Following in the footsteps of Destination Mars, my second contribution to the Hot Science series has just been published by Icon Books. It’s called Cosmic Impact: Understanding the Threat to Earth from Asteroids and Comets, and here is what the publishers say about it:
As end-of-the-world scenarios go, an apocalyptic collision with an asteroid or comet is the new kid on the block, gaining respectability only in the last decade of the 20th century with the realisation that the dinosaurs had been wiped out by just such an impact.
Now the science community is making up for lost time, with worldwide efforts to track the thousands of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects, and plans for high-tech hardware that could deflect an incoming object from a collision course – a procedure depicted, with little regard for scientific accuracy, in several Hollywood movies.
Astrophysicist and science writer Andrew May disentangles fact from fiction in this fast-moving and entertaining account, covering the nature and history of comets and asteroids, the reason why some orbits are more hazardous than others, the devastating local and global effects that an impact event would produce, and – more optimistically – the way future space missions could avert a catastrophe.
Cosmic Impact is available either as a paperback or an ebook from all the usual places. If you’re an Amazon customer, here are some quick links for you:
The picture above shows a comparison between an Apollo-style lunar lander, on the right, and the more traditional idea of a “spaceship” on the left. More technically, the comparison is between the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous approach used by Apollo and the competing methods of Direct Ascent (going all the way from the Earth to the Moon with a single vehicle) and Earth Orbit Rendezvous (ditto, but with the vehicle first being constructed or refuelled in Earth orbit). You might guess the picture dates from circa 1962, when NASA surprised the world by selecting LOR over the (previously much more likely) other two options. Actually it comes from a book printed in 1954.
That’s the date on my copy of the book, which is the second edition of one originally published in 1952 (I don’t know if the same picture was in the first edition). It’s called Development of the Guided Missile, by Kenneth W. Gatland – a member of the British Interplanetary Society, which was the source of the lunar landing concept depicted here. In the text the lander is designated “Type B”, while the counterpart of the Apollo CSM is Type A: “The Types A and B operate together as a composite vehicle; the former acts as the propulsion component for the Type B and remains in the terminal orbit of the destination planet whilst the smaller rocket descends to the surface.”
The most famous member of the British Interplanetary Society was Arthur C. Clarke, and he touched on the same subject in his “science-fictional autobiography” Astounding Days:
We discussed many types of rendezvous and space-refuelling techniques, to break down the journey into manageable stages. One of those involved the use of a specialized “ferry” craft to make the actual lunar landing, while the main vehicle remained in orbit. This, of course, is the approach in the Apollo project – and I am a little tired of hearing it described as a new discovery. For that matter, I doubt if we thought of it first; it is more likely that the German or Russian theoreticians had worked it out years before.
Actually the concept in Gatland’s book is a mixture of Earth Orbit Rendezvous and Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, since the Type A spacecraft (which is powered by a nuclear-thermal rocket) is first constructed in Earth orbit, using smaller unmanned rockets (Type C) and a winged shuttle (Type D) to ferry the astronauts to and from Earth orbit. The whole ambitious concept is illustrated in the picture below – it strikes me as extraordinarily sophisticated for a book published in 1954!
Having thoroughly enjoyed doing the research for my book on Pseudoscience and Science Fiction last year (see a selection of research materials here and here), and then The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon earlier this year (see my Lunar Research blog post) I’ve been wondering what to do next. One idea that occurred to me is something about the Cold War … so I’ve been dutifully immersing myself in research on the subject, as you can see from the picture above.
My book Destination Mars: The Story of Our Quest to Conquer the Red Planet is published today. As mentioned a few weeks ago, it’s the first title in a brand new series from Icon Books called Hot Science, edited by Brian Clegg. Brian is one of Britain’s top popular science writers, and he gave me some really helpful pointers on the style and content of the book. Hopefully that means it turned out almost as slick and professional as one of Brian’s own books!
With a list price of just £7.99, Destination Mars is available from all good bookshops, as well the usual online retailers such as Amazon UK and Amazon.com.
To whet your appetite, here is a quick summary of the book’s contents:
Preface: From Science Fiction to Science Fact
Chapter 1: The Lure of the Red Planet Our Solar System neighbour – Another Earth? – The Real Mars
Chapter 2: How to Get to Mars Rocket science – Action and reaction – The long way round – Landing on Mars
Chapter 3: Martian Robots Fifty years of Mars exploration – Lost in space – Anything a human can do?
Chapter 4: From a Small Step to a Giant Leap The race to the Moon – Mars is harder – Risk management
Chapter 5: Big Plans Visionaries vs politicians – Mars Direct – One step at a time – Roadmap to Mars
Chapter 6: Private Enterprise Commercial space flight – Making life multiplanetary – Human interest
Chapter 7: Living on Mars Colonisation – Martian sustainability – Terraforming
Chapter 8: The New Space Race The contenders – A wild card – Mars fever
Icon Books’ Autumn catalogue includes the first two titles in a new series called Hot Science. I’m very pleased (and honoured) that one of these is by me – Destination Mars, pictured above. The other title is Big Data, pictured below, by Brian Clegg.
As the catalogue says, “Hot Science is a new series exploring the cutting-edge of science and technology … for popular science fans who like to go that little bit deeper.”
