Friday, February 02, 2018

Ad Astra: An Illustrated Guide to Leaving the Planet, by Dallas Campbell

This book is a delight, a breezy yet wide-ranging history of humanity's efforts to leave Earth, plus what the near future might hold.

I've read a lot about the exploration of space, and watched a lot of documentaries, too (and written about them here, you poor souls), so am amazed by how much of this book came as new. For one thing, it's so wide-ranging, exploring things like who made the flags put up on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, and how they were constructed given the various physical limitations of the lunar surface and the astronauts' spacesuits.

But there's also plenty where well-documented, well-known material is cast in a new light. For example, the book details the various non-human animals that have been sent into space (a subject I looked into for Horrible Histories Magazine a few years ago). This section concludes with the Russian Zond 5 mission of September 1968, where a probe got to within 1950 km of the Moon before returning to Earth. This wasn't new to me, but then the book contrasts the pair of tortoises on board (alongside other creatures) to the "nimble hare" of the human-crewed Apollo 8, launched two months later.

It's packed with detail, a lot of it strange and surprising. As a presenter of science programmes on TV, the author has had direct access to some extraordinary people and places. And the book is all told in short, pithy chunks so what's a complex, technical subject is never too heavy or dry. The text is presented beautifully, too, with lots of well-chosen photographs, documents and curios.

I especially loved how seamlessly the hotch-potch collection is brought together. My favourite, I think, is where we're told that since, obviously, there is no facility to develop camera film in space, in 1964, Robert Leighton's team at JPL conceived and built the first ever digital camera. The cost, given it could take 22 images (of 200 x 200 pixels each), averaged out at $3.8 million per picture.

We then follow this invention being put on Mariner 3 (where something went wrong and the probe was lost to space) and its twin Mariner 4, which launched on 28 November 1964 and reached Mars the following July. Then we get the awful wait for the pictures it took - the first pictures of Mars taken in space - to transmit back to Earth.

Next we're told how Richard Grumm, an engineer, and John Casani, who'd worked on the recording system, got ahead of the process by printing out the raw data from Mariner's camera as it arrived, arranging it in row after row of three-digit numbers, and colouring in these numbers, by hand, with crayons from a local art shop: 050-045 in brown, 045-040 in red, 040-35 in orange, etc.

Accompanying the concise text, there are photographs of the box of crayons, of the chart assigning colours to numbers, of a close-up of the work, and of the actual photograph that was slowly downloaded.
Ad Astra by Dallas Campbell, pp. 206-7.
And then you turn the page and there's a double page spread of the hand-coloured version - a breath-taking juxtaposition in one object, one artwork, of cutting-edge science and childlike simplicity.

Ad Astra by Dallas Campbell, pp. 208-9.
In all, this is a perfectly curated and comprehensive handbook. It inspires awe, and makes clear how very difficult and dangerous it will be to return people to the Moon and then go further - and how close and inevitable it is that we do.

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