Final Frontier: The Pioneering Science and Technology of Exploring the Universe

Final Frontier: The Pioneering Science and Technology of Exploring the Universe

by Brian Clegg

Hardcover(First Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250039439
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/19/2014
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

BRIAN CLEGG holds a physics degree from Cambridge and has written regular columns, features, and reviews for numerous magazines. He is the author of Extra Sensory, Armageddon Science, Before the Big Bang, The God Effect, and Gravity among others. He lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and two children.

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The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.

—Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in a letter to an unidentified recipient (1911)

As most of us get on with our day-to-day lives, the concept of being a pioneer seems entirely alien. The closest we get to pioneering may be the choice of a different recipe for dinner, trying out that edgy new show, or being the first person from our town to visit an obscure foreign country. Yet the urge to boldly go where no one has gone before is a fundamental part of the human spirit—however much it has become a cliché, and however watered down it may be in reality. There will always be those who are prepared to risk everything to open a new frontier, whether they will be regarded as heroes or candidates for a mental health assessment.

In history, many of those people who have ventured out across the world were looking for riches or territory to claim. Others simply wanted to be the first to a new location—or to expand the sum of human knowledge. To boldly know what no one has known before. Yet they have all shared an inability to stick with the status quo. They all had a very human urge to push the boundaries. And what greater frontier to open up than the very limits of the Earth, taking us into space?


Of all the people on the Earth, it is arguable that none has had as much of that frontier spirit, that urge to “Go West, young man!” and be a true pioneer, than the settlers of North America. This was encouraged by a unique opportunity. The first Europeans to reach America faced a vast and largely unexplored land that lacked the out-and-out hostility of the Australian outback, but instead always offered the promise of a new, potentially wealth-creating vista ahead. In part this spirit also seemed to reflect the kind of individuals who were prepared to take on the dangerous leap into the unknown that was involved in crossing the Atlantic and entering a new world. You didn’t make such a huge break with everything you knew and understood if you were an unadventurous stay-at-home person.

For some, the frontier was the only hope of an independent future where they would have more freedom to practice their particular beliefs. For others it was, rightly or wrongly, a huge opportunity and an adventure. (I am well aware that these new “unexplored” lands were often already, if sparsely, occupied. But for the purposes of identifying the pioneering drive, this was not then an issue.) Although I am sure there is no such thing as a “frontiersman gene,” there seems to be some kind of inbuilt tendency to want to be a pioneer that was part of the forging of the American spirit. But what has happened to that tendency in a modern, interconnected world?

It would be sheer ignorance to say that there is no opportunity for exploration left anywhere on our planet today. There are territories where human beings have only scratched the surface. There are vast sections of the oceans in particular that have still to be explored, and still some regions of the Earth that are relatively lightly known. What’s more, there is always the second level of exploration where we go from simple discovery to a more detailed understanding. As Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Weinberg has pointed out, the loss of “terra incognita” from medieval maps does not mean that there is nothing more to discover: “In the middle ages Europeans drew maps of the world in which there were all kind of exciting things like dragons in unknown territories. Nobody knew what was at the Antipodes.” Yet the world without “here be dragons,” Weinberg argues, is not a boring place. He believes that it is better to know those fundamentals, and still to have lots of interesting detail to explore. “If we had the fundamental laws of nature tomorrow, we still wouldn’t understand consciousness. We wouldn’t even understand turbulence … That’s an outstanding problem that has been with us for almost two centuries and we’re not very close to a solution.”

Weinberg is drawing a parallel between exploring the world and knowing more about physics, but his point that there is plenty left to discover after the basic pioneering has finished continues to apply to our actual world, bereft though it may be of dragons. Even so, having a true frontier to open up, one that is genuinely new and more alien than anything we have ever explored before, will always be an attraction. The sea may be huge, but it has not got the possibility of setting up permanent colonies that goes hand in hand with the frontier. And as the Earth’s unknown territories have one by one been crossed off the checklist, it is natural enough to turn our eyes upward, to look out to space, where there is enough room for pioneering to last the whole lifetime of a species and more.


