As I have discussed in previous posts, namely my reviews of Carrying the Fire, Orphans of the Sky, and The Theory of Everything, I am incredibly interested in space science and exploration. While I have no delusions of grandeur and know I won’t be an astronaut, I still find space exploration to be incredibly exciting and interesting. Plus, as many people have similar feelings, it is a great way to tie a population together and fill them with a sense of wonderment. But, how explorable is space? Will we keep making advances in how we understand what is out there in the great beyond? That is what Robots in Space is about.
But Robots in Space, despite its title, is not just about robotic exploration of the cosmos. It isn’t just about what the science behind space exploration is. Instead, Robots in Space is a book that covers every aspect of exploring the cosmos as we saw it in the early 2000s- how humans have explored space in the past, how they might do so in the future, what the challenges of space travel are, and the relative advantages and disadvantages of human space exploration and robotic space exploration. For those of you that are, like me, space nerds, it is a book that you will find endlessly fascinating. Hopefully, this summary and review of it will show you why!
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Summary of Robots in Space by Roger Launius and Howard McCurdy
Here’s what the inner sleeve of Robots in Space says it covers:
“Given the near incomprehensible enormity of the universe, it appears almost inevitable that human-kind will one day find a planet that appears to be much like the Earth. The discovery will no doubt reignite the lure of interplanetary travel. Will we be up to the task? And, given our limited resources, biological constraints, and the general hostility of space, what shape should we expect such expeditions to take?”
And that is, generally, a pretty good description of what Robots in Space is about. Interplantetary travel and exploration, the technical and biological challenges of doing so, and what technology and scientific advances we need to explore space are all covered.
But, at the same time, it is also a limiting description. It covers the material presented, but in a way that makes it seem significantly more science-focused and academic-focused than it actually is. Robots in Space is a book written for the layperson that wants to learn more about how NASA envisions exploring space, not for the academic that wants to learn about what specific advancements need to be made to make space exploration robots and satellites more effective.
And to make the book appeal to the average person, Launius and McCurdy discuss a wide range of topics that relate to space and robotic exploration of it.
They describe science fiction books written by science fiction greats such as Askimov and Heinlein. They cover the history of spaceflight and how it fit into the Cold War and our battle over prestige with the Soviets. And, surprisingly, to me, at least, they cite books like The Best and the Brightest and The Wealth of Nations to describe the economic and political impacts of space exploration. It is a book that jumps all over the place, but in a deliberate, incredibly interesting way that makes it fun to read but still informative.
Additionally, the wide array of sources is just an exemplification of the wide array of material that the authors cover.
One chapter covers the debate over whether space should be explored by robots or humans and the sociological and historical ideas behind that debate. Another covers robots and how we conceive of advanced robots, as shown by science fiction. Still another chapter of Robots in Space is about “Human Spaceflight as Utopia” and how past thinkers thought space travel and colonization could solve our worldly issues. And yet another is about how humans would evolve if they were exploring distant worlds. That chapter is by far the most outlandish, but is also well-researched and is utterly fascinating.
Finally, as someone who often writes about history and reviews books about important pieces of history, I paid close attention to the historical figures and ideas related to space travel that Launius and McCurdy discuss in space travel.
Eisenhower, for example, was very much against the government spending vast sums on non-military space programs. But, Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who was brought to America as part of Operation Paperclip, was very much in favor of space exploration and used Disney and other opportunities for publicity to make the public excited about space travel. As a result, his ideas, called the “von Braun Paradigm,” were used as our general plan for space exploration throughout the 20th century. I found those discussions and debates to be quite interesting and the authors cover them in depth.
Overall, Robots in Space is a book about a wide array of subjects. While most of it ultimately boils down to the type of robots and spaceships we might construct if we were to actually travel to distant worlds in other solar systems, the authors take a winding path to get there, and that winding path helps it appeal to many different people. Science fiction, domestic and international politics, capitalism versus socialism, scientific advancements, the ideas of figures of historical import, and many other topics are covered in it.
Analysis of Robots in Space
Generally, I thought Robots in Space was terrific. I thought that it was interesting but not too dense, exciting but full of detail, and well thought out and structured.
If space is a topic you find interesting, then Robots in Space should appeal to you. Whether you like science fiction or actual science, details about rockets and the space shuttle or information about the habitability of distant worlds and the likelihood of encountering aliens, there is something in Robots in Space that should appeal to everyone.
However, there was one aspect of Robots in Space that I found somewhat disappointing. What was that aspect? Its lack of imagination.
That isn’t to say there aren’t imaginative ideas discussed, Robots in Space is full of ideas about massive spaceships and space stations that could transport humans throughout the cosmos and the chapter on how humans could evolve to better explore space are quite imaginative.
But the authors act as if humans could not find a way to overcome the technological challenges, both for routine missions to Earth orbit and monumental missions to different worlds. Except for in a few rare cases, they act as if those limitations are definite and more or less insurmountable.
And on that count, they are wrong. Take SpaceX for example. Although the authors mention (in a singular paragraph) that there could be innovation from private companies, they mainly confine their discussion to Big Government policies and dismiss the idea of economical and reusable rockets. But SpaceX is a private company and it has innovated and made rockets relatively cheap and reusable. Why were ideas like that not discussed in it?
I have no answer, but it is a question, I think, that is worth posing and thinking about. If humans explore distant worlds, or even colonize Mars, it is likely that private companies will play a major role in that. In Orphans of the Sky, for example, it is a private company, not the government, that created the ship and mission central to the story. And, as I have discussed before, private companies are much more able to innovate than the government.
So, as we look to seriously explore and colonize space, we need to look to private companies, not the government. Von Braun was probably right about how to explore space (building reusable rockets/shuttles, then building massive space stations, then travelling to the moon, then Mars, then more distant planet), but he was wrong on who should do so. Private companies should, not the government.
Asteroids could be mined. Planets could be settled and colonists could work on them. Space could be a new market. We just need the government to deregulate space and let it be one. Robots in Space seems to not really understand that and especially don’t understand the implications of making space a new market. If it was one, innovation would happen at a rapid pace and we could, potentially, overcome the hurdles that the authors hint are insurmountable. All they need is a bit more of an imagination; reusable rockets like the Falcon 9 were developed a few short years after Robots in Space was published, what else could be developed as private companies take over?
But that’s just my opinion, and, in the context of Robots in Space, it is a relatively small complaint. Like I have said multiple times previously, Robots in Space is a terrific book. It is full of fascinating subjects, excites the imagination, and is fun to read. I just wish that the authors were a bit more imaginative.
Robots in Space might not appeal to everyone. It is, after all, a book about robotics and space exploration. But, generally, Americans like space and are fascinated with space exploration. Just look at the excitement about the Apollo missions, the vast appeal of science fiction, or how many kids want to be astronauts. So, I think most of you would enjoy it.
Despite the authors’ lack of imagination in some respects, Robots in Space is a great book that will show you how humans could, eventually, explore space. If that interests you, even in the slightest, then you need to read Robots in Space.
By: Gen Z Conservative
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