The Case For Space by Robert Zubrin (book review).

It’s rather interesting reading author Robert Zubrin’s biographic notes. He’s president of Pioneer Astronautics, president of the Mars Society and a former senior engineer for Lockheed Martin. His book, ‘The Case For Space’, is an examination of the commercial companies who are now getting into space. The initial focus is on Eon Musk and answers a question as to why doesn’t he and the likes of Jeff Bezos get together and combine resources. Simple. They don’t like not being in charge of everything. It comes down to ego and running companies but you do have to wonder about the potential for dictatorship and what should happen to their companies when they die.

Considering that Zubrin points out that the companies that supply NASA in the past have been administration heavy compared to the people on the ground floor building the hardware, Musk might actually have a point there in not adopting their model. More so, as his financial forecasts are bringing the costs of getting people into space at a fraction of what it currently costs America. Even Russia is going to have to have a rethink about the costs of their current spaceships to the International Space Station. This is repopulating the space industry showing that space flight is possible on a low budget and even with getting smaller satellites up there as a commercial enterprise, although no mention of how to handle the space junk that is currently in orbit.

Zubrin points out how Moon flights will be used to build up a colony, exploiting the ice at the poles and also the available helium-3 isotope for fuel. Part of me reading this thinks he’s being too idealised with no evaluation of any problems that could interrupt this happening. The Moon gets more meteorite damage than the Earth and with no atmosphere to burn up any of them. The use of a spacehook to transport equipment from orbit to the Moon won’t have to worry about the problems of atmosphere like it would with the Earth does seem viable although transporting the materials there is problematic. Meteorite damage to the Earth is covered in one of the later chapters but not addressed elsewhere.

He does point out the disadvantages of using the Moon as a way station for going to Mars which should make you think. The same with the plans for the materials in the Asteroid Belt. Although some of the problems with living in space is covered, even living on Mars is going to reduce your chances of returning to Earth with less body mass. If you’re planning to be a pioneer, then I think some more emphasis should have been placed at your chances of returning to Earth aren’t that good. Even more so for any children born on Mars in a lower gravity. It’s not as though I want to discourage people from wanting to go into space but I do find it worrying that this isn’t being addressed as it should. Even short stays on the ISS causes significant problems, let along a trip out to Mars and a third of the gravity there compared to Earth.

Going through the options for ever faster space travel is very old ground and you can go back even to the 1970s where they first got collected in books. Granted we know a lot more about the outer planets now to reserve judgement to use them as fuel resources but there are still some points Zubrin doesn’t cover adequately. Using frozen material still means expending energy to melt them for use and if you’re doing this on a frozen moon, it would be a real problem staying ahead all the time.

The main problem of using nuclear explosions in space to propel a spacecraft is it leaving radioactive particles in its wake and bearing in mind how planets attract matter down, radioactive contamination is not only dangerous for us but any neighbouring star system we investigate. It’ll take a while to sort out how we contaminate our planet with plastic but radioactive waste worldwide would be impossible to clean.

I’m less convinced that using solar sails outside of our star system. Beaming a laser at it takes a lot of power and unless it was diffuse would only hit part of the sail. There’s also a little matter of obstacles getting in the way so that even if it was possible, the beam could be defused too much and the sail getting damaged as well bearing in mind the size it would have to be to capture light. Slowing down would be the least of your problems.

Terraforming Mars and Venus would be very long-term projects. I’m still not sure how he proposes sorting out all that widespread sulphuric acid on Venus. Acidic soil would be hard to cultivate.

Zubrin points out how much America has been involved in getting into space to the exclusion of other countries and even forgets Russia and even the new boys on the block like China and India. For sorting out discoveries, I seem to recall we Brits had played our own part in discoveries and equipment. It’s hardly one-sided.

Please don’t treat this review as a total downer. If you need information about the types of space travel and even some of the maths, this is a useful book but he does play down some of the adverse effects to the human body and other long term problems. I’m all for more commercial companies with an inkling to get into space. In many respects, NASA has somewhat had a monopoly in the USA in preventing this happening, but commercial pressure and finance has changed that template. Will it encourage more pioneer-minded people to want to travel up there is something that needs to be built up, but not without some balance of the risks involved.

GF Willmetts

May 2019

(pub: Prometheus Books. 360 page illustrated small hardback. Price: $25.50 (US), $26.50 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-534-9. Ebook: Price: $11.99 (US), $13.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-535-6)

check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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