The Space Barons

by Christian Davenport, Public Affairs, 320pp, £18

On Friday April 13, 2029, according to Nasa’s apocalyptically named Planetary Defense Coordination Office, an asteroid the size of a football stadium will pass between Earth and the DirecTV orbiting satellite.

This is what counts as a terrifyingly near miss and so astronomers have dubbed the asteroid Apophis, the Greek name for an Egyptian sun god, a serpent known as the “Lord of Chaos”, who symbolised death and darkness. The last time a massive space rock hit the Earth, the dinosaurs were wiped out along with 75 per cent of all living species. No wonder astronomers say asteroids are nature’s way of saying: “How’s that space programme going?”

The answer was, until recently, not very well at all. Nearly half a century after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the best we can boast is a space station in geostationary orbit, 240 miles above the surface of the Earth. “The same as an Amtrak commute between Washington DC and New York,” as the author Christian Davenport puts it rather dismissively.

Indeed, when the businessman Elon Musk logged on to the Nasa website a couple of decades ago, he was horrified to discover that America’s space agency had no plans to send astronauts to Mars.

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