Despite the best efforts of people like Chris Hadfield, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and J.J. Abrams, we’ve been living through a bit of a space enthusiasm desert. These days, young people are more focused on the possibilities of exploring digital spaces rather than the infinite, airless one that surrounds our planet.
Two new non-fiction books aim to rekindle some of that old astrophilia, through two very different approaches. Mighty Mission Machines is a companion volume to a pair of books by the same group of collaborators: 2017’s Go For Liftoff!, about astronaut training regimens, and 2016’s oddly titled To Burp or Not to Burp, about the effects of space travel on the human body. The new book mostly focuses on the more mechanical aspects of off-planet exploration – i.e., rocket stuff. (Also spacesuits, orbiting telescopes, robots, rovers, and more.)
Mighty Mission Machines spends most of its time on existing missions and machines, though it makes a few nods to potential trips to Mars and beyond. Through text, photos, and Theo Krynauw’s cartoons, we get a brief explanation of the physics of space, lots of terminology guides, and quick overviews of various space-related topics, including the kind of work and activities astronauts actually fill their time with while in orbit.
Despite the promise of its title, Mighty Mission Machines struggles to make a lot of the space tech seem particularly cool. The book simply never lifts off, relying too much on the past glories of NASA and making the International Space Station seem like a fairly boring and uncomfortable place to be. There are also jarring omissions. We get more on the 1960s Apollo flights than the Shuttle ones – which is strange, given that co-author Dave Williams flew on the Columbia in 1998. And though Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket gets a brief mention, the whole topic of private space travel is mostly elided.
For better or worse, The Space Adventurer’s Guide offers a more forward-looking and self-consciously fun vision of space. In its first chapter, it throws out the paradigm of the highly skilled, highly trained astronaut: “Getting to take a trip into space used to mean that you had to be at the top of your class in math, science and lots of other subjects.” Not anymore. Instead, the book embraces the concept of space tourism, in which ordinary (albeit very wealthy) people are already getting a chance to experience zero gravity.
The book is cleverly structured, with each chapter moving further away from the Earth, starting with private suborbital flights (which are already happening) and ending with future trips to nearby and distant stars. It packs in tons of info, photos, and factoids, while staying focused on fun. McMahon skimps neither on the dangers and discomfort of space travel nor on weird trivia, such as the fact that comets “probably smell like rotten eggs and horse pee.” NASA celebs such as Hadfield get their due, but the heroes of the book are people like Iranian-American businesswoman Anousheh Ansari, who live-blogged her time on the ISS. (Space adventuring in this book is also less male and white than in Mighty Mission Machines.)
Parents who hate the idea of space becoming another playground for billionaires may wince at some of the enthusiasm for extraterrestrial one-per-centism displayed in The Space Adventurer’s Guide. But the book’s overall excitement is infectious and backed up with lots of real science. And in comparison to Mighty Mission Machines, it’s undeniably more aligned with an era in which most kids have computers in their pockets more powerful than the ones used to put Neil Armstrong on the moon.