It’s ONLY Rocket Science: An Introduction in Plain English is a popular science book, part of the Astronomer’s Universe series from Springer Science + Business Media. It is an American book, written by the British scientist Lucy Rogers, and this is a British review. I only mention this because there are a couple of points which may not be optimal for readers on any side of the Atlantic.
The official blurb outlines the purpose of the volume:
‘It deals with all aspects of spaceflight, from how to leave the Earth (including the design of the rocket, mission planning, navigation and communication), to life in space and the effects of weightlessness. The book also includes sections describing how an amateur can track satellites and understand their trajectories, and on the future of spaceflight, touching on what is, and what is not, possible given present and expected future technologies.’
As the back cover notes, the author ‘describes, everyday terms and entirely without complex maths, just what is involved in launching something into space and exploring the universe beyond our small planet. If you want to understand the fundamentals of space flight, from how to leave the Earth – to live in space and the effects of weightlessness, begin your journey here.’
That really pretty much sums it up. The strapline is ‘An Introduction in Plain English’ and the text conforms to this. The book is written in an easily accessible and engaging style, and could work equally as a school text or as a primer for the general reader. All that grates is the pointless capitalisation of the word ‘only’ in the title. There is virtually no maths, and what there is should not test anyone interested in and capable of reading the book.
The volume begins with an introductory chapter covering such aspects as gravity, solar wind and the Van Allen belts, explains various orbits (including inclination and eccentricity) and touches on space debris and space law. Rogers goes back to look at the history of rocketry (who knew the British used rockets against the Americans in the war of 1812?) and considers rockets in early science fiction before moving on to a more detailed exploration of the major aspects of rockets and space flight. The author reminded me of a lot I had forgotten, and taught me some things I never knew. Anyone wanting to get the technology right, or at least have a checklist of points to consider, while writing a hard new future pace based SF story would do well to have this book on their desk.
It’s ONLY Rocket Science is presented in large trade paperback format, beautifully printed on high quality paper. It is also available as an ebook, though I haven’t seen this version.The physical edition is well illustrated with excellent diagrams and photos, some in colour. In this respect only the cover is a let down – why use a mediocre computer generated image when there are thousands of superb photographs of real rockets which could have been employed?
Two more caveats. I was surprised to find a British author writing a book for an American publisher using kilometres rather than miles. Both countries still use miles for measuring long distances and I kept stopping to translate metric back into familiar numbers in my head. Even though astronomers now generally use metric, including miles (perhaps in brackets) would make the book more user friendly to many of the non-specialist readers the book is aimed at. Finally: American buildings count the first floor from ground level. I found one passage confounding until I remember this fact.
It’s ONLY Rocket Science is one of those books which delivers exactly what it promises, a solid introduction to the subject.
Lucy Rogers’ It’s ONLY Rocket Science has a website here.
This review originally appeared in slightly different form in Vector #258 (Winter 2008)