Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of Rocket Dreams: How the Space Age Shaped Our Vision of the World Beyond

by Marina Benjamin

(Free Press, $24.00, 256 pages, April 2003)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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If you like Rocket Dreams, you might also enjoy the Science Shelf review of Captured by Aliens by Joel Achenbach.

When humanity is but a memory, what will the heavenly history books record? Will we have built long-term habitats in space and on other worlds, extending our existence beyond that of our home planet, or will our Rocket Dreams remain persistently out of reach, tantalizing us with promise and frustrating us with dashed hopes?

In this insightful book completed before the Columbia tragedy but made all the more poignant because of it, Journalist Marina Benjamin, who came of age in London in the heady days of Apollo only to be confronted by a time of practical limitation in adulthood, explores not only that question but also the way individuals and cultures have responded to it. Like many of the best questions of science, it was not the one she set out to investigate, but rather one that announced itself in the research -- and she was smart enough to follow.

She had planned to revisit a youthful obsession left behind, when her heroes, like those of many teens, were Apollo astronauts. She revered them in the way today's adolescents idolize rock stars, collecting memorabilia and filling her head with trivia. The gleaming promise came back to her as she began her inquiry, but its vivid colors were tinged by gloomy disappointment. "[T]he space fanatic in me had suddenly reawakened, demanding to know why the future had not unfolded as promised."

Readers -- indeed the author herself -- resist her conclusions, even as they follow her through a journey from the Kennedy Space Center to Roswell to the Arecibo Radio Telescope gathering extraterrestrial signals that may or may not contain messages from intelligent beings. From physical space to cyberspace, they traverse terrain where objective science, cutting-edge engineering, social experimentation, charlatanism, opportunism, and true-believing ufology mingle in unexpected ways.

At each stop on the journey, Ms. Benjamin adds snapshots to her journal, hoping that they will reveal a three-dimensional truth when combined like x-ray slices in a CAT-scan. She ends at Lagrange point L1, an island of cosmic stability a million miles from Earth toward the sun, where a proposed satellite called Triana would follow an orbit aligned perfectly between its two gravitational masters. Triana, a favorite project of Al Gore, would continuously broadcast a real-time image of the sunlit half of the planet "to tug at our heartstrings and perhaps even boost our flagging belief in humanity's collective potential."

Perhaps as we view that broadcast, our rocket dreams, deferred and tempered by realism, will still unfold -- not as the teenage Marina Benjamin had hoped, but still with a promise that can inspire future astronauts, cybernauts, and even Roswellians to a universe of achievement.

Physicist and children's science author Fred Bortz speaks to audiences of future space explorers throughout the United States.