue. SpaceX, for example, is mentioned on five pages out of more than 350, a similar number to the Russian canine cosmonaut Stelka (one of the pair first returned living to Earth). I appreciate this book is a history, but SpaceX and others have already achieved remarkable things and practically ignoring their significance seems to really underplay the importance of this new force in human space exploration.

That apart, though, Burgess gives us plenty of detail on both US and Soviet/Russian space efforts (China, like SpaceX, only gets five pages). This is strongly focussed on the period up to and including the Space Shuttle, but that's hardly surprising, I suppose, given the relative lack of meaningful manned missions in most of the period since. Sometimes, if anything, there's too much detail, mentioning lots of individual missions that really didn't add much to the big picture, where it might have been better to tell significant more detailed stories on  handful. This means that the book can feel a touch stodgy to read. 

The Greatest Adventure will certainly be of interest to the human space exploration enthusiast, but it's less likely to capture the imagination of someone with a general interest in science or space who wants to enjoy this real life adventure story.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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