Mankind Beyond Earth: The History, Science, and Future of Human Space Exploration

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Mankind Beyond Earth: The History, Science, and Future of Human Space Exploration by Claude A. Piantadosi. Columbia University Press, 2012, 279 pp.

In Mankind Beyond Earth, Claude A. Piantadosi, MD, director of the F. G. Hall Environmental Laboratory at Duke University and 30-year consultant to NASA, examines the plausibility of humankind living beyond Earth. To that end, Piantadosi states that the purpose of the book is to establish evidence supporting a return to the moon. While there is no paucity of literature related to space exploration’s past and futuristic examinations of life in space, Piantadosi’s work is one of the first to ground the argument firmly in an extensive body of scientific evidence. Despite heavy doses of biology, physics, and chemistry, Piantadosi’s work is readily accessible to many readers due to his straightforward explanations.

Given Piantadosi’s overarching thesis that argues for an American return to the moon, one might surmise that he would take a purely scientific argumentation. Piantadosi surprises the reader. In building up to his major proposition, Piantadosi reviews the state of US space activity and shows that the technological lead the nation once held is quickly eroding. Moreover, he suggests that America’s “scientific illiteracy” tends to devalue science and results in confusion on how to evaluate new science (p. 3). This confusion has led, in his opinion, to the expensive detours of the 2010 National Space Policy’s asteroid missions (p. 40). Furthermore, Piantadosi suggests that such shortsightedness may well lead to the United States relinquishing its lead in the space sector to the up-and-coming Chinese space program. In fact, he states that if the nation continues “busily chasing asteroids” and allows the historical trend of space programs to continue, then China will likely beat the United States to the moon, where it will develop the necessary follow-on technologies to voyage to Mars (p. 205).

Still, while there is urgency in Piantadosi’s words, he does not conflate aimless activity with deliberate, careful planning designed to further American space power. To wit, he not only cautions against frivolous space excursions but also warns that attempting to be the hare in the next space race could prove unbearably expensive. Instead, the nation must be the tortoise.

Throughout the book, Piantadosi balances between highlighting the urgency of going to the moon, and eventually Mars, with the reality that nothing comes easily in space. In fact, much of the book takes great care in making the case for a return to the moon. Piantadosi takes the first steps in walking this tightrope in his second chapter, where he explains the realities of space and travel within the domain. While he acknowledges the usefulness of futuristic thought, he admits that there is too much to be accomplished now to spend time dreaming of what could one day be (p. 44).

Chapters 3 and 4 provide an historical overview of humankind’s space endeavors and, given the author’s medical background, the history of the study of physiology in space. Piantadosi uses these two chapters to build the case as to why the United States must return to the moon, which he argues in detail in chapter 5. Importantly, he does more than merely make the case for a return to the moon; he offers ways to do so with current technology and lists what would be needed to establish a settlement on the lunar surface, which he believes is a requirement for follow-on deep-space exploration.

After offering convincing arguments for returning to the moon, Piantadosi spends the next five chapters discussing the challenges of deep-space exploration. Whether discussing cosmic radiation in chapter 9 or the dilemmas of producing sustenance using indigenous resources in chapters 6 and 7, Piantadosi methodically works towards the culminating point of the book’s second part, which is chapter 10’s discussion of how humankind will travel to and set foot on Mars.

Such a discussion on the challenges of interplanetary travel leads to part 3, where the author argues why the United States should travel to Mars. Much of the argument hinges on the fact that few other planets provide hospitable environments in which explorers could even venture. Indeed, Piantadosi concludes his final chapter by hearkening back to John von Neumann. He admits that maybe von Neumann was correct in his assessment that the best humanity could do to explore outer space was to send robotic probes. To wit, as humankind learns more about the cosmos, it has discovered the uniqueness of Earth; while there are many potential planets out there, so far, few exhibit the qualities of Earth. Many are inhospitable, and those that may be friendly to humans are sufficiently far away that even relativistic speeds (fractions of the speed of light) make such travel essentially improbable due to concerns over resources, genetic bottlenecking aboard spacecraft, and myriad other reasons. For that reason, Piantadosi states, “Our own uniqueness and space’s insuperability are the best incentives we have to take the best possible care of Spaceship Earth” (p. 250).