At the moment we tend to think of space exploration as a purely scientific endeavor—and it certainly can be that. But it is a mistake, not surprisingly one that is often made by scientists, to assume that scientific discovery is all that matters. The frontiers of space are just as susceptible to those other reasons for pioneering as opening up land-based frontiers ever were. As we will discover, manned missions into space rarely make sense from a simple cost/benefit analysis of their scientific worth. They have always been, and always will be, more about the other aspects of pioneering than anything else. Science is a secondary aspect of reaching out beyond our atmosphere.

This is certainly true of our experience to date. The first, tentative steps into space were the result of political posturing. The USSR got the first satellite into orbit and put the first human being into space. In response, the United States had to find an opportunity to produce the true pioneers, making the first Moon landing a hugely attractive proposition. Yes, there was some scientific work done in the process. We learned a lot from the Apollo landings and their precursor missions. But the whole context of the race to the Moon, and the way that lunar flights ceased after Apollo 17 in 1972—only the sixth manned landing on our natural satellite, and remaining our last visit with a crew to this day—made it clear that it was all about getting there first, rather than any drive for scientific discovery.

Since then, the human race has hardly done a lot to push back the frontiers of space as far as human exploration goes. Robotic substitutes like the Mars rovers and the Voyager missions reaching the far extremities of the solar system as this book is written, have certainly opened up aspects of our solar neighborhood for us as never before. And telescopes, particularly space telescopes like the Hubble and Planck satellites, have done wonders for us in terms of the kind of remote exploration made possible by the steady progress of light across the universe. But we haven’t been out there, pioneering as human beings.


The clear difference between spreading out across space and the opening up of the Western frontier in the United States is the horrendous overhead of breaking out of the prison formed by the gravity well of the Earth. At the moment, this is an incredibly expensive business. According to NASA it costs around $10,000 to get a pound of material into space. Given an average weight for an American adult of 180 pounds, that is $1.8 million per person—and that’s without the far greater weight of all the support equipment and resources necessary to keep that person alive. It may have been hard and dangerous to become a prospector in the American West in the nineteenth century, but you didn’t need to be a multimillionaire to do it.

One of the prime movers in getting pioneers out to explore and tame this final frontier is going to be finding ways to reduce the cost of getting a human being into and around in space. This is both about finding new technologies to get us away from the Earth but also about thinking laterally and realizing that not everything involved in a mission has to come from Earth in the first place, making use of resources that are already out there.

If we can justify the expense, the reasons for getting to the new frontier remain the same as they ever were. As is clear from the current Chinese space program, politics remains a very significant driver. It may be less so in the United States at the moment—since the fall of the USSR, there really hasn’t been the concept of a space race—but as Chinese activity builds it may be that once again the U.S. government will feel the need to flex its muscles and make it clear who has the technological supremacy—and in principle also who has a military foothold in locations where gravity alone has the potential to turn a lump of rock into a more powerful weapon than a nuclear bomb.

However, if the price is right, we will see all the other traditional drivers for pioneering coming into play. Ever since the early days of science fiction there has been the concept of the space miner—the deep-space equivalent of the forty-niner, who scours space, typically cruising around the asteroid belt, prospecting for rare minerals, or even water. With cheap enough spaceflight, the only real difference between the spacer and the early prospectors is that we put a higher value on human life these days. Space mining would be extremely hazardous, so on top of the energy costs will come safety costs too. That is unless we are prepared to accept that those who volunteer for such jobs would be prepared to take on significantly higher risks than we allow on the surface of the planet. In return, such miners could expect much greater rewards for their effort than anyone undertaking a similar job back on Earth.

And then there are those who seek a better life.


