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NMSU astronomer writes the book on space exploration

When Bernie McNamara began developing a course on space exploration, the New Mexico State University astronomer discovered there was no single book that covered the entire topic.

New Mexico State University astronomer Bernie McNamara needed a textbook for his course on space exploration -- so he wrote one. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Five years later, that has been remedied. McNamara's book "Into the Final Frontier: The Human Exploration of Space," just published by Harcourt College Publishers, examines the human advance into space from the early 1900s -- when science fiction writers like H.G. Wells inspired the first generation of rocket scientists -- into the 21st century and the possibilities opening up with the International Space Station.

Along the way it touches on the political, social and moral issues that influenced the push into space, especially the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

It's not by accident that the book takes this holistic approach to its topic. McNamara was determined to create a textbook that could be used not only in a science class, but also in a history class, or an international relations class.

"Technology doesn't develop in a vacuum," he said. "That's the perspective I'm writing from -- to tell the story in the context of what existed at the time."

The political response in the United States to the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik, in 1957, is a case in point. "Sputnik was a real eye-opener," McNamara said. "If the Soviets could achieve a technological feat like that so soon after the catastrophic losses they suffered during World War II, the fear was that their system must be better than ours."

The Soviet Union managed to put Sputnik 2 in orbit before the United States launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958. The race was on in earnest, with the Soviets testing life-support systems by launching dogs into space and the United States sending monkeys -- and a chimpanzee from Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. But it was the placing of a man in orbit -- cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in April 1961 -- that caused President John Kennedy to ask his key space advisers: "Can we put a man on the moon before them? ... Can we leapfrog?"

The circumstances that converged to propel the United States through unparalleled advances -- Projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo -- were unique, McNamara noted, and the enthusiasm and support for the U.S. space program haven't been matched since. "It was a close race with high stakes," he said. "It's not a race anymore; the space station is an international collaboration. When interest wanes, that's a significant problem for NASA."

One of McNamara's challenges in writing the book was to cover space exploration from an international perspective, and his research into the Soviet program surprised him somewhat.

"I lived through the Apollo program and the landing on the moon (the Apollo 11 mission in 1969), and the news media acted as though the Soviets weren't doing much in space at that time," he said. He was surprised not only by the amount of space activity the Soviet Union was engaged in, but also by the fact that "they were as open about their activities as we were" instead of being secretive.

Much of McNamara's research could be done on the NMSU campus -- "luckily our library is a national repository for NASA documents" -- but the process was time-consuming nevertheless. Existing books dealing with one aspect or another of space exploration "are fairly specialized and unreadable for non-science majors," he said. "I had to research the information and decipher what the scientists were saying for the non-technical reader."

Unlike many textbooks, "Into the Final Frontier" makes liberal use of photographs, direct quotations and narrative. On the cover is a photograph of the Earth rising above the lunar landscape, taken by Las Cruces' Frank Borman while in lunar orbit during the flight of Apollo 8.

A supplemental student guide provides a variety of activities and exercises that address scientific, moral and political issues associated with the space program. "I needed to present the book in a way that gives the instructor maximum flexibility," McNamara said. "I decided to put the exercises in a supplement so they wouldn't interrupt the narrative."

The book grew out of a course McNamara developed for NMSU's "Viewing the Wider World" program, which requires students to take classes outside of their major area that expose them to international perspectives and issues. After several years of developing materials for the course, he took a one-semester sabbatical leave last year to finish putting it all in book form.

Photo is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/McNamara_book.jpg.
For a print, call (505) 646-3221.
CUTLINE: New Mexico State University astronomer Bernie McNamara needed a textbook for his course on space exploration -- so he wrote one. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Karl Hill
Nov. 27, 2000