Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am


Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier
by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Interest in space exploration has been waning in the US, and Space Chronicles is astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson's attempt to rectify the situation. This potpourri of essays, reminiscences and interviews sets out the reasons why the country should accelerate its space exploration programme, and suggests what its goals should be.

Along the way, Tyson chats about issues such as the possibilities of life on other planets, asteroid attacks and alien invasions. It's written with the general reader in mind, and its scattershot approach makes it an easy read for those interested in recent developments in the field.

Interest in space exploration was at its height in the 1960s but it evaporated during the 1990s. The reasons for this were generally political, notes Tyson. The Apollo moon missions were driven by a cold war rivalry - cultural and technological - with the USSR: it was a matter of national pride that America reached the moon first. But it was also important to develop the ballistics technology that launched the rockets, as it was useful for military purposes. The Soviet space programme was an offshoot of its missile technology programme.

With the end of cold war hostilities, however, the political will for space exploration disappeared.

US missions since the Apollo programme have done little to fire the American imagination, says Tyson. Echoing astronaut Buzz Aldrin's view, low-orbit programmes such as the International Space Station and the space shuttle don't grab the public's attention.

Tyson also weighs in on the long-running debate between those scientists who favour manned space exploration, and those who support robotic missions such as the one that sent back images from Mars. While scientists are right that important research can be accomplished by robots, Tyson says only manned deep space exploration can win back the public - and so secure funding.

George W. Bush made a commitment to manned space exploration but saw it stymied by Congress. Barack Obama has made no such commitment, and treats Nasa as an afterthought. The space agency used to be an untouchable institution but now it has become a pawn in party politics, with both Republicans and Democrats attacking its budget. Nasa is often criticised for the cost of its programmes yet the agency's entire 53-year budget equates to just two years of current US military spending, Tyson says.

It's not all doom and gloom. Great research is still being done on the space station and by robotic probes. The commercialisation of near-orbit space travel should free up Nasa for deep space. China's determination to become a space explorer - which Tyson thinks will certainly succeed - has stirred rumours of a new race between the waning superpower and the waxing one. The US needs to revive interest in space exploration and introduce educational programmes if it is to compete with China, Tyson says.