Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson

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Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil Degrasse Tyson

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A collection of journalism from an enthusiastic advocate of American space history - and its future.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 364 Date: April 2012
Publisher: Norton
ISBN: 978-0393082104

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A year or so ago there was a big hoopla about being able to see the International Space Station pass overhead where I live, so I dutifully clambered on to the roof. And indeed it was actually very warming to know I was seeing something manmade, from 250 miles away. As for the chance to see it, its speed of 17,000mph means it orbits the planet every 92 and a half minutes. It gets about. But some of the warmth of seeing it, as well as the achievements that led up to it, and the politics of NASA's five decades - and some of the Newtonian physics involved in it - are all in this volume.

The book is a structured collection of revisited pieces of non-fiction Tyson has written over the years. It's been expertly updated - a piece here was first published before some of the students who might make use of it now were born, but everything has been revised. And it's not just magazine columns, either - there are podcast and interview transcripts, book essays and more. It's been put together with a lot of attention and authority.

It begins with a brand new piece too, but that might not be the best way to start. It concerns the politics of NASA, and from it one can surmise a lot. Tyson is writing for an American audience, for one, but his biases as regards its success or otherwise are also clear. Read between the lines and you see too much of NASA's recent history has been too many five year plans - just the thing for a President to greenlight, knowing well that within four years he will have moved on, and nothing substantial need really happen.

Tyson has been involved in producing some of those plans, though, and his knowledge and insider enthusiasm all come across. He is dead right to state that the future of American space interest looks bleak. Without the Cold War oneupmanship with the USSR to inspire it, and without anyone walking on the Moon since 1972, it's getting to look like more than one generation will fail to have the astronaut heroes to (literally) look up to. And with an Internet's-load of Hubble images still prettifying our screen-savers, that telescope's replacement will be earthbound until 2018 at least - providing it does not get dropped due to budgets as has almost happened at least once.

It is left then to people such as Tyson - an echt scientist and planetarium director as well as writer - to be the inspiration. However there is too much of this book that will, as he puts it, preach to the choir. There is a gamut of information in here, from the scientists bent on working out the age and depth of the known universe, to those men and their technology that have so far encroached on a miniscule sliver of it. The range of space science here is as rich as the subject can be, but the origins of this as diverse pieces proves this is an asteroid belt of similar, mine-able bits, whereas the book should be a gas giant of all-encompassing majesty. What's more, the effort to be populist has gone as low as to declare Armstrong et al walked on another planet. If so, they certainly kept that quiet.

This is a book of welcoming depth, with a lot of pages dedicated to appendices regarding NASA's founding Act of Congress and so on. However much I enjoyed the delight Tyson has with our successes, and however compelling his repeated urges that they continue in the same exploratory light, I did feel that a new volume instead, of possibly even half the length, would have been richer and more straightforwardly successful.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The success of DeGrasse Tyson when on one unified subject is proven with his much superior look at the ex-planet - The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favourite Planet by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

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