Greg Klerkx's Lost in Space was completed just too soon to take in George W. Bush's new vision for the American space programme announced in the wake of the successful landing of the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit . Among the casualties in Bush's vision, in a long-term plan to put humans back on the moon and, eventually, Mars, are the Space Shuttle (to be retired) and the International Space Station (to be left to those who would most want to use it).
I can assure the US President that there are not many in Great Britain, or elsewhere in Europe for that matter, who will want to inherit his "gift". For the European Space Agency has Aurora , its own adventurous plan to explore the solar system. Esa's strategy envisages a programme of robotic missions to Mars (and elsewhere) while in parallel it develops the technologies to put a human on Mars should that prove to be necessary to achieve the goals of the exploration.
Klerkx does not give much credence to Esa's ambitions, as implied in a disparaging throwaway line about the paucity of Esa's budget (about one-tenth) compared with Nasa's. Nevertheless, he might well benefit directly from a collective wish to be rid of the ISS. One of Klerkx's ideas is for private enterprise to buy the space station and run it as a commercial venture (like a grander version of the Millennium Dome?). This, he believes, would promote entrepreneurial activity in the aerospace industry by forcing down launch costs to the Holy Grail figure of $100 per pound mass. Much as Klerkx dislikes space agencies, particularly Nasa, he would not be averse to subsidies for his entrepreneurs even at the $100 ticket price.
So what is Lost in Space all about? Its opening line will tell you that as a young boy of six, the author watched Neil Armstrong take his "one small step for a man" on the surface of the moon, and vowed that one day he would walk on the Red Planet. Thirty-five years on, he realises that that it is not going to happen and feels somewhat disaffected.
He focuses his anger on Nasa, which he feels has let him down - not only does the agency not want to go to Mars itself, it bars the way to others who would make the effort. One telling quote, from a like-minded interviewee, gives the flavour: "You'll never see the true potential of space until you get it out of the hands of a single agency - (President John F.) Kennedy called space the new ocean, but we've treated it like Nasa's lake."
Many of us who want to explore space with robots would welcome $100 per pound launch costs, but then I would have to ask a question. "Would they encourage young people to become tour guides as opposed to scientists and engineers attempting to compress laboratories full of equipment into packages equivalent to the size of a mobile phone and with the same power requirement?" Klerkx seems genuinely baffled by his friend's gifted son, a child who knows everything about the planets and the solar system but shuns the possibility of space travel as a career in favour of "something to do with computers". I hope the child finds robot specimens a challenge to his ambitions.
Even though I am not motivated by the same objectives as the author, I enjoyed his book; it is an interesting and easy read, detailing the history of the manned space programme with many insights into the characters involved.
The many interviews provide readers with a behind-the-scenes view of activities that they may have heard about before only in the briefest of newspaper headlines. For example, the chapter "Advanced reservations" gives the story behind Dennis Tito's becoming the first space tourist when he managed to get round Nasa (and Esa) objections to fly to ISS with the Russians, all for what was said to be $20 million but was probably only $12 million. Tito, a Nasa engineer-turned-businessman, could easily afford to pay a sum that reportedly financed not only his but the next Soyuz launch and kept Russia in the space business. Klerkx was in the party that saw Tito off and witnessed the details of the flight, right down to the Russian cosmonaut's last traditional pee against the wheels of the bus taking them to the pad, à la Yuri Gagarin.
Other chapters of this ilk involve the "Emperor of Mars" - a reference to Robert Zubrin, another aspirant astronaut, only one who will not be satisfied with a quick up and down to orbit. Zubrin wants to go to Mars and would do so using the so-called Mars direct strategy, which boils down to "never mind the risks: there are plenty of takers even if the ticket is only one way".
Other Mars groupies, such as Britain's Charles Cockell, are content (probably not the right word) to role-play as Marsnauts in the Habitat, often abbreviated to "the Hab", on Devon Island, a Canadian "resort" inside the Arctic Circle, which is about as close as Earth gets to resembling Mars terrain.
Many more characters such as Werner von Braun (the V2 rocket pioneer), Walter Kistler of the Space Launch Initiative (a contender to replace the Space Shuttle) and Robert Heinlein (the science-fiction writer) leap from the pages of the book, along with organisations such as the Mars Society and projects such as Apollo and Mir - another story, as Klerkx describes it, of "what Nasa says goes". And, indeed, the Russian space station did go - into the Pacific Ocean - because "it stood in the way of progress".
So, there is plenty of good insider information here even for those who do not want to make the 100-mile journey outwards from the surface of their home planet. It is worth the investment of £18.99, or about $20 per pound mass.
Colin Pillinger is the lead scientist of Beagle 2 .
Lost in Space: The Fall of Nasa and the Dream of a New Space Age
Author - Greg Klerkx
Publisher - Secker and Warburg
Pages - 392
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 436 20602 1