Book Review: Beyond Earth

Does humanity have a destiny? Are we to accomplish a task before ending as a species, or do we perhaps continue on, ever evolving and exploring? The explorers amongst us certainly want to continue, and their hopes are pointedly directed to the stars. The book Beyond Earth is a compilation of essays from visionaries who are committed to achieving this goal. Their ideas and plans show a decided conviction on a destiny that includes advancing our frontier off of Earth.

Getting off Earth is simple; just get a big rocket and launch people upwards. Yet, in this respect, we’re not advancing. If anything, we’re retreating. To push the frontier of humanity, we have to establish a human presence in space. People must be able to live in an alien environment and while there, contribute to the welfare of those remaining behind. As we are seeing with the International Space Station, we can do it, but it isn’t going to be simple. Further, any greater effort than an outpost in low earth orbit is going to need substantial support from most if not all nations on Earth. That is, all of humanity. Interestingly enough, should this come to pass, its greatest contribution may be less the extension of the frontier and more the unification of the nations on Earth. For with everyone working toward a singular goal, follow-on affects of reduced strife and greater collaboration would be a satisfactory and sufficient condition for establishing a human presence in space.

The book Beyond Earth is sponsored by the Aerospace Technology Working Group. It is a collection of short essays with each directly focused on a future with humans in space. Though the group’s name indicates a bent toward hardware and equipment, most of the book’s essays relate to the soft sciences. That is, topics mostly deal with how people need to organize, plan and collaborate. However, the view is not of shuffling a few of the existing paradigms around. Rather, most topics reach deep into the fundamental aspects of their particular issue and demonstrate how they could be used or altered to avail today’s space endeavours. The beginning of the book sets the tone by encouraging the reader to consider existence as an integrated system between ourselves, the Earth and space. Symbolic of this is the overview effect, the spaceman’s view of Earth as a fragile, narrow region of life support in an otherwise sterile universe (at least from what we know). After, the topics range from the philosophy of leadership, bacteria’s parallel to our society and the commonality of truth, beauty and love. However, perhaps to round out the offerings, some essays do relate to hardware including risk assessment and robotics. But it is the emotive more than the tactile which drives the contents.

Orchestrating this collection must have been challenging, given the depth and breadth of the essays, but the result speaks volume. Further, Bob Krone, the editor, avoids duplication in the book as well as repetition of existing debates. He has experienced authors who have already achieved significant undertakings in the space industry to provide the depth. The result is that each essay, though usually short at a few pages apiece, is a stand alone, thoughtful, and concise work. Time is needed to digest each. The average reader will get the most by pausing on completion, sometimes for hours, and work over the beauty of the ideas and its applicability. Because the author’s views are usually not routine, another, perhaps better, approach is for a group of people to read the same essay and discuss the contents. Given the pointed views of the authors, this should lead to some pleasant debates. Most of all though, with debate comes awareness which is another big goal for the book.

Given the scope of extending the frontier is our greatest undertaking, new approaches will be needed. The offering of ideas and direction is thus valuable but it can also have the effect of the ‘arm-chair warrior’. This is one drawback of the book as the ‘shoulds’ and ‘must dos’ are frequent and can be off setting. As well, the few dips into hardware efforts, though interesting, are going to be quickly out of date. Thankfully there is very little NASA bashing with most authors taking the route of looking for improvement for the future rather than finding fault with the past. Last, given the complexity of the issue, the subtleties and nuances may not be readily grasped by those with little experience in accomplishing grand projects. Yet, for those interested in either space faring or global undertakings, this book provides many thoughtful and workable perspectives.

People have the knowledge to travel in space. We can establish a presence off of Earth. The authors who contributed to the essays in the book Beyond Earth are committed to this endeavour. As they say, it will be risky and come at some cost. But avoiding this venture, though less risky, will come at a much greater cost.

Review by Mark Mortimer