Book Review: Inventing a Space Mission

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab/NASA/ESA/STScI
Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab/NASA/ESA/STScI

Inventing a Space Mission
Inventing a Space Mission
Where will science’s next big advance arise? Like Archimedes, maybe someone will jump up out of a tub of hot water, shout ‘Eureka’ and direct everyone to use the next great discovery. Or maybe some science-bureaucrats will gather together via some on-line meeting tool and choose to chase down the most promising opportunity. Given that experiments seem to be getting harder and harder to undertake, then it’s no surprise that one hugely successful space observatory arose from the latter. This is the main message of the book “Inventing a Space Mission – the Story of the Herschel Space Observatory” by a group of authors: Minier, Bonnet, Bontems, de Graauw, Griffin, Helmich, Pilbratt and Volonte. And in this book they really promote this collaborative method of advancing science.

Succeeding with any big space project requires the alignment of so many factors. There is need for an objective that has support across a broad swath of decision makers. There is need for perseverance as the project may need many decades to come to fruition. And there is need for stable funding to maintain impetus. This book illustrates how all these and many other factors made the Herschel Space Observatory successful. First, it acknowledges the skill of decision makers in choosing a science objective that was hugely challenging yet reasonably achievable. The book has a simple figure showing this; it’s the Technical Readiness Level (TRL) for the observatories subsystems over the years of development. In it one sees that all were at TRL Level 1 to begin in 1982. And the book then describes some of the progressive, subsequent  steps to bringing these to the necessary TRL 8. The book also ably demonstrates perseverance as industry and government scientists were pushed continually to modify deliverables to meet budgets and requirements. And perhaps understated in the book is the underlying acknowledgement that none of this would have come to pass without stable, continual funding from the European Space Agency; funding be so vital for all science projects.

Perhaps most interesting about this book is that the authors do not deal much with the results of the observatory. At most the book recites numbers of dissertations and research papers that derived from the observatory’s data. Rather, this book pushes two main considerations: one, that ‘coopetition’ and ‘fair sociality’ were necessary community ideals and two, that TRL levels should not restrict science. Regarding the first, the book champions the differing attitudes within the Herschel community yet their necessity to cooperate in order to progress. The community needed to amicably pick and choose competing options, so as to allow some efforts to succeed and let other efforts disappear. Regarding the second, the book demonstrates that allowing for growth in the capabilities of industry and knowledge of science can actually be a solid instigator for change. Both of these were considered so valuable that the book continually championed them for future science projects.

So what does this book tell you about the Herschel Space Observatory itself? Simply put, it was a calculated, solid advance in viewing capability. By choice, it measured the very low wavelengths from 55 to 672 micrometres. It was huge with a 3.5metre antenna and, amazingly, over 2300litres of liquid Helium. Its measuring devices were kept at temperatures about 0.3Kelvin. And it spent a little over 4 years at the L2 location taking observations. It was conceived in 1982 and ended its capability in 2013. Over 23 institutes and 11 countries contributed, together with hundreds of people. Through its requirements, many technologies were advanced and it prepared the road to further advancements. As a science project, this book speaks proudly of the Herschel Space Observatory’s success.

Keep in mind though that this book is a report with many authors. As such, it is very formal and perhaps slightly political. The writing is dry. The subject material is wholly big science. Most figures are graphs and plots, likely from slide shows. Sometimes the detail seems too fine, as with that for the cold SQUID multiplexer. And sometimes the focus seems too diverse, as with the co-citation map. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that the authors were passionate about their subject and this comes across solidly throughout the book.

Advances to science and knowledge can come from anywhere at any time. But today most advances require a huge amount of preparation and effort. Space missions are prime examples of this and the book “Inventing a Space Mission – the Story of the Herschel Space Observatory” by Minier, Bonnet, Bontems, de Graauw, Griffin, Helmich, Pilbratt and Volonte presents a very solid view of the mission as a well-managed, research project. And it describes a very reasonable and perhaps optimal way for continuing the use of particular projects to advance big science.

