28 September 2018


Roger D. Launius. The History of Space Exploration; Discoveries from the Ancient World to the Extraterrestrial Future, Thames and Hudson, 2018.

This takes us on an illustrated guide through the major milestones of space exploration, covering everything from the evolution of the rocket to the Space Age and the progression from simple artificial satellites to manned missions to the Moon and the possibilities of space tourism, going to Mars, space colonies and interstellar spacecraft.
Besides detailing the technicalities of how we have explored the Solar System, and in the case of the two Pioneer and two Voyager probes that have gone beyond the influence of the Sun, Launius also looks at the role of imagination and fantasy that have brought them into existence.

From very early times humanity viewed the heavens and saw in them signs of gods, heroes and beasts. As science progressed in the 16th Century, and with the invention of the telescope, speculation about life elsewhere became more grounded in known-facts rather than pure fantasy. Although as Launius notes, in the 17th Century the astronomer Johannes Kepler claimed in a science fiction story ‘The Dream’ that Lunar craters are actually city walls, and these city walls were actually observed by by Munich-based astronomer Franz von Paula Gruithuisen two centuries later. A very good example of fantasy/expectations/assumptions shaping our perceptions.

Stories about voyages to the Moon and meeting its inhabitants continued well into the 19th Century, and when it was eventually shown to be inhospitable to any advanced forms of life the focus shifted to Venus and Mars as possible homes for aliens. The likes of Verne and Wells ushered in a new era of fact-based science fiction and Launius points out that they provided invaluable inspiration for the scientists and engineers who made space exploration real in the 20th Century.

Not surprisingly the search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is given a few pages, but it is a nice shock to see the subject of UFOs are also given an equal amount of pages. A fairly basic introduction is given to the first sightings of flying saucers, the Roswell crash and the US government’s response to them, with Launius concluding that; ‘...to date there has not been one scintilla of physical evidence to support the idea of contact between humanity and any alien civilisation.’

Besides flying saucers the public imagination was fired by the ‘...constant drumbeat for space exploration...served by pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories...’ These stories he notes ‘...were filled with exciting interplanetary tales of contact with alien civilisations and space exploration.’

Overall a very easy to read and fact packed overview of how space exploration was launched by imagination, nurtured by science, and built by technological drive and innovation.-- Nigel Watson

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