Some Penguin Classics feel foundational even though they’re brand new. This applies especially to the many new anthologies Penguin produces, very much including one of the latest, The Penguin Book of Outer Space Exploration, edited by Space Policy Institute founder and former member of the NASA Advisory Council John Logsdon. It’s a collection of the documentation of the human exploration of space, starting with the earliest hints in the 1950s and moving all the way to the present day and directives issued by the Trump White House renewing a US dedication to manned space expeditions. In many ways, the volume is as path-breaking as the journeys and technological innovations it chronicles.
John Logsdon ranges over the mountain of paperwork involved over the last seventy years and presents a consistently interesting and pertinent selection for readers who want to see the founding documents of space exploration. And the mix of accounts from explorers and from scientists and from politicians is perfectly balanced to yield a full picture. We get John Glenn writing to Commander Jim Stockdale in 1959 about “a bunch of country boys”:
I guess one of the most interesting aspects of the program has been in some of the people we have been fortunate enough to meet and be briefed by. One of the best in this series was the time we spent Huntsville, Alabama, with Dr. Wernher von Braun and crew. We were fortunate enough to spend an evening with him in his home until about 2:30 in the morning going through a scrap book, etc., from Peenemunde days in Germany and, in general, shooting the bull about his thoughts on the past, present, and future of space activities. This was a real experience for a bunch of country boys fresh caught on the program and a very heady experience as you can imagine.
... and we also get America’s most powerful policy makers just reflexively thinking about the space program in terms of “American superiority,” as when Caspar Weinberger wrote to George Shultz in a memorandum for the President about the future of NASA in 1971:
Recent Apollo flights have been very successful from all points of view. Most important is the fact that they give the American people people a much needed left in spirit, (and the people of the world an equally needed look at American superiority). Announcement now, or very shortly, that we were cancelling Apollo 16 and 17 (an announcement we would have to make very soon if any real savings are to be realized) would have a very bad effect, coming so soon after Apollo 15’s triumph. It would be confirming, in some respects, a belief that I fear is gaining credence at home and abroad: That our best years are behind us, that we are turning inward, reducing our defense commitments, and voluntarily starting to give up our super-power status, and our desire to maintain world superiority.
Space programs all around the world are testing more and more ambitious plans; probes continue to launch for unthinkably distant destinations; more and more exoplanets are detected
every month, and all of it is as thrilling as the earliest days of mankind looking to the final frontier. The Penguin Book of Outer Space Exploration belongs in the library of every readers who’s been following that journey.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com