Book Review: Cosmology for the Curious

Ancient woodcarving of where heaven and earth meet. Credit: Heikenwaelder Hugo at Wikimedia Commons.

What will Curious George grow up to be? Being curious, then George will ask a lot of questions. And if lucky then physics will be George’s destiny, for physics seems to have so many answers. From the biggest to the smallest, that’s its purview. And for Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin in their book “Cosmology for the Curious” aim to answer a great many of those questions. Or at least those questions pertaining to mankind’s place in space.

Cosmology is all about space and time. Which means that this book begins by traveling back in time. Traveling to the time of the Greeks. Hundreds of years b.c.e.  Apparently the Greek philosophers did a lot of pondering about the smallest of things they called atoms. And the largest, they called planetary epicycles. From this baseline the book very quickly progresses through the traditional growth of knowledge with some choice descriptions.

As an example it proposes energy as nature’s ultimate currency. And it allows the reader to wonder. Wonder why the sky is black at night. And ask questions. As in “why is the speed of light the same as the Earth travels about the Sun?”

Most of the descriptions rely on Newtonian mechanics for explanation but it is only a slight passing for the book quickly raises Einstein’s field equations, particularly emphasizing inertial frames of reference. With this, the reader is accorded a pleasant view of Lorentz transforms, a somewhat abstract view of the Sun being flung out of the solar system by a very large golf club and a realization of how the GPS navigation system incorporates gravitational time dilation. Still all this is simply the cosmological baseline for the reader.

Now the neat thing about cosmology is that there is simply no first hand observation. Most everything of interest happened a long time ago and in a somewhat different relative location. And this is the book’s next and most rewarding destination. Through many arguments or thought experiments, it associates the cosmic microwave background with redshifts and the changing spatial dimensions.

Later, postulated dark matter and dark energy refocus the reader’s attention on the very beginning of the universe in a big bang. Or perhaps a multiverse of many shapes and various physical laws. Which of course leads to considerations about what’s next. How will our universe continue? Will it go to a quiet heat death or will we be gobbled up by another bubble universe? We can’t determine from our vantage point on Earth. But this book does provide its own vantage point.

Helping this book along are a number of pleasant additions. For one, often when an accomplished researcher is mentioned, there’s an accompanying, quite complementary photograph. And equations are liberally spread throughout as if teasing the reader to explore more. But the book has very little math. And best of all are the questions at the end of each chapter. Now these questions aren’t your typical textbook questions. For example, consider “Inflation is almost certainly eternal to the future. Is it eternal to the past too? Why/why not?” Isn’t this a great question? And one that you really can’t get wrong.

Which of course begs the question “Why aren’t you as curious as George?” There’s a whole universe out there waiting for us to explore and understand. Let’s not take it for granted. Let’s satisfy our curiosity perhaps with reading the marvellous book “Cosmology for the Curious” by Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin. After all you don’t want to be upstaged by George, do you?

Star Ark: A Living, Self-Sustaining Spaceship

The Icarus Pathfinder starship passing by Neptune. Credit: Adrian Mann

Think of the ease. With a simple command of “Make it so” humans travelled from one star to the next in less time than for drinking a cup of coffee. At least that’s what happens in the time-restricted domain of television. In reality it’s not so easy. Nor does Rachel Armstrong misrepresent this point in her book of essays within “Star Ark – A Living Self-Sustaining Spaceship“; a book that brings some fundamental reality to star travel.

Yes, many people want to travel to other stars. We’re not ready for that. We’re still just planning on getting outside Earth’s protective atmosphere (again). Yet making preparations and doing judicious planning is the aim of this book. Wisely though, this book isn’t technical. It has no mention of specific impulse calculations or ion shields. Rather, this book takes a very liberal view of space travel and ponders deep questions such as whether the cosmos is an ecosystem.

Does our species have an appropriate culture for space travel? What exactly is a human? These concerns get raised in some very thought provoking sections. And given that the editor is an architect and one who apparently considers the emotional qualities of a structure as much as functional qualities, then this book’s presentation tends to be a little more on the philosophical side of things.

