Reading is one of the best ways to expand both your professional and personal horizons. The latest book by David Brown gives you the chance to explore space, but it’s crafted in such a way that both space aficionado and complete novice will appreciate. THE MISSION is our ClearanceJobs book club pick, and we asked author David Brown to tell us more about how he went from sergeant to space, and telling the story of an icy solar system and the search for alien life.
We know you as our resident former sergeant on the ClearanceJobs news site, but it’s clear you also have a serious focus on space – how do you go from U.S. Army to space and science writer and enthusiast?
It was a slow transition. Early in my post-Army career, I wrote about politics, and as years elapsed, I grew increasingly depressed by the stuff I had to cover. Finally, I had enough, and asked myself what I actually liked. The answers were “space” and “robots,” so I spent the next decade writing about space robots! There is a profound overlap between the defense industry and the space program, of course, and that is a big part of my book.
Want a free copy of THE MISSION? The first 10 to email firstname.lastname@example.org will receive a free copy.
I don’t really consider myself a science writer, which is its own thing. My artistic focus is creative nonfiction, which at its simplest applies elements and devices of poetry and fiction to nonfiction works. And space is a wonderful canvas for that. Accordingly, this is not a science book so much as a tale of adventure, and it should read as such. The main characters happen to study space, but this book was written for people who don’t customarily read books about scientists! A reader interested in space will absolutely love this book, its fidelity to the science, and its look into the opaque, competitive world of NASA exploration. But that interest is unnecessary; every reader will be drawn into the tall tale of a wildly improbable group who did an amazing, impossible thing.
What prompted your interest in Europa, and how much did you know before you decided to start writing the book?
As a storyteller, you’re always on the lookout for stories with interesting characters and high stakes, and the stakes don’t get much higher than the exploration of Europa. For those who don’t know. Europa is the ocean moon of Jupiter. It’s about the size of our own moon, but there is three times more liquid saltwater on Europa than there is on Earth. And not some weird technical definition of water—green goo or whatever—but the same stuff as in our oceans! Without diving into the specifics here, the chemistry of the ocean and chemical energy on the ocean floor are highly conducive to life. If there is anywhere else in the solar system likely to harbor life, it is there. Not just ancient extinct microbes like you might find on Mars, either, but conceivably complex life: maybe fish, but maybe sea monsters! What could be more thrilling than that, and how would that affect humanity’s understanding of its place in the universe? If a weird ice ball circling a giant, swirling hydrogen planet has life, that means it is probably not that rare. It means the universe is likely teeming with life—we just need to start looking.
When I went into my first interview for the book, I thought I had a pretty good grip on the subject. Three minutes into the interview, though, I realized I didn’t know anything! Which was terrifying, but it was also liberating. It allowed me to go into the research and interviews with a beginner’s mind. I wanted to write a book with zero cynicism. Everyone in this book wants desperately to do good work—to explore the cosmos—and because I went into the research with a sense of wonder, I was able to put that wonder in the prose as well. I hope the reader experiences it the same way.
The book has perhaps the best subtitle I’ve ever read – that underscores how the book is about more than science and space, but the motley crew of people behind this unique mission. What led you to that focus?
In the end, it’s always about the people. I’ve heard THE MISSION described as a heist story. A group of people from all walks of life, each with a particular skill, comes together with a common purpose to get something they want—something that someone doesn’t want them to have. In Oceans Eleven, they rob a casino or something. In my book, they get a spacecraft to an ocean world.
Ultimately, I didn’t want to write something that reads like a Wikipedia entry or a dry text or treatise. I wanted the reader to go on an adventure. And for that, you’ve got to tell a story about the people, relatable, with deeply human foibles and hopes and dreams.
As for the subtitle, the story behind it is I didn’t want one, and my publisher wanted a subtitle with like five words, and we compromised at 83!
Space exploration does seem to have a singular focus – whether that’s the moon, or Mars. Is that driven by the budget, the space program, or do we need to read the book to find out?
Oh I think everyone definitely needs to read the book—two copies if possible!
I think people in general have a very impoverished understanding of just how small NASA’s budget is. Because it achieves the impossible every single day, and so visibly, people get the impression that it has some massive percentage of the federal budget. But in fact, 0.5% of the budget goes to NASA. It’s practically a rounding error in overall spending. As such, it has to choose its targets of exploration very carefully. In terms of human spaceflight, I think politicians tend to favor the moon, while the agency is genetically wired to go to Mars. But you can’t do both; NASA can’t afford it. If we go back to the moon, we are there for the rest of our lives, just as the notion of a large orbital space station—intended originally to be a bus stop to the moon—has trapped NASA in low Earth orbit since the 1970s.
In the end, it all comes down to money, and as I reveal in THE MISSION, that can lead to scientists doing some pretty desperate things to get their missions funded, and the solar system explored.