Overall, this book provides reasonable arguments for an American return to the moon and a follow-on mission to Mars. The biggest critique of the book is the unstated assumption that the United States will go to Mars. In other words, it appears that Piantadosi takes it as a foregone conclusion that the United States will attempt to go to Mars. That is not to say that he builds a straw man argument for returning to the moon. Indeed, his argument for going to the moon is compelling based on its merits without the consideration he gives for subsequent Martian endeavors. Nevertheless, he never fully questions the aim of a US space program. Such a critique has troubled NASA since the United States beat the Soviet Union to the moon in 1969. Back then, national prestige powered our efforts. Today, it seems (and Piantadosi’s arguments support this supposition), the nation continues its space program to benefit from the ways that space science can be used to detect problems on Earth, and the nation goes for pure research (pp. 5–6). In other words, the United States continues its largely scientifically focused space program for science’s sake. Yet as recently as February 2016, Congress questions the “science for science’s sake” approach.

To be fair, Piantadosi does touch on other reasons for returning to the moon. Specifically, he discusses the economic potential of mining and suggests that economic incentives may be the necessary carrot to drive the establishment of a moon settlement (p. 102). He is a medical researcher and not an economist; his argument for bolstering the American space program may gain more traction when combining scientific and commercial reasons for a lunar return. If “flag follows trade,” as many scholars have suggested, then it may be the merchants who lead the nation to Mars and beyond.

The student of strategy can take away three points from this book. The first two points deal with preparation. First, as Piantadosi asserts, space technology requires long lead times. The same might be said of war-fighting capabilities. The strategist, therefore, must account for those lead times in crafting strategy. As J.F.C. Fuller attested, strategy should precede force structure, planning, and expenditure. Yet, if technology is the long pole in the tent, the strategist must accord proper consideration to its development during the formulation of strategy. Second, preparation is also paramount for the strategist in another fashion. The strategist cannot simply select the strategic conditions that are just right but must prepare for those conditions that are wrong (p. 48). Concerning Piantadosi’s book and this reviewer’s earlier allusion to economic development being the primary driver of future space power development, the strategist cannot solely focus on military matters but must also have a finger on the pulse of the greater environment in which the military operates. Thus, if space development “takes off,” then it is reasonable to suggest that the nation will need to protect its space merchants. When combining this assertion with the first takeaway highlighting technology’s long lead time, one can conclude that waiting until the time is right equates to tardiness. National defense can ill afford sleeping on the watch.

Third, Piantadosi’s final observation may prove the most relevant for the student of strategy. By reminding the reader that careful stewardship of our current planet should out-prioritize seeking other planets, Piantadosi highlights the fact that resources are neither inexhaustible nor invulnerable. In fact, the National Security Strategy and the Air Force Strategic Master Plan espouse these ideas. Accordingly, the strategist should consider new ways of using the resources one has. One can only build strategy’s bridge with the materials available. Game-changing technologies like space-based solar power provide one way that the nation can exploit a new development. In the same breath, many discuss third offsets and game-changing weapons. What if a third offset were, instead, a capability that obviated adversary attempts to influence (such as petroleum is now) or interfere with (such as they were during Operation Enduring Freedom) our resources and their concomitant supply chains? Piantadosi does not discuss such ideas, but his ideas lead to such extrapolation and discussion. The scientific material found in Piantadosi’s work will not appeal to every reader, but because he forces the reader to think critically about the nation’s space program and because his ideas have basis in strategy writ large, this book is highly recommended.

Maj Ryan Sanford, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."