In particular, it looks at the benefits of living entities. For instance it notes that humans live in symbiotic relationships with a host of internal and external organisms. Most have already gone into space either within people who have traveled in space or possibly upon probes sent to other planets. So we aren’t the only species that’s traveled beyond Earth. But which beings are sufficient and necessary to keep humans alive for the generations needed to travel to another star? That question and many answers come up often.

As well, the essays get into bigger questions such as: What is life? Could the vessel be an organic construct? How might today’s humans evolve to tomorrow’s star travelers? Should humans travel in space and promote/continue panspermia? Yes, these questions and many more are raised in the essays collected within this book. And true to form for any book considering star travel, there aren’t any strict answers. There are however lots of ideas and concepts to better prepare humans.

Much of this book seems to center around the authors’ involvement with the Persephone project of Icarus Interstellar. Yet there’s very little description of either. However, the book does have wonderful descriptions of Biitschli experiments, explanations of living walls and critiques of theatrical productions.

There are a few fictional passages and some poetry. The long list of references indicates a broad knowledge of the technical issues, though the focus is on humanity and the living aspect. This focus flows through the essays, but having a collection of many authors makes for a disjointed flow. The writing styles are unique, the viewpoints are particular and the emphasis specialized for each. One common viewpoint does keep arising though. That is, we are already on a living spaceship; the Earth. Earth gives a unique platform for assessing the ability to travel to other stars. The essays state that it is or at least was a veritable, closed self-sustaining life support system. And, as seems to be the norm these days, the essays acknowledge that solutions for space travel would be just as good for people remaining behind upon Earth or travelling to the Moon or to Mars and so on. This care and concern for living organism keeps the book grounded, so to speak.

The all-encompassing-solution-finder may be a strength or a weakness to Rachel Armstrong’s collection within the book “Star Ark – A Living Self-Sustaining Spaceship”. As the book’s essays describe, humans have an incredible ability to think and act in abstract fashion. Just envisioning an attempt to send sentient beings to another star demonstrates this. But will we be able to enact this idea and what form might a star vessel take? Reading of this is easy. Will taking the necessary steps be just as easy?

The book is available here through Springer.
Learn more about the author, Rachel Armstrong, here.

Time Machine Tales

Using a wormhole to travel through time? Credit: NASA.

“Tell me what time is it?” asked the stranger on the street.

A simple enough question that can be answered with a simple enough glance at the watch on your wrist. And so goes the appreciation of time for the average person. But is time simply a notation of events in our life? Or is it a truly robust dimensional attribute? For one answer read Paul Nahin’s book “Time Machine Tales” and you will soon discover that it is the latter. And that time may be much, much more.

If time is a dimension, then Nahin’s book has us believe that we can move along this dimension as easily as we move along a Euclidean spatial dimension. This means that time travel should be possible. Yet, as someone said, “If people can travel in time then why aren’t we seeing time travelers popping up all over?”

And in a sense, this conundrum shapes this book. From very many perspectives, Nahin explores and conjectures. From the viewpoint of ancient Greeks or Catholic scholars long since gone, the book gives rise to, what is time? does the past stop at the Big Bang? and is our future predefined?

This book presents philosophers’ quotes and their views from yesteryear and from today. Now philosophy is fascinating unto itself but throw in large quantiles of technical lore and this book’s perspective on time expands to a much larger knowledge base. That is, the book brings up exotics like Dirac radios, block universes, the bilking paradox, chronons and things smaller than the Planck length.

Intrigued by this?  It gets better as the book takes the reader through the derivation of the Lorentz transformation and on to the backward and forward tilt of light cones. If this doesn’t get your interest up, then also consider that Nahin has liberally strewn quotes and references from science fiction throughout. This leaves the reader pondering if the fiction stories are forerunners to reality or merely offshoots of very active imaginations.

And a lasting question revolves around whether scientific discovery is attained through hard work, through thoughtful imagination or through provisions by a time traveler. That’s just one of the choices that you, as the reader, get to make. Just give yourself the time to decide.

