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Review: Lost in Space

Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age
by Greg Klerkx
Pantheon, 2004
Hardcover, 392 pp., illus.
ISBN 0-375-42150-5

There is something to be said about the power of good timing. Greg Klerkx’s book Lost in Space was released in January at the same time space policy was back on the front pages thanks to President Bush’s new space policy announcement. At first glance, the timing might appear to be poor—after all, here was a book proclaiming that NASA had lost its way just as the President was giving the space agency the bold new agenda so many had clamored for—but the coincidence ensured that the book would receive considerable attention by book reviewers and the public alike. Timing will only go so far, though. Klerkx provides an interesting, although imperfect, look at how NASA has clashed with the private sector in a wide range of space ventures.

The central thesis of Lost in Space will be familiar to many people: NASA, having defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War race to the Moon, has since lost its way, stumbling through the space shuttle and the International Space Station programs without making major progress in the last three decades. Even worse, Klerkx claims, is that 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, from effectively scuttling the Industrial Space Facility in the 1980s to actively opposing Dennis Tito’s trip to the ISS in 2001. Rather than championing efforts to expand the human presence in space, he argues, NASA has been the grand villain of any private effort to open up space.

Klerkx backs up this argument with extensive research. His travels for this book took him to Baikonur to witness Tito’s launch as well as to Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic to spend time at the Mars Society’s research base there. He also talked with a wide spectrum of people in the “alternative space”, or “” community (the latter a term that has gained currency only in recent months, and thus doesn’t appear in the book) who have had to deal with NASA in one form or another while promoting their own ventures. In this respect his research is quite thorough, and brings up many of the issues and problems that, while familiar to the community, are not well known to the wider public. An example is the infamous “NASA brother-in-law” problem: every potential investor in a private space venture, the anecdote goes, seems to have a brother-in-law who works for NASA, ready to shoot down the idea.

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.