Two-thirds history, one-third science, Andrew Rader’s new book advocates for a new age of exploration

(Courtesy of Andrew Rader)

Andrew Rader is a mission manager at SpaceX — and yet, Rader says, his best “Jeopardy!” category is history (not science). Rader is an engineer, a history buff — and now, as an author, he’s bringing his two passions together. Beyond the Known: How Exploration Created the Modern World and Will Take Us To the Stars, his newest book, deals with re-embracing the idea of space as the final frontier.

Essentially, Rader says, we have always explored the unknown — in fact, it’s what makes us human. Throughout history humans have invented technology to cross continents, oceans and even space in search of advancing their understanding of the world. Space, Rader argues in Beyond the Known, is just the logical next step in the name of human exploration.

During the Space Race, we took incredible strides toward space travel in a very short amount of time, Rader says. Then, our goal of putting a man on the moon drove incredible technological innovation — now, Rader argues, it’s time for pioneers and private space flight to pick up where we left off. It’s what we’re destined for.

Ahead of his talk at Kepler’s in Menlo Park this coming Thursday, we caught up with Rader. While he couldn’t disclose much about his work at SpaceX (you know — mission classified, and all that) we did talk private space flight, the laws of physics and what space travel might look like a hundred years from now.

Starlink Mission. (Image via SpaceX on Flickr)

You studied aerospace engineering in your undergrad. Have you always known you wanted to do work related to space and flight?

I think so. I went to undergrad to study how to build airplanes — but I wasn’t that interested in real space. I’ve liked Star Trek since I was a little kid, but I thought unless we could jump from planet to planet and meet the aliens and have adventures like in Star Trek, there wasn’t really a lot of point in going to space. But in preparing to go to grad school, I had this epiphany; I had this roommate who was really influential, and he kept talking about why we should go to Mars. And I thought — what’s the point?

The book is kind of an answer to that question: Why is it important to explore? It’s because throughout history, the civilizations that have pushed themselves have always been the most successful. Exploration is an incentive generating machine. It puts the goal first, which is how technology always works; you set a goal, and then you figure out how to do it. Placing ourselves at the leading edge is by definition what expands our boundaries. It’s creating challenges for ourselves, in a way.

Do you see this quest for exploration as a human race thing? Or is this something that’s defined by nations?

It’s both. It’s a human thing, because intrinsically the drive to explore is one of the things that makes us human. If you think about humanity, we evolved in one ecological niche in a small region of Africa, but because of our exploration we now encompass all Earth. Even before people set out to connect to the world and the current globalized system, humans had reached everywhere. When European explorers went out, they found humans everywhere on Earth except for Antarctica and a few islands out at sea. Humans are by definition explorers.

Clockwise: SpaceX’s first test vehicle, a photo from the Demo-1 Mission, the Iridium-8 Mission, and another shot of Demo-1. (Images via SpaceX on Flickr)

We’re specialized in being generalists — we’re not suited to any particular one challenge. If you think of the story of Prometheus, he gives the lions claws and teeth. Most animals are specialized for something. We’re not. We have hands to manipulate tools, brains to invent tools and to invent strategies to survive. We’re specialized in confronting challenge in general. That’s basically exploring: exploring is confronting geographical challenge, finding out what’s out there to unlock additional resources, open up new frontiers and expand across the planet to find living territory for other people. This is what we do.

History, like you’re mentioning, is a huge component of your book. Have you always been a history buff?

The book is about two-thirds history, one-third science. But I see it as the trajectory of humanity. The goal of the book is to talk about how exploration has been one of the most important technological incentive drivers throughout history. It’s telling the story of the development of technology in some sense. But yes, I’ve always been extremely interested in history. I almost went to undergrad for history, and I did a minor in history. I guess thought I thought engineering was more practical, Most of the books I read are about history.

It’s a leap from being knowledgeable and passionate about something into then deciding: I’m going to write a book about this. What was the decision-making factor there?

As I say, I came to this epiphany with what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to help expand humanity into the cosmos, because I think it’s the most productive thing we can do together that brings humanity into the future. And it’s reflective of our past. We’re just kind of following the same trajectory we’ve always followed.

When I was younger, I struggled with the idea that everything had already been discovered, it’s all been explored, we know everything now, so what are we supposed to do with our lives? I was disappointed that there was nothing left to see. But actually there is. This understanding of how technology works and how incentives are required to drive technology also kind of led me to this question: what were the factors that caused our ancestors to develop technology? What created the incentives? Exploration is almost certainly one of the most important forces driving technology.

