Skip to main content

Stepping Stones to the Stars – Terry C. Treadwell ***

This is the kind of book I would have loved as a ten-year-old. I’m not saying it’s aimed at children, but at the time the whole manned space travel thing was big news, I was happily building plastic models of spacecraft, and I absolutely hoovered up collections of facts about space and space travel.
The book is subtitled ‘a history of manned spaceflight’, but I would make a subtle alteration – I would say it’s a chronicle of manned spaceflight. In a history, I would expect interpretation, comments on the politics, more about the key individuals involved. But what we get here is a bit of historical background, then for many of the US and Soviet manned spaceflight we get details of who went, what experiments they did, what went wrong (something almost always seemed to go wrong), and one or two nice little details picked up from the flight log, or some such source.
The exception is the Shuttle flights, where a whole chunk of them get run through in a few lines, presumably because they were so routine. And that’s the problem, really. This is a book about routine. Of course it covers the big stuff in more detail – Apollo 11, for example, Apollo 13 and the two Shuttle disasters. But the whole exercise gets rather tedious, unless you are a fan of exhaustive detail.
In the end, there are too many basic facts and not enough interpretation. We get little feel for the politics behind the Moon race, or the science of space flight, or the pros and cons of manned spaceflight versus unmanned. Although there a couple of points where Terry Treadwell emphasizes the benefits of having humans on board when something goes wrong, he doesn’t go into the way the Russians had unmanned vehicles ferrying material back from the Moon – or look at the real disadvantages of manned flight in terms of huge extra cost and risk to life.
You might think from the title that there’d be a big section on ‘where do we go from here’, but there’s actually just a page or so. Overall, unless you want a fact book about manned spaceflights, this isn’t a title that is likely to appeal.
ADDED March 2015:
I had totally forgotten this title when I wrote my own book on this topic, Final Frontier, but that is very much aimed at the problem areas described above, with much more interpretation and commentary, and a lot on the future - in essence, what this book should have been for a modern audience.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…