Review: The Penguin Book of Outer Space Exploration

The Penguin Book of Outer Space Exploration: NASA and the Incredible Story of Human Spaceflight
by John Logsdon (editor)
Penguin Classics, 2018
paperback, 400 pp.
ISBN 978-0-14-312995-0

Next Monday marks the 60th anniversary of the first day of operations of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. While there might be some debate about when to celebrate the anniversary (see “NASA at 60-something”, The Space Review, July 30, 2018), the agency seems to have settled on October 1 date as the one to focus its attention on, with various events scheduled as its centers as well as online. That anniversary will be another opportunity to reflect on what the agency achieved over the last six decades—and where it fell short for fiscal, policy, or technical reasons.

Others are marking the anniversary in various ways, including with the new book The Penguin Book of Outer Space Exploration. At first glance, the title suggests one of those big coffee-table books, full of glossy illustrations and a modest amount of text. In fact, the book is just the opposite: a compact book dense with text, the only illustrations being a few images of documents. And that makes it valuable for anyone with an interest in the policies that have shaped NASA’s human spaceflight programs over those last six decades.

The book is primarily a compilation of various official documents—speeches, policy statements, memos, and even some meeting transcripts—curated by John Logsdon, arguably the leading expert on space policy who has written several books on space policy history in the US (another, on the Reagan Administration’s space policy, is scheduled for publication early next year.) The book is a subset of the multi-volume Exploring the Unknown series that he led the development of for NASA’s History Office, with excerpts of official documents alongside Logsdon’s commentary that puts them into context and discusses their significance.

Many of these documents will be familiar to readers who have even a passing familiarity with space policy history. However, there are some fascinating documents that may be new even to those well-versed in the history of spaceflight. One is an October 1959 memo from the original Mercury Seven astronauts to NASA leadership, endorsing the idea of mutual visits with their Soviet counterparts to share information. “Propaganda-wise, we apparently stand to gain a great deal and could lose little or nothing,” they argue, to no avail.

NASA also rejected a proposal by the ABC television network in 1961 for a joint televised appearance by Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard. “I cannot see how Shepard’s appearance would serve a useful purpose, and I believe it could be detrimental to the best interests of the United States,” NASA administrator James Webb wrote in a letter to an ABC executive turning down the offer.

Much of the book focuses on the early history of NASA’s human spaceflight program (there’s only passing discussion of other NASA initiatives, like robotic space exploration) from the origin of the agency through the Apollo 11 mission. Only about the last quarter of the book is devoted to the post-Apollo efforts, from the Nixon Administration’s decision to proceed with the shuttle program through Space Policy Directive 1 signed by President Trump last December. That imbalance can be explained in part because there are fewer historical documents from those more recent administrations that have been released, although Logsdon also blames the “continuing absence in the years since Apollo of broadly accepted goals for the U.S. human spaceflight program and of a strategy to achieve them.”

There are, though, some gems in that more condensed section as well. He includes a portion of a transcript of a November 1971 White House meeting debating plans for the space shuttle. “Jobs—right, John?” Nixon asks John Ehrlichman when discussing where and when to announce the decision. “Do it in terms of jobs. It ought to be in California.” And, later, after OMB director George Schultz suggests NASA programs should shift towards unmanned programs, Nixon says, “I agree. Manned space flight becomes a stunt after a while.”

The future of human spaceflight, Logsdon suggests in the book’s epilogue, may lie more in the hands of the commercial sector rather than the government. The book reprints a portion of a paper based on Elon Musk’s 2016 speech at the International Astronautical Congress outlining his plans for sending people to Mars (a plan that has been subsequently revised twice, most recently last week), with Logsdon likening it to Wernher von Braun’s writings on Mars exploration in the 1950s. “Whether it will be SpaceX, Blue Origin, various governments, or some combination of those actors that takes the next ‘giant leap’ into space is yet to be determined,” he concludes.