Lost in Space by Greg Klerkx

Mission improbable
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The Independent Culture

You may have noticed that there's a lot of talk about Mars at the moment. Our nearest planetary neighbour has been the target of multiple orbiters and landers. Yet quite a few people think it's a shame - no, an absolute disgrace - that we don't have a colony of humans living there, showing that anywhere robots can go, people can too. As for the fact that we haven't already colonised the moon, that's an outrage too. These people blame the US space agency Nasa, which they are convinced, has blocked all attempts to get living, breathing humans off this planet and onto the dead, atmosphere-less rocks that abound around us.

One of these people is Greg Klerkx, whose Lost in Space argues that - as the blurb puts it - "ever since the triumphant Apollo moon missions, the Space Age has been stuck in the wrong orbit". I was prepared to be persuaded by Klerkx, who seemed to have the right qualifications to make a case: a former senior manager of the Seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, trained as a journalist, well-connected in space circles. I was ready to listen to a well-put-together argument showing that Nasa had pushed away those who would bring down the cost of launching rockets, and of setting up lunar or Martian colonies.

That's not to say I'm predisposed to think that it's feasible. After writing about space missions for about 10 years, and talking to the scientists who work on them, I have come to recognise that it's an astonishingly complex, expensive business in which errors are not allowed. Pace the Apollo 13 rescue, if something goes wrong up there, you have virtually no chance of fixing it.

However, the more I read of Lost in Space, the more I became convinced that Klerkx is wrong: that Nasa is doing its best, and that the simple reality is that getting into space is very difficult - and monumentally expensive. Launching rockets cleanly is challenging: they are basically perfectly controlled bombs, which makes them expensive. And escaping Earth's gravity requires a bomb.

Yet to Klerkx, Nasa can do no right. My suspicions began with the description of Gerard O'Neill, who had big ideas about colonising space. To Klerkx, when Nasa ignored O'Neill, it was ignoring his vision. When, a few pages later, it gave him funding, it was drawing him closer in order to suffocate his ideas. The book repeats this trope again and again.

Overall, Klerkx's argument is fatally weakened by the absence of interviews, formal or informal, with anyone within Nasa who could present the view from inside. He never indicates whether he tried to get such access. In my experience, Nasa, being a US government agency, cooperates with such journalistic requests, however daft.

One truth Klerkx unearths is far more telling: the Apollo moon missions were far ahead of their time for political, not human-aspirational, reasons. In November 1962, President John F Kennedy, smarting from the abysmal failure of the Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion, wanted to show that the US was superior to the USSR. Ideas such as greening the deserts or desalting the oceans were not feasible. Getting to the moon first was - but he remained pragmatic.

As Kennedy told Nasa's top man at the time: "We're talking about these fantastic expenditures which wreck our budget and all these other domestic programs, and the only justification for it in my opinion... is because we hope to beat [the Soviets]". Aside from that, "I'm not that interested in space". A few days later, he announced the plan to get a man on the moon before 1970.

So there you have it. The moon landings didn't represent what humanity should be doing. They weren't about our direction as a species. They were a superpower's playground taunt about what we could do, meaningless in the the long term.

Even so, for the hopeless would-be pioneers Klerkx talks to, space represents a new frontier. Viewed another way, it's an escape from the problems we already have.

Why go to Mars to puzzle about finding potable water when millions here have the same problem? Why wonder how to generate fresh air on the moon, when we pollute what we've got here on Earth? I'd rather stay earthbound and try to find those solutions. Apart from anything, you don't need a spacesuit all the time.

Charles Arthur is technology editor of 'The Independent'