How To Build Your Own Spaceship

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in Scotland on Sunday


How To Build Your Own Spaceship
Piers Bizony
Portobello, £12.99

Anyone hoping to put together a space shuttle in their back garden might be a little disappointed with this book, which doesn’t quite deliver on its title. Yet its aims can be gathered from its unusual dual classification: “popular science/ travel writing”. This is a book about the technology of space flight, at a time when going into orbit is becoming a genuine tourist possibility – as long as you have a few million to spare.

At least two private companies are seriously looking at the potential for using Russian Soyuz rocketry to send fee-paying passengers on a trip around the moon; but for the time being, super-rich travellers must content themselves with trips nearer Earth. Five people so far have coughed up around $20 million each for a stay on the International Space Station. They didn’t pay for distance: the space station orbits only around 250 miles above ground. What they got was a unique view, the experience of weightlessness – and the necessary training to cope with it.

As Bizony points out, commercial space travel – of the kind promised in the very near future by Virgin Galactic – has to deal with issues of safety and comfort in ways that no airline need worry about. What do you do about toilets? Or your neighbour throwing up all over the zero-gravity cabin? America’s Federal Aviation Authority has officially relaxed its safety rules where space flight is concerned, and Virgin’s passengers will only get three days’ preparation for their ultimate white-knuckle ride. The two and a half-hour flight will be “sub-orbital”, reaching the official boundary of space – 60 miles above Earth – for just six precious minutes of weightlessness before descending. Celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Sigourney Weaver are allegedly queuing up for the $200,000 seats – but people like that expect not to get a fingernail broken, never mind being blown to atoms.

Apart from Richard Branson, the key players in the new industry are mostly dot.com billionaires: they include the founder of Google and the inventor of Microsoft Word. Bizony pitches his book at people hoping to muscle in on the business for themselves: a cute conceit to begin with, but one that soon feels forced. He is also apt to wander off-topic: the latter part of the book feels more like a general survey of space exploration, having little to do with tourism.

Still, there is plenty of curious information here: I had never realised, for example, that all Soyuz missions had a loaded gun on board, officially there in case the capsule came down in wolf-infested wilderness. We can safely assume such items will not be carried by the glitterati taking off from Branson’s New Mexico spaceport. I just hope that Norman Foster’s “eco-friendly” design for it works better than Heathrow Terminal Five.