Given the fascinating, current discussions on dimensionality, it’s not difficult to pique a science reader’s interest on time travel. And this book grabs and holds such a reader. However, abrupt swings like from the musings of H.G. Wells to the showcasing of the concerns of John Wheeler make for bumpy reading on occasion. Further, the introduction implies that teachers could use the book; implying that this book is a textbook. Yet where are the courses on time travel? Nevertheless, from the view of simply enjoying science, this book makes for enjoyable reading, homework assignments and all.

Will people travel in time? Will they only travel forward in time? Can they only travel between here and other universes? When will this take place? There are so many questions about time. If nothing else, use the time you have wisely.

Read Paul Nahin’s book “Time Machine Tales – The Science Fiction Adventures and Philosophical Puzzles of Time Travel” and ponder why that stranger on the street asking for the time looked so familiar.

Find out more about the author Paul Nahin here.

Rock Legends – the Asteroids and Their Discoverers

Artist's concept of Trojan asteroids, small bodies that dominate our solar system. Credit: NASA

If we are indeed stardust, then what will our future hold? And what happened to all that other dust that isn’t in people or planets? These are pretty heady questions perhaps best left for late at night. Since the age of Galileo and perhaps even beforehand these inquisitive night goers have sought an understanding of “What’s out there?” Paul Murdin in his book “Rock Legends – the Asteroids and Their Discoverers” doesn’t answer the big questions directly but he does shed some capricious light upon what the night time reveals and what the future may hold.


We’re pretty confident that our solar system evolved from a concentration of dust. Let’s leave aside the question about where the dust came from and assume that, at a certain time and place, there was enough free dust that our Sun was made and so too all the planets. In a nice, orderly universe all the dust would have settled out. However, as we’ve discovered since at least the time of Galileo this didn’t happen. There are a plethora of space rocks — asteroids — out wandering through our solar system.

And this is where Murdin’s book steps up. Once people realized that there more than just a few asteroids out there, they took to identifying and classifying them. The book takes a loosely chronological look at this classification and at our increasing knowledge of the orbits, sizes, densities and composition of these space wanderers.

Fortunately this book doesn’t just simply list discovery dates and characteristics. Rather, it includes significant amounts of its contents on the juicy human story that tags along, especially with the naming. It shows that originally these objects were considered special and refined and thus deserved naming with as much aplomb as the planets; i.e. using Greek and Roman deities. Then the number of discovered asteroids outpaced the knowledge of ancient lore, so astronomers began using the names of royalty, friends and eventually pets. Today with well over a million asteroids identified  setting a name to an asteroid doesn’t quite have the same lustre, as the author is quick to point out with his own asteroid (128562) Murdin. Yet perhaps there’s not much else to do while waiting for a computer program to identify a few hundred more accumulations of dust, so naming some of the million nameless asteroids could happily fill in some time.

With the identifying of the early asteroid discoverers and the fun names they chose, this part of the book is quite light and simple. It expands the fun by wandering a bit just like the asteroids. From it you learn of the discovery of palladium, the real spelling of Spock’s name and the meaning of YORP.  Sometimes the wandering is quite far, as with the origins of the Palladium Theatre, the squabbling surrounding the naming of Ceres and the status of the Cubewanos. Yet it is this capriciousness that gives the book its flavour and makes it great for a budding astronomer or a reference for a generalist. The occasional bouts of reflection on the future of various asteroids and even of the Earth add a little seriousness to an otherwise pleasant prose.

So if you’re wondering about the next occultation of Eris or the real background of the name (3512) Eriepa then you’re into asteroids. And perhaps you’re learning how to survive on a few hours of sleep so you can search for one more faint orbiting mote. Whether that’s the case or you’re just interested in how such odd names came to represent these orbiting rocks then Paul Murdin’s book “Rock Legends – the Asteroids and Their Discoverers” will be a treat. Read it and maybe you can use it to place your own curve upon an asteroid’s name.

The book is available on Springer. Find out more about author Paul Murdin here.

Book Review: A History of the Solar System

Our Solar System. Credit: NASA.

