Roger Launius, former chief historian of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), opens his magnificently illustrated new book, The Smithsonian History of Space Exploration, with an image that’s at once graceful and haunting: it’s an orrery.
The concept and even the word is unfamiliar today, largely thanks to the progress charted in Launius’ book; orreries were precise and often elaborate working models of Earth’s solar system, designed to show the movement of the planets in relation to both each other and the sun. The orrery pictured at the beginning of this book was built by the famous Boston clockmaker Aaron Willard around 1820 in what was then the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston (Willard’s workshop was originally located almost exactly on the patch of land now occupied by the Christian Science Center), and despite its classical elegance, this and all other orreries represent a profoundly personal yearning. They were the space exploration of their day.
We live in a very altered reality today, with mind-bogglingly sensitive Doppler spectroscopy enabling astronomers to log the existence, distance, and even atmospheric composition of 4000 exoplanets, worlds orbiting far-distant stars. Legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite had such worlds in mind when he once remarked, “From our descendants’ perches on other planets or distant space cities, they will look back at our achievement with wonder at our courage and audacity and with appreciation at our accomplishments, which assured the future in which they live.”
This splendid book outlines those accomplishments, which are less than a full century old. Launius briefly looks at the wondering imagination of ancient civilizations, but he begins his story proper with the development of V-2 rocket technology during World War II (as is customary in books of this sort, German rocket-mastermind Wernher von Braun makes many a dour early appearance). The narrative moves quickly through later rocket developments in order to arrive at the doorstep of the Space Age with the 1957 launch Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, and the launch of Sputnik 2 later that year carrying the first living animal into space, the courageous little dog Laika.
One small leap for a dog soon grew into the establishment of NASA, the refining of rocket-propelled manned modules, and finally the three-day voyage of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the surface of the Moon in July, 1969, an event watched via television broadcast by more than half of Earth’s population. This was the yearning of the orrery brought to life. For the first time in history, humans had visited another world.
The capacity of space to surprise was encountered immediately: Later astronauts collected pieces of an earlier unmanned probe, and when those pieces were analyzed back at NASA, they were found to contain traces of bacteria which had hitchhiked from Earth and survived nearly three years in the hard vacuum of the Moon’s surface.
Launius peppers his account with such fascinating anecdotes, rescuing lesser-known figures from the footnotes of the world’s burgeoning space exploration saga and placing them alongside all the more famous names and achievements. The “human computers” of NASA’s early days and the pioneering women of the Soviet space program are introduced to readers, as are the theorists and the science fiction authors who helped pave the way for imagining the unimaginable.
Great, groundbreaking unmanned missions like Voyager and Discovery are given their full due as tremendous accomplishments, but it’s fairly clear that the heart of this book is human exploration of space, people boldly going where no one has gone before. Later chapters return the spotlight to 21st century figures like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos advocating for a greatly-invigorated push into space from the private sector. The glory of the Apollo missions lives again in these pages, but the last impression is that the future of space exploration is no longer the sole province of the United States military, if it ever was.
Launius writes movingly about how those Apollo missions briefly seemed to unite the world in a shared sense of wonder (and provide a welcome distraction from, among other things, the ongoing butchery of the Vietnam War), and "The Smithsonian History of Space Exploration" sends its readers off with that same sense of wonder and possibility. “The road to the stars is steep and dangerous,” said Yuri Gargarin, the first human to venture in their direction. “But we’re not afraid …”