Reviews Physics World  March 2018

Race to space and beyond

Tim Gregory reviews Ad Astra: an Illustrated Guide to Leaving the Planet by Dallas Campbell

Ad Astra: an Illustrated Guide to Leaving the Planet, the latest book by broadcaster and author Dallas Campbell, apparently defies gravity because I just couldn’t put it down. I may go as far as suggesting that a copy should be stashed in the payload of SpaceX’s next Falcon Heavy launch, just to give it a bit of extra lift as it blasts away from the Earth.

Space exploration comes in many forms, from radio astronomy to cosmochemistry, but it is human spaceflight that tends to captivate people the most. Ad Astra traces this path from its beginnings in the 1600s with goose-powered spacecraft, right up until the present day. Woven into the bold, overarching stories of the Space Race are tales and titbits about the individuals and imaginations that made it all happen. From the minds that designed the first rockets, to the first paws in orbit, to the hands that stitched the Apollo spacesuits, nobody is forgotten and no Moon rock is left unturned. Ad Astra left me with the feeling that the story of space exploration, while largely a story of incredible engineering and scientific feats, is above all a story about us: humanity.

It’s easy to suppose “the history of human spaceflight” is a topic that’s been written about a million times before (and you wouldn’t be far wrong), but Campbell sheds new light on it and casts it in a new tone. His writing style is informal, charming and welcoming. Full of wit and humour, this book felt like it was written by a good friend, rather than somebody I’ve never met.

Lately, it seems that every week bears news of a private company announcing bold new plans that will see more commercial presence in space. From space tourism with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, to people on Mars (apparently) within a decade with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the days when space exploration was purely in the hands of governmental organizations are over. It’s often difficult to keep up with the fast-changing world of commercial space exploration, but Campbell nicely summarizes the current state of play. Perhaps most importantly, he lets you know how feasible each option of getting into space is for the everyday person. It turns out that it’s pretty unlikely most of us will leave the Earth any time soon, but Campbell acknowledges this somewhat disheartening point with self-deprecating humour and jest. In a world that often seems full of trouble and turmoil, Campbell has reminded me that the future of space exploration is bright, and that there’s a lot to look forward to.

Campbell also goes into great detail about the rigours involved in the astronaut selection process. If you’ve already got your heart set on becoming an astronaut, this book won’t put you off (quite the opposite). But if you’re on the fence about chasing a career in low-Earth orbit or beyond, this book will push you to one of two extremes. It will either make you want it so much that your heart will ache for a seat in the Soyuz (it is the coolest job in the universe, after all). Or the extreme demands and often undignified examinations will convince you there’s nothing you’d like less.

Written in short sections, Ad Astra is an easy book to set aside and pick up again later, which makes for perfect reading on the train, during lunch breaks or on the launchpad. Overall, the book has the feel of a reference guide, so I probably won’t read it again from cover to cover, but I’ll definitely be going back over my favourite sections and enjoying them for years to come. It will also act as a good revision guide for space exploration facts, figures and trivia – great for the “space” round at pub quizzes.

Ad Astra is presented differently from your usual popular-science book – it is almost a beautifully illustrated scrapbook. The choice of photographs, newspaper snippets, and drawings compliment the text seamlessly. The occasional double-page spread of iconic space images, such as the Cupola observatory window on the International Space Station, really took me by surprise and provided pause for thought. It’s not just a great book to read; it’s also a great book to look at.

Campbell’s enthusiasm is contagious

Campbell’s enthusiasm is contagious and will grab those with even a vague interest in space exploration right from the first page. Not much prior knowledge would be needed to follow the content of this book, making it an ideal read for both newcomers to the world of space and self-professed space geeks alike. It is, in fact, an absolute must-have for anybody with even a passing interest in the history of human space flight and astronautics. And if you’re a wannabe astronaut like myself, Ad Astra is essential reading, alongside your favourite Russian phrasebook and Scuba Diving for Dummies.