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Build Your Own Spaceship

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Readers of my travelog, England/France, might recall that I had the good fortune to have dinner one evening with the science writer Piers Bizony and his family. After dinner, in his recently-built study behind the house, I was awed by some of the books Bizony has produced about space exploration and the universe beyond our earth, with their spectacularly beautiful and mind-bending illustrations (like this one...


... but not actually this one. You'll have to check out his books to see what I mean.) Anyway, he was kind enough to let me have a copy of a (by Bizony's standards) tiny -- and affordable! -- new paperback, How to Build Your Own Spaceship: The Science of Personal Space Travel, and I have just finished reading it.

"Tiny" is a wild misnomer. The book may be small in size and length, but it covers a truly amazing amount of material -- much of which was surprising and fresh even to one who has followed the adventures of human beings in space since the first Sputnik dazzled us with its little, insistent beep and its infinitesimal point of light across the night sky. In part, the book is a potted history of these events, put together by one whose evidently vast knowledge is shared easily and without pretension with the lay reader. The progress from Sputnik through man's landing on the Moon to today's exploration of the planet Mars and the possibility of future visits there -- a matter of little more than half a century -- is hard for the intellect to grasp. Bizony walks us through these monumental achievements with casual grace and an engaging sense of humor and perspective.

In part, too, the book is true to its title: it's a companionable reference guide to the technology involved in building a spacecraft, getting it off the ground, and navigating it beyond the confines of Earth's gravity. For one who, like myself, finds the technology of your average automobile hard to fathom, Bizony manages to make the reader comfortable even when he's way out of his depth. Thanks to readable prose and the obvious passion of my guide, I found myself enjoying even those paragraphs where I hardly understood a thing about, say, the construction materiel or the propulsion fuels he was writing about. I trusted him enough to just go along for the ride.

The reason for this, I think, is the nice conceit implied in Bizony's title: that he's actually talking, with clear-sighted pragmatism, to someone who might take him up on his challenge. In fact it's not really a conceit. He assumes a reader as passionate as himself to participate in the grand vision. And indeed, as he makes clear, there are those people out there -- not simply the outlandishly wealthy who are already funding non-governmental space projects that are within an ace of actualization, like Sir Richard Branson's Virgin project, already advance-selling seats to (not quite so wealthy, but still very well-heeled) thrill-seekers for brief sorties into sub-orbital flight starting possibly as early as 2012. Many of these people, like Branson, are in it for the fun -- not to mention the business opportunity. But also, as Bizony is at pains to remind his readers, there's all kinds of room in the space game for amateurs who can afford to venture no further than their own front door. He is skilled in engaging us in the possibilities.

The nay-sayers about space exploration, of course, are legion. My own sympathies lie most with those who insist that we need the money more urgently for schools and health care than for interplanetary travel. That rightful, if pedestrian, wisdom is outweighed for me, eventually, by the belief that the need to feed our imagination and to create a vision for the future is just as great as the need to find solutions to our terrestrial problems, many though they be. Bizony's delightful book opens the door -- and the eyes -- to realistic possibilities that do not involve the expense of taxpayer dollars but rather those of enterprising individuals who are in it for the sheer joy of adventure and the excitement of ever-new discovery.

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