The value of a good analyst is priceless. They can synthesize data from disparate sources and weave a reasonable story to bring sense out of historical events and to provide guidance to planning for the future. Adding a sense of scale to space analysis so as to make things relevant to people living on the Earth today adds even more to their value. This is what Claudio Vita-Finzi provides in his book “A History of the Solar System.” It’s a collection of analyses of our grand backyard from a variety of perspectives and it offers great value to the reader.


We know so much about our solar system. And at the same time we realize that we know so little. That’s the main story of this book. It notes the common lore: there are planets, asteroids, comets and dust. That’s today. Long, long ago, a great expanse of dust got localised and made the Milky Way, so at least is postulated in the book. The future should see our Sun expand, larger than the orbit of the nearest planets.

But this book also connects lots of current scientific research to these stories. This is where the spirit of the analyst comes into play. For instance, the inner planets have certain ratios of crust to mantle to core while the outer bodies could be awash in oceans that are slightly sealed with solid caps. Why? The book provides some ideas but we’re still just learning to ask the questions.

The book postulates, “Why does water have different Hydrogen/Deuterium ratios throughout the solar system”. Or “What do calcium-aluminium-rich inclusions tell us about the construction of our universe”.  And the book goes on to hypothesize on possible accretion processes for our solar system as based upon observations of other planetary systems. With explanations helped by current events, such as the “record of cosmogenic isotopes … that can be recovered from ice cores and tree rings” we see how the analysis extends to particulars of the heliosphere.

Be warned though, the book expects a deep level of knowledge from the reader, such as with its comparison of our Sun to the star ?01 Uma or the magnetic lineations offsets across Valles Marineris indicating crustal plate interactions. And where might all this knowledge lead the reader? Perhaps the author’s frequent allusions to abiotic and living processes, together with methods to determine the presence of life gives a clue. That is, the reader might realize just how possible yet how difficult would be to detect life elsewhere in our solar system and indeed elsewhere in the universe.

As far as writing styles, this book could be considered tight. In less than a hundred pages it covers a huge amount of the key indicators used to define our solar system. The text is heavily referenced with 20-30 for each of the 8 chapters. A sprinkling of pictures and illustrations amplify its explanations. But, as the author says, this is not a textbook of “one era after another”. Rather the author tries to link how today derives from a long ago cloud of dust which will likely lead to some very interesting times for tomorrow. And this may be indicative of what’s happening throughout the universe. As the reader will learn, humans are gaining the knowledge that can bring some order into the understanding of processes of the universe and we have only to appreciate the connections in order to heighten our understanding.

With a few billion years of formation behind it, our solar system certainly seems special. The obvious is that we know it harbours life. Us! Yet a complex web of processes and interactions bind all substances together and are the baseline to our future. Perhaps by looking at the past then we can better hypothesize what the future will hold. If you want to try this then Claudio Vita-Finzi’s book “A History of the Solar System” is a great place to get ideas and capture some of excitement of the vivacity of our life. Take if for a read and from it free up your imagination to wonder and assess where we stand in time and space.

The book is available through Springer. Learn more about the author, Claudio Vita-Finzi here.

Spaceports and the Future of Space Exploration

Spaceport America in New Mexico. Credit: Foster and Partners.

Let yourself imagine a spaceport. I bet you put a grand concourse in the center with a fine selection of rockets descending and ascending together with space planes making their final approaches or taking off to worlds who knows where? Perhaps just behind snaking off toward the horizon is a common asphalt road with autonomous electric cars whizzing their passengers to and from the concourse. And assuredly there’s an above ground or below ground rail system that provides convenient access to those in the nearby city. At least that’s what my imagination pictures.

While my idea of space transportation may seem somewhat farfetched, the idea of a spaceport isn’t. Actually the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States of America has already licensed 10 spaceports or Launch Site Operators as they call them. Interestingly the same FAA also licenses 12 Active Launch providers.

Curious that NASA isn’t on the list of licensed Active Launchers. I wonder if they will be allowed to launch their new Space Launch System. Anyway, there’s been another treat for us in that the FAA has recently approved a commercial venture to the Moon. Can this be any more exciting? It seems that we’ve made the grade with space ports launchers and we’ve become a space faring species. There’s nothing farfetched about this reality.

