Reviews Physics World  October 2020

Age of cosmic exploration

Heaven sent Space exploration has led to technological benefits here on Earth. (Shutterstock/Sven Hansche)

Tushna Commissariat reviews Look Up: Our Story with the Stars by Sarah Cruddas

I’ve always been somewhat of an amateur astronomer. Despite having lived most of my life in big cities (Mumbai, London and now Bristol) with skies often obscured by light pollution or smog, I make a point of going out and looking at the night sky a couple of times a week. Earlier this year, during the most stringent period of lockdown, I found solace in the familiarity and allure of the cosmos.

How refreshing then to read Look Up: Our Story with the Stars by journalist, TV presenter and author Sarah Cruddas. “Recently, I have found myself looking up at the stars more than ever,” she writes in the introduction. “Doing so is a reminder that we are so tiny compared to the vastness of what is out there.” With a background in astrophysics, Cruddas is a leading voice in the rapidly expanding commercial space sector, and is a director at Space for Humanity, a US non-profit aimed at democratizing access to space. Her first popular-science book aimed at adults, she describes Look Up as “part memoir and part manifesto” – a fairly apt description of this short, sharp and impassioned look at the history and the future of space exploration.

As Cruddas writes in the first chapter, the majority of the human race have never been to space and, for at least the next few generations, that balance is unlikely to tip. Indeed, of the 100 billion humans who have ever existed, fewer than 600 have left the planet. Despite this, it is fair to say that exploring the cosmos – from landing on the Moon and imaging the solar system to sending robots to Mars and detecting the first planets beyond our own star system – is one of humanity’s most significant enterprises, and one that is only just coming into its own.

The first half of Look Up actually looks back, as Cruddas swiftly and deftly takes the reader through the history of human exploration, beginning with our own planet. While we humans may have been looking at the heavens since time immemorial, it was only in the 1500s that the first real attempts were made to circumnavigate the Earth, beginning with Vasco da Gama’s journey around the Cape of Good Hope to India, and Ferdinand Magellan’s attempt to sail from Spain to Indonesia, travelling west. As Cruddas describes the importance and the impact of this period – the Age of Exploration, which reshaped many people’s ideas of the world – she does well to highlight the cost of this kind of endeavour.

She points, for example, to the Portuguese prince often called Henry the Navigator, who commissioned many expeditions. “[This was] at a time when lots of sailors were afraid of setting out into the Atlantic Ocean, tasking them with recording as much information as they could about the coastlines they visited,” she writes. “However, Henry was also responsible for starting the Atlantic slave trade. So when we celebrate humans’ drive to explore, at the same time it is also important to reflect on the horrendous mistakes we made.” Hindsight and perspective are common themes in the book, and crucial ones too, as a reminder that difficult lessons learnt in the past should not be forgotten.

From the Age of Exploration, the book jumps to the birth of aviation, including a particularly amusing tale of the first hot-air balloon flight in Paris in 1783. The cargo featured a sheep, a duck and a rooster, though you’ll have to read the book to find out why those three animals were chosen. She then moves on to the Space Race of the Cold War era. Cruddas spends a significant chunk of the book telling the stories and histories of the US and Soviet pioneers who first forged a path for humans in space.

What I found particularly enjoyable and useful was the commentary she provides in parallel for both the US and Russian attempts at lunar domination, including successes and failures. While I have read many books on the topic, Cruddas’ lucid writing and sharp narrative made for pleasant reading, even if I had heard most of the stories before. For those who may not be interested in reading a book only detailing the Space Race, Look Up could be just the summary they need, as it highlights many important figures often sidelined. They include JoAnn Morgan (the first woman to become an engineer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre), Katherine Johnson and the other African-American women who worked as “human computers” at NASA, as well as the wives and families of the celebrity astronauts.

Hindsight and perspective are common themes in the book, and crucial ones too

The rest of the book focuses on a rich mix of topics, from the beginning of commercial space flight ideas that took off as early as the 1970s, to the birth of Space Age technology. Cruddas spends a whole chapter highlighting the various benefits, skills and technologies that investment in space has given us over the years – a list of firm facts to use the next time you come across a naysayer who brings up the old argument of investing only in Earth’s problems. “While a generation was dreaming of jetpacks, they never imagined Deliveroo,” she writes. “Even though we’ve been launching satellites since the late 1950s, no-one during the heyday of the space race predicted a future of cyber space – the Internet that we have become so reliant on. But the combination of the connected world we live in today and the satellites above us is what has fuelled the unexpected space age.” Cruddas points out that today, the lines are completely blurred between what constitutes a space company and a tech company – a fascinating point that hadn’t occurred to me before.

The final chapters of the book highlight the current leaders in space exploration – Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. With sights set on Mars, near-Earth asteroids and moons beyond our own, humans will within the next few centuries most definitely become a space-faring species. As we look forward, it’s important to look back too, and with Look Up, readers will get a complete (if somewhat brief) narrative of our attempts to unravel the cosmos. As Cruddas puts it: “It is only from the vantage point of space that we are truly able to understand our Earth – a perspective that has been made possible by leaving.”