Our population is rising. Developing nations are rightly looking at the vastly greater consumption per head of the West and want the same for themselves. More cars. More travel. More possessions. More energy consumption, burning yet more fossil fuels. And the rest of us show no sign of slowing down our frantic consumption. However, it is clear that the Earth’s resources and space are both limited. One of the biggest drivers to explore the new frontier has always been the opportunity to build your own homestead, to establish personal space for an individual or a family away from the overcrowding and oversight of the city. In the very long term, if the human race still exists for long enough into the future, we will need to get out into space to continue to thrive.

As astronaut John Grunsfeld, a veteran of five space shuttle missions, put it at the Humans 2 Mars Summit at Washington, D.C., in May 2013: “Single-planet species don’t survive. That’s a pretty sound theorem—just look at the dinosaurs. But we don’t want to prove it.” In a sense, Grunsfeld’s words are a truism. Given we only know of one inhabited planet, then inevitably any species that has died out will show that “single-planet species don’t survive.” To be fair to the dinosaurs, they managed to stay around for over 160 million years more than we have so far. In sheer survivability terms, we have a long way to go to catch them up. But any planet has a limited lifetime, and should the human race survive long enough, there will come a point when we need to get beyond being a single-planet species if we are to continue our existence. (I ought to stress “should the human race survive long enough.” A more accurate truism is that species don’t last forever. It is hard to imagine the human race would still exist unchanged after millions of years.)

In about 5 billion years the Sun will expand to become a red giant, flowing out into the solar system as it fluffs up to occupy a volume that is bigger than the Earth’s current orbit. The Earth could in principle survive this, as it will have drifted out from the Sun by then and won’t be eaten up, but it will not have been inhabitable for billions of years. This is because the Sun is gradually becoming hotter. We only have another billion years or so to go before it is beyond our ability to survive on the Earth. If human beings, or more likely our distant descendants, still exist in a billion year’s time, we will need to have left the Earth to live on the final frontier whether we like it or not.

Physicist Stephen Hawking, never one to avoid a dramatic headline, has suggested that we have a shorter-term imperative to get out into space if we want to continue surviving as a species. “We are entering an increasingly dangerous period of our history,” Hawking commented in an interview. “Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million.” The scientist believes we will soon render the Earth uninhabitable, making manned space exploration essential.


It isn’t necessary to go to such drastic extremes and conjure up dystopian scenarios, though. That same drive that pushed settlers across America is likely to see colonists taking on the solar system, and perhaps beyond, on a shorter timescale than our ability to render the Earth uninhabitable. Whether we are talking of free-floating, constructed living environments in space or taking on the Moon or Mars, the pressures of life on Earth are likely to make it more and more likely that some will move away from our home planet within centuries or even decades. These first brave explorers (some might say foolhardy) may not survive. Many of the early Europeans who left for new territories to the East and West didn’t. But they will have opened the way for larger-scale colonization to come.

In the short period of time that humans have been taking a scientific view, our picture of the universe has expanded immensely. Until a few hundred years ago, the usual idea of the universe was simply the solar system. The scale they imagined stopped around the orbit of Saturn—less than a thousandth of a light-year across. As our astronomical equipment has improved, so has our awareness of the scale of habitat that surrounds us. Until the early twentieth century the Milky Way, around 100,000 light-years in diameter, was considered to be the whole universe. We now know that our nearest neighbor among large galaxies, the Andromeda Galaxy, is 2.5 million light-years away, and the universe itself is at least 90 billion light-years across, featuring an uncountable number of planets and other smaller bodies.

Even with the limited understanding of the ancient Greeks, though, the possibilities of greater stretches of frontier, waiting to be conquered, proved an attraction. According to the first-century Greek historian Plutarch, Alexander the Great was told by his friend Anaxarchus that there were an infinite number of worlds out there, causing Alexander to begin crying. When asked why he was crying, Alexander replied: “Do you not think it a matter worthy of lamentation that when there is such a vast multitude of them, we have not yet conquered one?” The idea of space as the ultimate goal for exploration—and, yes, perhaps conquest—is nothing new.

