Skip to main content

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.

Hardback: 
Bookshop.org

  

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Wonderworks - Angus Fletcher *****

If you are interested in both writing and science this is an unmissable book. Reading can not just impart information, but can influence the way that we feel. Angus Fletcher describes 25 literary techniques (many also applicable to film and TV), ranging from those known to the Ancient Greeks to modern innovations, that can have a particular influence on our feelings and state of mind. Interestingly Fletcher describes this as technology - devices to make something happen. But rather than being a purely philosophical exploration, what lifts the book significantly is that for each of these techniques, Fletcher describes how studies of the impact on the brain show the physical effects occurring in different parts of the brain as a result. The chapters (one for each technique) end with a faintly self-help feeling bit - for instance, how you can use the 'clear your head' technique by reading certain texts, but that really isn't the point. This isn't a self-help book, it's

Life is Simple - Johnjoe McFadden ***

This is a really hard book to review, because it has two quite distinct parts and the chances are that if you are interested in one of these parts, you may well find the other part less engaging. The first section concerns the development of Occam's razor - the idea of keeping your explanation of something as simple as possible while it still works - and the impact this would have on philosophy (and proto-science) in the Middle Ages. The second part treads very familiar ground in taking us through some of the major developments in science from Galileo onwards, occasionally tying back to Occam's razor to show that the impact of the idea continued. As it happens, I love the first bit as I find the medieval development of science and its intertwining with religion and philosophy fascinating. Jonjoe McFadden brought in a lot of material I wasn't familiar with. Of course I was aware of Occam's razor itself, but I knew nothing about William of Occam as a person, or the way hi

Being You - Anil Seth ***

The trouble with experts is they often don't know how to explain their subject well to ordinary readers. Reading Anil Seth's book took me back to my undergraduate physics lectures, where some of the lecturers were pretty much incomprehensible. For all Seth's reader-friendly personal observations and stories, time after time I got bogged down in his inability to clearly explain what he was writing about. It doesn't help that the subject of consciousness is itself inherently difficult to get your head around - but I've read plenty of other books on consciousness without feeling this instant return to undergraduate confusion. There are two underlying problems I had with the book. One was when complex (and, frankly, rather waffly) theories like IIT (Integration Information Theory) were being discussed. As the kind of theory that it's not currently possible to provide evidence to support, this is something that in other fields might be suggested not to be science at