Cover image of "Beyond," a book about a colony on Mars by an astronomy professor

A colony on Mars? Really? Some of us grasp the existential crisis humanity faces today, and fear that global climate change, an asteroid collision, a super volcano, a viral pandemic, or some other easily imaginable catastrophe could put an end to the human project — if not the human race — by the beginning of the next century. By contrast, congenital optimists foresee a glorious future for humanity among the stars. Here, for example, is astronomy professor Chris Impey, writing about Our Future in Space: “the space industry may be where the Internet was in 1995, ready to soar. . . Leaving Earth may soon be cheap and safe enough that it becomes an activity for the masses rather than the experience of a privileged few.” Others take a similar view — Stephen Hawking, for instance, who asserts that “the human race doesn’t have a future unless it goes into space.”

So, if you’re wedded to a gloomy view of our species’ destiny, you probably won’t enjoy this book. For my part, there’s just enough of the optimist left in me to find Chris Impey’s vision intriguing. Not totally convincing — I’m still wringing my hands over climate change and a possible pandemic — but well argued and totally grounded in a deep understanding of science.

Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey ★★★★★

Here is Impey’s thesis: “The itch that led our ancestors to risk everything to travel in small boats across large bodies of water like the Pacific Ocean is related to the drive that will one day lead us to colonize Mars.” This “itch,” Impey argues, arises from our DNA. Today, hardly more than 500 human beings have left our planetary home to venture into space, most of them barely so, in orbital and sub-orbital trips. Tomorrow — by mid-century, Impey believes — tens of thousands will have had that experience and dozens will be setting up our first permanent home on Mars.

Don’t think for a minute that Impey is some starry-eyed fantasist: first and foremost, he’s a scientist. Our Future in Space is laid out in three parts: Present, Future, and Beyond. At each level, the author grounds his story in facts. He describes the origins of the US space program in Wernher von Braun’s V-2 rockets and the arms race with the USSR. In discussing the challenges of the next several decades, he is unrelentingly honest: “traveling into space is four hundred times more dangerous than flying but only twice as risky as driving.”

Fascinating numbers enliven this discussion

This is not a throwaway line; Impey cites the statistics to prove this. In fact, he draws on a fount of fascinating numbers, explaining that today’s spacecraft are “mostly just hauling fuel around: the actual payload was 4 percent for the Saturn V and 1 percent for the Space Shuttle.” Even in Beyond, where Impey ventures far into a possible future among the stars, his feet remain firmly planted on terra firma. Though he draws analogies from Star Trek and science fiction novels, he never leaves the reader in any doubt that he is fully aware it’s all speculation.

Chris Impey is a University Distinguished Professor and Deputy Head of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona. He’s also a prolific author. Our Future in Space is his eighth book.

For more great reading

This is one of the books I’ve included in my posts, Gaining a global perspective on the world around us and 10 best books about innovation.

It’s also one of 20 good nonfiction books about the future and one of the Good books about space travel, including both nonfiction and fiction reviewed here.

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