Let’s dig a little deeper. The commercial company is Moon Express. It’s not surprising that they’ve sought approval as their ultimate goal is to win the Google Lunar X Prize. Presumably if they purchase a launch from the United States then they need a licensed one. And the launch company will only loft the Moon Express robot to the Moon with permission.

Illustration of Moon Express MX-1 lunar lander. Credit: Moon Express
Illustration of Moon Express MX-1 lunar lander. Credit: Moon Express

Now this is where things get a bit interesting. Moon Express has mentioned that they will use Rocket Lab to hurl their robot to the Moon. But Rocket Lab launches from New Zealand and they aren’t on the FAA list of Active Launchers. You may understand more by perusing the licensing. It seems that any United States citizen must comply with the rules wherever in the world they launch. Nevertheless it seems that we can sleep with warm hearts as apparently our space faring dreams are coming to fruition.

Yet I wonder if all really is the lotus lands that it seems. For one, why does the FAA or any government on Earth have any jurisdictional rights on accessing the Moon? Did the Chang’e 3 team need permission before they flew? I think not.

Further, does granting permission make the granter liable? Do you have any memories of the furor over the Skylab vessel re-entering on top of Australia in 1979? And whether the United States was found liable? I guess this is where 51 USC Code 50914 comes in. It shows that the licensing is apparently all about managing the risk. Does this imply that the existing judicial structure on Earth is inappropriate for space? Can you imagine the fun that journalists would have if they heard of a theft occurring on the International Space Station? Who would investigate? Who would oversee the trial and make judgement? There are some big questions remaining to be answered before people can sit idly watching rockets roar up from a spaceport with their loved ones safely tucked in.

Nevertheless while uncertainties remain, we are seeing progress. We see the basis of an international legal system. We see space transportation infrastructure that serves the customer rather than the scientist. We see individuals achieving feats that previously were the sole domain of governments. So I say, “Yes imagine your spaceport! Believe in the ability to travel far above Earth and into the furthest reaches of our solar system. Believe in a future of our making.”

Book Review: The Caloris Network

Caloris in Color – An enhanced-color view of Mercury from the cameras on board the MESSENGER spacecraft. The circular, orange area near the center-top of the disc is Caloris Basin. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Carnegie Institution of Washington

Thinking of taking a vacation this summer? Maybe you want to distract yourself with a bit of light science fiction fun. How about a deadly alien life form harbored within our solar system? That’s what Nick Kanas presents in his scientific novel “The Caloris Network.” Being placed not too far into the future, this novel lets the reader enjoy a believable taste of first contact that’s hopefully just as good as the contact from their first summer kiss.

caloris network
A pleasant novel has an intriguing plot that’s embellished with the interaction of fun characters. Sometimes it will also carry a somber undertone ringing in the background. So unravels the novel “Caloris Network.” The main character, Sam, is an astrobiologist fresh from looking at multicellular life on Europa. At home, her family suffers serious health concerns but she’s continuing with her efforts. Her research takes her to Mercury where something is raising the concern of the spacefaring military. Her fellow crew members involve a possible Martian secessionist, a cranky commander and a love triangle. All this is pretty typical fare.

Next up you may think there’d be the traditional English speaking alien biped threatening the very existence of the human race. But not this time. Instead Kanas identifies the protagonist as a silicate based lifeform on Mercury. No legs for walking and no lips for speaking. Further, this is the proverbial first contact between the human race and a living, thinking organism from another world. Will it be confrontational? As usual. Will it involve death rays? Kind of. Will it force the reader to ponder how to interact for the first time with an alien? Certainly! This is the best part of the book in that it places the reader not so far into the future so as to make the story readily believable. Being barely over a hundred years away, the reader can connect with the technological advances for an expedition on Mercury, for living on Mars and for the poor environmental state of Earth. With the simple lives of the expedition’s crew, the constrained space travel and the understated alien, Kanas has written a novel that would be fun for that long car ride or a day on the beach.

