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Review: ‘The Future of Geography’ by Tim Marshall

Reviewer: Walter Clemens (New York Journal of Books)

The Future of Geography by Tim Marshall
ISBN: 9781783966882
Format: Trade Paperback

The Future of Geography is a serious and very readable book important for all people—not just scientists, generals, and politicians—to absorb and contemplate.”

Author Tim Marshall frames his thoughts about tomorrow’s world by quoting two contrasting views: Leonardo Da Vinci said it was his “destiny to build a machine that would allow man to fly.” The astronomer Simon Newcomb, however, stated in 1902 that “flight by machines heavier than air is impractical and insignificant, if not impossible.” Just one year later, the Wright brothers flew into the future that Leonardo imagined.

Another set of contrasting views concerns the political future of space. One view is that space is inherently global: Any benefit that comes from space exploration should be shared, if not equally, by all nations. Against this optimistic perspective, hard-nosed realists such as the French philosopher Raymond Aron doubted whether, “without a revolution in the heart of man and the nature of states, space could be preserved from military use.”

Having published several other books on the “politics of place,” Tim Marshall asserts that humans are “prisoners of geography.” He leans toward the view that the possibilities of space exploration—and competition—are limitless. Hence, politicians should prepare for the best and the worst of alternative futures.

Marshall takes the reader from ancient astronomers in Egypt and Babylon to Copernicus to the visions and accomplishments of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. There are now over 5,000 American space-related businesses. We have entered the Commercial Space Age. Musk hopes to put astronauts on the moon—soon—and go on to create a spacefaring civilization; Bezos, in contrast, wants to build domed cities that could orbit the earth and stay closer to home.  Elsewhere, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic beat the Blue Origin of Jeff Bezos into space by more than a week. Newcomer Sierra Space is also trying to develop space tourism. 

Marshall notes that Chinese also have grandiose visons—from the calls of President Xi Jinping to explore space for the common good of humanity to the 2019 Chinese sci-fi movie The Wandering Earth that shows space exploration used to benefit life on earth. Meanwhile. every facet of Chinese activity in space is planned and supervised by some branch of the armed forces. The website of China’s National Space Administration says it was established “to strengthen military forces” and “serve the needs of national defense, military forces, national economy, and military-related organizations.”

The United States furnished a kind of Wernher von Braun to China when it accused Cal Tech scientist Qian Xuesen (1911–2009) in 1950 of being a Communist sympathizer, stripped him of his security clearance, and put him under house arrest. In 1955, however, he was allowed to return to China—thoroughly embittered toward the US. In 1956 the Soviets gave Qian blueprints for their R-1 rockets and trained Chinese specialists. A test site was built in the Gobi Desert and dozens of Chinese students studied in Moscow. In 1959–1960, however, the Nikita Khrushchev regime cut off all such aid to China and withdrew all Soviet scientists.

Despite severe Sino-Soviet tensions in the past and some warfare along the Soviet-Chinese border, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin now claim to be best friends and are striving to cooperate in many domains including outer space.

Starting with Sputnik I in 1957, the USSR achieved several “firsts” in space. But the United States quickly caught up and scored its own “firsts.” American astronauts landed on the moon in 1969 just 2,982 days after President John Kennedy declared this goal. Such facts are widely known, but author Marshall adds serious context. For example, he recounts how Stalin sent Sergei Korolev, later known as “Chief Designer” of Soviet rockets, to a Siberian gulag in the late 1930s as a suspected saboteur. During World War II Stalin moved Korolev to a prison in Moscow, where his main job became to copy the German V-2 rocket. In the l950s, however, he headed Soviet programs to build an ICBM and the first earth satellite.

Korolev’s kidneys and jaws were so harmed by his treatment in the gulag that he did not survive a simple operation in 1966. Vladimir Putin might not know that this precocious individual, eventually crowned Hero of the Soviet Union, grew up in Ukraine and could not enter the leading Soviet technological institute in Moscow until 1926 when he was 19.

A decades-old US-Russian space partnership is beginning to crash, ending a relationship that benefited science, détente, and humanity. The events of 2022–2023 made it more likely that Russia would step away from space exploration and, with China, focus on military applications in space.

Even before the Ukrainian war, Moscow’s Westerns partners complained about crude Russian language, incompetence, and unthinking behavior. In 2018 TASS, with no evidence, accused US astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor of having a mental breakdown inside the International Space Station, and drilling a hole in a docked Soyuz capsule

In 2021 a huge Russian space laboratory named Nauka (Science) docked with the ISS but within hours its thrusters began firing and threw the ISS into cartwheels for nearly an hour until the thrusters ran out of fuel. Also in 2021, Russia destroyed one of its own obsolete satellites sending chunks of debris toward the ISS. As the Ukraine war intensified, Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, called US astronaut Scott Kelly a “moron” and threatened to leave Americans stranded on a deorbiting ISS.

Since 2018 Russia’s military efforts in space have been linked with China’s bid to undermine US superiority in apace and other domains. Despite their ostensible friendship, however, each side has been reluctant to share its best technology. Having achieved many early triumphs in space, Russia is uncomfortable playing the role of junior partner in this evolving alignment. Russia is still ahead of China in many facets of space technology, but China has the funds, the trained scientists and engineers, the confidence and ambition to excel in space. Still, Moscow and Beijing plan to build an International Lunar Research Station “on the surface and/or in the new orbit of the moon” by 2035. The two countries are also working to make their own versions of GPS mutually compatible,

With increasing sanctions hitting the Russian economy and ever greater isolation from world science and commerce, Roscosmos will struggle to compete. As Tom Marshall observes, the détente of the Soyuz-Apollo docking, and the ISS is being lost in space are some of the many losses due to Putin’s Special Military Operation.

Russia, China, and the USA are now being joined by India and by many other aspiring fellow travelers in space. Tim Marshall details many of their potential contributions to knowledge and to human welfare. But he also outlines many ways that their competition in space could trigger deadly wars endangering all humanity.

The Future of Geography is a serious and very readable book important for all people—not just scientists, generals, and politicians—to absorb and contemplate.

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