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the Complete Review
the complete review - science


Christopher Wanjek

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To purchase Spacefarers

Title: Spacefarers
Author: Christopher Wanjek
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2020
Length: 347 pages
Availability: Spacefarers - US
Spacefarers - UK
Spacefarers - Canada
  • How Humans Will Settle the Moon, Mars, and Beyond

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Our Assessment:

B : entertaining, wide-ranging overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 4/3/2020 Steven Poole

  From the Reviews:
  • "(N)erdily engaging (and often funny) (.....) Technology and science fiction enthusiasts will find much here to delight them, as Wanjek goes into rich detail (.....) He is a sensible sceptic, yet also convinced that, in the long run, our destiny is among the stars." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Spacefarers considers, as the subtitle has it, How Humans Will Settle the Moon, Mars, and Beyond -- though the 'how' is fairly flexible here: in some cases, necessary technology is already available (though often still cost-prohibitive); in others it remains largely theoretical (though plausible, in some form) for now -- and then there are the issues which seem likely to always be an issue: (lack of) gravitation, cosmic radiation, and the sheer length of time it takes to get almost anywhere in space (the problem not so much one of speed -- that can be achieved -- but rather acceleration (and deceleration), which the human body can only tolerate so much of). The technical difficulty of shooting something into space, or at least to a (relatively) nearby specific place, like Mars, is almost the least of the problems (though, for example, simply landing something on Mars -- that last little step -- without breaking it has proven to be very hard); human requirements are such that traveling and living in space with a reasonable chance of survival really complicates matters. As Wanjek notes, most present-day 'space' travel is pretty low orbit, still well within the earth's protective shell of the magnetosphere. Beyond that, the challenges quickly grow quite daunting.
       Wanjek is no space-romantic. He's intrigued by space travel, and also sees it as inevitable, but emphasizes that, especially as far as lifestyle goes, it will be a long, long, long time, if ever, before anywhere out there is even just anywhere near as good as earth, much less an improvement on terrestrial conditions. For him: "Human space exploration is not a plan B for Earth", arguing that even if the worst were to happen -- nuclear armageddon, for example -- those on earth will still have it better than anywhere in outer space for the foreseeable (and long beyond) future. Indeed, much of the fun of Spacefarers is in his detailed overview of just how bad conditions are out there -- in any vehicle transporting humans, and then everywhere they might set(tle) down, from the moon and Mars to asteroids, comets, and more distant planets and their moons.
       Wanjek begins with a look at 'Living on Earth', and experiences in the most extreme conditions available here -- and how humans can handle these: high altitude or Antarctic cold and isolation, for example, or months in a submarine. Terrestrial efforts to practice for space travel and self-sufficient living away from earth -- NASA's Human Exploration Research Analog or Biosphere 2, for example -- give some sense of some the difficulties spacefarers face -- but, as Wanjek shows, there's a whole lot more to deal with .. out there.
       Wanjek progressively makes his way up from 'Living in Orbit' -- the close-to-the-earth travel that has dominated human space travel to date -- before moving progressively on to living and working on the moon, asteroids, Mars, and then beyond. He concludes each of these sections with his predictions, as to what is likely and how soon -- taking into account not only what is and will be (technically) possible but also whether it will be worthwhile: sure, valuable mineral wealth, for example, can be mined on extraterrestrial bodies near and far, but you really need to get a lot of bang for your mining-buck investment to bother with it. His predictions range from what he sees as likely, soon -- "the first space hotels open by 2025" (explaining also how very rudimentary these will be, as far as comfort goes -- but also why they'll still appeal to (some of) the ultra-well-heeled) -- to the more distant ("science and technology have advanced by the end of the twenty-second century to allow for human scientific exploration throughout the Solar System, yet there remains no need for commercial activity or residency beyond Uranus").
       Each more distant layer -- low terrestrial orbit, moon, Mars, and beyond -- brings additional complications, and Wanjek does a good job of presenting these, and discussing possible work-arounds. Gravity is a constant problem: the human body doesn't seem to fare well in low or no gravity over the longterm, and he points out that a critical issue will be at what level of gravity humans can procreate -- will Mars' 0.38G be sufficient for full gestation, for example ? Radiation -- "nearly manageable solar radiation and the more menacing cosmic radiation" -- are significant issues in getting from any point A to B, as well as on those bodies without an atmosphere. And then there are the difficult local conditions: among the issues on the moon is the omnipresent lunar dust ("razor-sharp and abrasive like asbestos"), while the minuscule atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars (6 millibars, compared to 1,000 on earth at sea level) means humans can only work 'outside' in unwieldy pressurized spacesuits. Never mind places like Jupiter -- uncolonizable, Wanjek points out, because: "There's no surface" -- or Uranus, where the planet's extreme tilt (97 degrees, meaning its: "poles essentially face the sun") means the poles get: "forty-two years of perpetual (dim) sunlight followed by forty-two years of darkness during Uranus's eighty-four year journey around the Sun". Venus, meanwhile, is: "both the worst and best in the Solar System to establish an off-Earth colony", with its reasonable gravity (0.9G) but consistently extreme temperature (hotter than Mercury ...).
       Wanjek considers the trade-offs and risks -- and how much is still unknown about these. Technological advances continue apace, but fundamental issues remain: earth's strong gravity will long remain an issue, requiring a great deal of energy (in the form of heavy fuel) to lift anything into space, and cosmic radiation is a hard-to-shield against universal on any space voyage (for now best protected against by what amount to half-measures). He points out life anywhere else in space will not conform to the cinematic-idyllic, most of the time: in many places, it's only sensible to shelter underground, or in heavily protected structures, with windows a luxury: those impressive vistas won't be what you wake up to every morning. Space will always be at a premium, both on the way to anywhere and then anywhere you set(tle) down.
       Spacefarers usefully gives a good overview of what has been achieved and what is in the works -- complete with missteps along the way -- along with the more speculative, making for a realistically grounded overview. A great deal can be accomplished and learned without a human presence, as many space probes have demonstrated, but Wanjek also understands the human yearning to explore in person, and to go where no one has gone before; he also understands the appeal (and value, in that it is revenue-generating) of space tourism.
       It makes for a good, quite thorough tour of all the possibilities as well as the issues and dangers, realistic and not too simply wide-eyed, and written with a helpful dash of humor. Certainly of interest to anyone curious about space travel and the (possible) human colonization of outer space.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 March 2020

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Spacefarers: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Author and journalist Christopher Wanjek was born in 1967.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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