Book review: “Spaceships of the Mind” by Nigel Calder

Picked this up on impulse during a recent used bookstore crawl. Turns out it’s actually the companion book to a Beeb TV special that I haven’t seen, but it stands on its own just fine.

The material is a little dated but not too much. The author relates the results of interviewing a selection of space travel visionaries and comparing their statements against known science. The general theme seems to be cautious optimism: space travel is really expensive (but dirt cheap compared to, say, any small war) and really difficult, but there is hope in the future, at least for interplanetary travel.

The point is repeatedly made that space is actually abundantly rich with the energy and materials needed to support us; we just need a minimum level of life support and automation to get us to the point where we can capitalize on them. He mentions how a simple solar-powered or nuclear-powered machine can separate raw ore from the moon or any asteroid into its component elements, which a suitably advanced robot factory could then assemble into habitats and spacecraft for us. That part still needs some work, but we’re on it. Materials and manufacturing have come a long way in the last few decades.

He also covers a variety of propulsion methods that can be used to toss canned monkeys around in space. Heavy bias away from chemical reaction engines and towards solar sails, laser launchers, ion engines and fission and fusion explosion drives, which is all good. Even so the conclusion is that moving canned monkeys around even within the solar system is very hard because of our ridiculous life support needs, and interstellar travel is out of the question until we can fabricate habitats large enough to support life self-sufficiently for decades in interstellar space and figure out how to maintain a balanced, closed ecosystem for that length of time.

He also touches on the politics of moving into space, and while he doesn’t dig into it much this is where things get really pessimistic; he hints towards making a case that we have political motivations not to go into space. While establishing industry in space would be good for bringing material and energy resources to Earth, conditions will likely be harsh with Earth-based corporations and governments pulling the strings; there will be a strong motivation for any humans working in space to secede and form their own government. That’s a loss for Earth in terms of trade, capital investment and military safety that will tend to override any initial desire to invest in space industry, or at least will prevent space industry from reaching the necessary population and self-sufficiency levels to become independent. So we need to figure out an inarguable way to motivate ourselves to do this thing, or else we’ll never get off this rock.

So while the book is a little dated, it does still constitute a good discussion of the practical challenges still facing us in our attempt to move outward.

Comments are closed.