The kind of exploration of the final frontier that we can look forward to has yet to happen in reality. The cost of getting up into space has held us back. But the difficulties involved have not been able to suppress the exuberant human imagination. In novels, short stories, movies, and TV shows, the whole business of space pioneering has been examined and critiqued for decades. Science fiction is not and never has been a good predictor of the future, but it is both the nursery that has nurtured the ideas of space travel and the inspiration for some of the best real ideas in the field. So where better to start than on the frontier of this speculative art form?

Copyright © 2014 by Brian Clegg

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 New Pioneers 1

2 Space Opera 10

3 Seeing Further 29

4 Escaping the Well 42

5 Backyard Explorers 70

6 Frontier Colonies 105

7 The Red Planet 124

8 The New Gold Rush 168

9 Probing The Galaxy 196

10 Breaking The Light Barrier 244

11 Frontier Spirit 259

Notes 265

Index 279

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Final Frontier: The Pioneering Science and Technology of Exploring the Universe 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
isniffbooks More than 1 year ago
[This is a 3.5 rating] I am a huge spaceflight and exploration fan and thus I read a lot on this topic. Brian Clegg's  Final Frontier: The Pioneering Science and Technology of Exploring the Universe  most definitely brings something new to the table.  It is ambitious in scope, full of the science and technology from the past, present, and future that we use to explore the universe.  The overarching theme is what will it take for humans to be true space pioneers? Can humans reach the stars and populate them?  What science and technology challenges exist and can they be overcome? With the 45th anniversary of the first Lunar Landing celebrated in July,  Final Frontier  could not have been published at a more appropriate time.  When the Apollo program ended in 1972, so too did human spaceflight and exploration.   Some may point to the International Space Station or the Space Shuttle program as examples, but as the author tactfully points out, the ISS is in the Earth's "backyard" and the space shuttle was never designed for deep space travel.  So since 1972, we’ve been stuck in low-earth-orbit, while robotic missions (satellites and rovers) and telescopes (both on Earth and in space) act as our space pioneers and explorers. Clegg feels that it’s time for humans to explore deep space for a variety of reasons including good ol' fashioned curiosity, scientific discovery, economic, political, and species survival. The species survival part is the most significant reason for humans to explore deep space -- at some point, mankind will need to find another planet besides Earth to call home. Early chapters provide really great background on the history thus far of the science and technology used to explore the universe.   A sampling of the topics discussed include:  (1) the evolution in thought as we moved from a geocentric to heliocentric model of our solar system, (2) how astronomers use visible light as well as radio, microwaves, infrared, UV, x-rays, and gamma rays to see parts of our universe that were previously hidden, (3) the technology needed to be free of Earth’s gravity and enter space, (4) explanations how fuel, stages, rockets, and propulsion systems work together, and (5) the creation of NASA and its internal struggles. Latter chapters discuss the logistics of how humans can reach for and travel to the stars.  A sampling of topics discussed in these chapters include (1) the realities of establishing self-sustaining colonies on the Moon or Mars, (2) space radiation and its effect on the body, (3) low gravity and its effect on the body, (4) spaceship design, (5) space mining, (6) propulsion and fuel challenges, and (7) light speed. There were parts of Final Frontier I really liked and admittedly, parts where my eyes glazed over.  Some of the information Clegg presents can bit technical at times and it seems there is an assumption that the reader does have some background knowledge on the science and technology of exploring the universe (propulsion systems and Einstein's relativity come to mind).  There is a lot of information to digest, but many of the topics are exciting to read and are thought-provoking.  Final Frontier is a meaningful read for seasoned fans of the science and technology used to explore the universe as well as for ambitious novices. isniffbooks[dot]wordpress[dot]com Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  The opinions are my own.