Here is the back-cover blurb from Destination Mars:
When the Apollo astronauts walked on the Moon in 1969, many people imagined Mars would be next. Half a century later, only robots have been to the Red Planet and our astronauts rarely venture beyond Earth orbit.
Now, Mars is back. With everyone from Elon Musk to Ridley Scott and Donald Trump talking about it, interplanetary exploration is back on the agenda and Mars is once again the prime destination for future human expansion and colonisation.
In Destination Mars, astrophysicist and science writer Andrew May traces the history of our fascination with the Red Planet and explores the science upon which a crewed Mars mission would be based, from assembling a spacecraft in Earth orbit to surviving solar storms. With expert insight he analyses the new space race and assesses what the future holds for human life on Mars.
Destination Mars is published on 6 July 2017, followed by Big Data on 3 August 2017.
About a year ago I did a couple of posts on my old blog (here and here) showing some of the books and DVDs I had the pleasure of “researching” for my Pseudoscience and Science Fiction book. Now I’m working on the follow-up. It’s not really a sequel, except that it’s for the same publisher and involves a similar mix of science fiction and real science (though no pseudoscience this time).
The general subject will be easy enough to guess from the “research” materials pictured above. My book is going to have a Unique Selling Point … but I don’t want to divulge that until its finished!
When I first started reading about space travel, as a child in the 1960s, it was “common knowledge” that Britain would be the third country to launch a human into orbit, after the Soviet Union and the United States. In hindsight, I guess this extrapolated from the fact that we were the third to explode an atom bomb (in 1952) and a hydrogen bomb (in 1957). But when it came to spaceflight, the British government just wasn’t in the same kind of rush it was with nuclear weapons.
We did manage to launch an unmanned satellite using purely indigenous technology – the Black Arrow rocket, which put the Prospero satellite into orbit in October 1971. But that wasn’t third, behind just the Soviets and the Americans – it was sixth, after the French, Japanese and Chinese as well. And it was a one-off – the next Black Arrow to come off the production line never left the ground. It’s on display in the Science Museum in London, as you can see in the above photograph (the picture shows just the upper stage and payload shroud – the latter being partially open, which is why the rocket looks slightly bent).
Several British-born astronauts have been into space, starting with Helen Sharman in 1991. But until very recently, they all did so with the blessing (and investment) of someone other than Her Majesty’s Government. It was only in December 2015 that the first truly British-sponsored astronaut – Major Tim Peake of the European Space Agency – made it into orbit. Of course, that doesn’t detract from the fact that Major Tim is a true British hero (or a true European hero, if the word “British” is too jingoistic these days). He’s even set to get a couple of mentions in my next book. I’ll provide more detail about it in a future blog post, but for the moment I’ll just say that it’s on a spaceflight-related subject, and it’s due to be published by Icon Books this summer.
As of last month, the Soyuz capsule that carried Tim Peake to and from the International Space Station is also on display in the Science Museum, on the same floor as the Black Arrow rocket. I went to see it yesterday, and a couple of views of it can be seen in the picture below. This wasn’t the first time I’d come face to face with a Soyuz re-entry module – I saw one at the Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow in 1997. But I’d forgotten how tiny (and vaguely Victorian-looking) they are!
Here are two items I bought in W. H. Smith’s recently. The first is a special (and very expensive) issue of the BBC Sky at Night magazine about the Apollo missions, and the second (a much better deal at the same price) is a repackaging of a 2008 Discovery Channel series about NASA spaceflights from Mercury to the Shuttle, together with another magazine. Presumably both items were put out for the Christmas gift market – mainly as a nostalgic treat for people of my generation, I guess, although it would be nice to think some youngsters are interested in the subject too.
I learned quite a lot from both items, particularly about the earlier and later missions. Although I was always interested in space, it was only in a vague, general way up until the Apollo 8 mission. That happened shortly after my 11th birthday, and it was the first one I really got drawn into – in the sense that I knew the astronauts’ names and avidly followed every little phase of the mission. This really intense awareness continued through Apollos 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13, but then started to get murky again after that point.
Not for the obvious reason, though. You might think, “well, of course, everyone lost interest in the later Apollo missions” – but that wasn’t it at all. I’ve got files of newspaper clippings I carefully cut out about Apollos 14 to 17, as well as Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz test project. I’ve got some photos and fact sheets about Skylab that I sent off to NASA for (as well as another batch about Apollo from a few years earlier). But I never absorbed the huge amounts of information about those later missions that I did for Apollo 8-13 – for the simple reason that the information just wasn’t there to be absorbed.
In the early 70s Britain only had three TV channels, and they were all in the “general entertainment” category. There were no purely factual channels, no 24-hour news channels … and of course no internet. The TV gave blanket coverage to things like Apollo 8 and Apollo 11, but later missions had to compete for airtime with soap operas, sports, comedy shows and the like. Key space events were still covered – live – but they had a frustrating tendency to happen when you were at school, or otherwise indisposed. People didn’t have video recorders in those days.
So it’s an over-simplification to say that “everyone lost interest in the later Apollo missions”. It was the mainstream media that lost interest – and in the 1970s, that was the only kind of media there was. We’re so much luckier today!