As a bonus, the author includes a chapter at the end of the book that discusses some of the science presented. It has details on what we’ve discovered of Mercury, particularly with regard to what a human visitor might encounter if standing on its surface; the temperature from searing heat to mind numbing cold, a Sun that changes direction in the sky and effects of a molten interior.

For even more fun when you’re at the beach, there’s an inclusion of how to define life. For instance, “Does it need to move?” “What do we mean by reproduction?” “How do we test for the ability to think?” and most entertaining of all, “How do we communicate with it when we can’t even communicate with dolphins yet?” These and other ideas in the novel may keep you up late discussing our very existence while watching the embers of the cottage campfire settle to a deep dark red.

Certainly something on Europa, Titan and Venus awaits people. Maybe it’s alien life. Maybe the life prefers to exist without humans coming to explore. Maybe they will be exactly as what Nick Kanas writes in his scientific novel “The Caloris Network”. With your imagination, take this novel’s plot as believable and see where it takes you. And maybe by reading this on your vacation, you may think that you’ve waited long enough and it’s time to go find out.

This book is available through Springer.
About the author, Dr. Nick Kanas.

Finding “The Lost Science” of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Space station from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The film 2001: A Space Odyssey brought space science to the general masses. Today we may consider it as common place, but in 1968 when the film was released, humankind had yet to walk on the Moon. We certainly didn’t have any experience with Jupiter. Yet somehow the producer, Stanley Kubrick, successfully peered into the future and created a believable story. One of his methods was to employ Frederick I. Ordway III as his science consultant. While Ordway has since passed, he left behind a veritable treasure trove of documents detailing his work for Kubrick. Science author and engineer Adam K. Johnson got access to this trove which resulted in the book “2001: The Lost Science – The Scientist, Influences & Designs from the Frederick I. Ordway III Estate Volume 2“. It’s a wonderful summary of Ordway’s contributions and the film’s successes.

What makes a movie? A plethora of ingredients must come together. But most of all, the audience must accept it for what it proclaims to be. For instance, a science fiction show must wander about in space and/or time. And the audience has to believe the wandering. In the 1960s, the general audience had little knowledge of space and could conceivably believe in anything.

Many films used expediency over truth, such as using a gun to shoot a capsule to the Moon. However, to validate his film, Kubrick enlisted Ordway from the Future Projects Office of the Marshall Space Flight Centre. Presumably this alone would have added large amounts of veracity, but Ordway took on the challenge as we see in Johnson’s book and pushed further.


Ordway interviewed many scientists and engineers. Many of these came to the set to provide advice. Ordway acquired drawings as well as made his own schematics. He went to industry, academia and governments. Johnson skillfully brings this all to light. How did the results mesh with this effort? That is the value of Johnson’s book. It gives credit to the breadth and depth of Ordway’s research.

The book’s first section identifies the knowledge sources; people like Willy Ley, books such as Beyond Tomorrow The Next 50 Years in Space, and organizations such as Boeing and its PARSEC project. It identifies the individuals who came to the filming sets to give advice and has many images of the sets as well.

The second section gives credit to preceding films, though it’s not certain from Johnson’s book as to how or if Ordway drew inspiration from them.

Its third and final section is probably the most fun as it provides many figures of the mock-ups, drawings and schematics. It includes a great full page image of Space Station V and a four page pullout section of Discovery X-Ray Delta One. There’s also an interesting note therein that indicates that the sets and props had to be thoroughly believable from every perspective, as they didn’t know where Kubrick may place the camera. Thus, the book gives the reader a taste of the fine detail for some graphics such as for the Moon Bus. With Johnson presenting all this from Ordway’s collection then it’s easy for the reader to understand why there’s a high sense of believability to the film.

