Review: Lost in Space
by Jeff Foust
|Not only has NASA lost its way after Apollo, Klerkx claims, NASA has tried to disable private space efforts that have encroached on the agency’s turf or have otherwise posed a threat to the agency.|
There are, however, two significant problems with this book. First, there are a number of factual errors in the book that, while minor, are troubling. For example, he refers at one point to a shuttle launch in November 1987 (the shuttle fleet was still grounded after the Challenger accident at that time). Elsewhere, he claims that the last launch attempt of the N-1, the Soviet Union’s massive Moon booster, led to an explosion that killed dozens in “the worst disaster in the history of spaceflight”, an incident unsupported by historical accounts of the N-1 program. He also repeatedly refers to the March Storm lobbying effort by ProSpace as a single word, “MarchStorm”. Taken individually, each error is fairly minor, but when these and other errors are combined it suggests, at the very least, some serious problems in the writing or editing process. At worst, some might conclude the author does not have a firm grasp of the topic.
The second problem is that Klerkx seems to be overreaching when he describes NASA as actively opposing private space efforts. There may indeed be cases where NASA has apparently attempted to interfere with private ventures, but it’s not clear this has always happened, nor if such interference is always intentional. Indeed, Klerkx has problems describing NASA in general. At one point he likens the agency to the Borg from Star Trek, calling it a “collective [that] is not only tight-knit… but of an almost religious solidarity in the service of a government, and ostensibly public, agenda for space.” Later in the book, though, he surveys the various departments and centers within the agency and concludes that “there is no ‘NASA’; or rather, there are multiple ‘NASA’s.” There’s an element of truth to both, of course—particularly the latter, as anyone familiar to the internecine battles among the field centers can attest—but this contradiction would appear to undermine the belief that NASA is consistently, actively, opposing private space ventures.
These problems don’t necessarily make Lost in Space a bad book, but they are disappointments in what is overall a very interesting book about the role of government and the private sector in space. (The section towards the end of the book about the Mars Society and its venture on Devon Island, while not core to the topic of the book, is still quite fascinating in that Klerkx offers an unblemished look at the society and its founder, Robert Zubrin.) This book is timely not only because of the President’s new space initiative, but because a new crop of private ventures—flying figuratively, if not literally, below NASA’s radar—are now completing the development of an initial generation of reusable suborbital vehicles that could, over time, lead to new commercial markets and greatly reduced costs of space access. If NASA’s new initiative is to succeed, the agency will need to embrace, rather than battle, commercial space ventures that can provide services at reduced costs and allow the agency to devote itself to the forefront of exploration. Otherwise NASA and the American people may be permanently lost in space.