Yes, Johnson’s book shows the amount of knowledge that was available in the early 1960s and that Ordway gained access to much of this information. The very large size of this book, about 11in by 14.5in helps show off many great images throughout. However, its size also suggests the style of the book; that is, it is a scrapbook. The book is a wonderful compendium of information relevant to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it doesn’t add to the knowledge base. It’s an excellent repackaging of existing material with only a little suggestive comments on cinematic technique that might be original. And, as with most scrapbooks, the value of this book is the images. While the text is informative, it’s also somewhat dry, so the reader will probably feel much greater reward from feasting on the many print reproductions, drawings and photographs within Johnson’s book.

Perhaps the greatest value of this book is what goes unstated. That is, with enough effort and research people can construct a likely overview of humankind’s progress into the near future.  A future than can be thrilling. The book “2001: The Lost Science – The Scientists, Influences & Designs from the Frederick I. Ordway III Estate Volume 2” by Adam K. Johnson captures some of the excitement and thrill as humankind lay poised upon the edges of travelling into space. Reading it will give you pause at just how far we’ve progressed in the last 50 years. And perhaps get you thinking about what the films of today might be telling us about the next 50 years.

Book Review: The Chang’E-1 Topographic Atlas of the Moon

I like hiking. Particularly, I like wandering in places I’ve never been before. Sometimes only a map, a compass and a good sense of direction gets me returning to where I began.

Many people on Earth enjoy this simple pleasure. But what to do if you’re on the Moon?

Well, assuming you’ve got the right equipment, like a spacesuit, then all you’d need is a good map because, of course, compasses aren’t of much use. So which map do you use? Well, take a look at “The Chang’E-1 Topographic Atlas of the Moon” by Chunlai Li, Jianjun Liu, Lingli Mu, Xin Ren and Wei Zuo. This lovely, featured book will have you easily finding your way about the lunar surface.

“An atlas?” I hear you asking. “Who’s going to sit down and read an atlas?”  Good question, as I didn’t think I would either, but I definitely will use this book.

For me, a good atlas allows me to understand the shape of the land; almost to feel the topology without actually being there. When I hike, I use maps to find interesting outlooks, amazing drop-offs or dry land between swamps. On the Moon we certainly don’t have to worry about water features. But there are many other features that are at least interesting enough to warrant a particular nomenclature according to the International Astronomical Union. This book includes eleven of such nomenclatures.

For instance, there are the very dry Oceani, the Maria that hint at water courses, circular craters with astoundingly sharp edges and the knife edge rimae that slice along. How do I know of these descriptions? Simple. I look at the maps in the book. There are 188 maps each on their own page; all of them presenting an equal and fine finishing. And they include the complete Moon surface, with a space resolution of 500m, a horizontal accuracy of 192m and vertical of 120m. Actually, that’s most of the book. There’s an appendix. It includes a list of 3,698 features placed on the maps with each feature having; its name, its latitude, its longitude, its size in kilometres and its page. With this appendix, one can quickly and easily find the common lunar geographic features. There are a few pages of introduction. And that’s all. It’s just like an atlas should be; straightforward, simple and to the point.

I bet you’re wondering about where the data came from? The title says it all. It’s from China’s Chang’E-1 probe. This book is a re-issue in English of their initial production of 2012. Nicely located in the preamble is a description of the data processing. This includes specifications of the CCD camera, the characteristics of the probe’s orbit and the actual data processing. It’s apparently no mean feat, as the data came from a three-line array CCD stereo imager and resulted in the Mercator or Azimuthal projections. Some additional information is at this link (in English).

However, what’s most impressive for me is that this book shows that China is actively and capably adding to the scientific knowledge of space. Yet, in acknowledgement to lunar mapping already done, the authors included a very informative history of lunar mapping in the book’s preface. So you get to know both where this mapping data came from and where other data may be found.

In any case I suspect that you nor I will be going hiking on the Moon anytime soon. But perhaps you want to study lunar topography, lunar morphology or lunar geologic structures? Maybe you want to know where is the water that’s hiding on the Moon. I recommend “The Chang’E-1 Topographic Atlas of the Moon” by Chunlai Li, Jianjun Liu, Lingli Mu, Xin Ren and Wei Zuo. It may guide you to all sorts of interesting features and finds.

The book is available through Springer.