We developed the technologies to cross oceans not just because we had an idea one day on the blackboard, but because there was a need for it. You create the need first, and then technology follows and fills in the gaps. It’s just like going to the moon. In 1961 Kennedy said, we choose to go to the moon. We had no idea how to do it whatsoever. An American hadn’t flown in space for even 15 minutes at that time. By setting that goal, it created the incentives and stimulus to develop all of the technologies required to do it within eight years. That’s how it works, you set a goal and then figure out how to achieve that goal — and then you achieve all these side benefits that you didn’t expect.

Telstar 19 Vantage Mission, 2018. (Image via SpaceX on Flickr)

Something I wanted to ask about was the interest in space travel in the 60s and 70s. It was really at the forefront of the minds of most Americans — and then there was a bit of drop off. Do you sense a kind of renewed interest in returning to space?

Absolutely, yes. NASA’s original plan was to go to Mars in the 1980s, but after the moon, they basically said, okay, mission accomplished, and they cut the funding. I think we’re sort of now at the point where we’re ready to resume that journey. From a political standpoint, the race to the moon was wholly a Cold War exercise. Kennedy’s speech even talked about that, I have the quote in my book — how ‘the minds of people around the world are making decisions about where to go.’ Basically, follow the Soviets, or follow America. The impact of space on hopes and dreams around the world was really why they were doing it. It was a soft power exercise to show we could beat the Soviets. Once that was accomplished, there wasn’t that much purpose from a political standpoint. So this exploratory purpose is starting to catch up to the point where we do want to do that.

Where do you see the future of space exploration in the next ten, twenty, thirty years? In the long frame?

I don’t really give timelines for ten or twenty years, but I would say it’s kind of inevitable, because some people will choose to do it. That’s why private space flight is really important, because then you’re not reliant on consensuses, because you’re never going to build a consensus around something like this. It’s important to have visionaries and pioneers do what they want to do in this domain, and that’s how you’ll get to achievement.

That’s actually the way exploration has worked in the past: I mean, not all of Europe wanted to go out to sea and tread across the ocean. It was a small group of people. Change has always been led by a small group of people at the leading edge. I think that’s what will happen.

Taking advantage of Mars’s closest approach to Earth in eight years, astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have taken the space- based observatory’s sharpest views yet of the Red Planet. The telescope’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 snapped these images between April 27 and May 6, when Mars was 54 million miles (87 million kilometers) from Earth. From this distance the telescope could see Martian features as small as 12 miles (19 kilometers) wide. (Image via NASA on FLICKR Commons)

For timelines, I don’t know for sure, but I think that it’s critically important we do what we can with what we have. We push ourselves to go to Mars, build a base on the moon, to expand into the solar system. I was really disillusioned about space when I was young — I thought unless we could jump around, like in Star Trek, there was no point in going to space. That’s completely the opposite of how you should think about it.

The solar system is an enormous place, with two hundred moons and plenty of resources that could support populations of hundreds of billions of people. Earth is not a unique place from resource standpoint. In terms of metals, and waters and useful materials Earth is actually a rather resource poor place. There’s no reason we should remain earth bound: You could have people spread across the entire solar system.

Going out into our solar system is the critical incentive driver that will develop the technologies that will allow us to travel to other stars. I used to think what I wanted to do with my life was invent warp drive. But that’s not how technology works, you can’t just sit around waiting for something to happen. You have to do with you what you have, push boundaries very incrementally and slowly, and development will lead you to technology to achieve things like that.

You were mentioning yourself being young — you’re the author of several children’s books. How do you go about explaining such complex topics to younger readers?

I have four children’s books: three in an adventure series and one called Rocket Science. I try to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and think about what they would know. Every word you use, you have to think: Does that person know what that word means? Do they understand this concept? Should I explain further, or can I leave it at face value? Try to put yourself in their shoes, and think about what they would know.

Are there books that you draw upon when you’re thinking about the future of space travel and technology?

People often say science fiction precedes science, and that’s true to a certain extent. The Expanse is probably the best example that’s recent, but is pretty mainstream and a pretty good representation of the next hundred years. But my favorite books that cover the topic are probably Arthur C. Clark. He has a lot of good hard science books. I like Star Trek, Star Wars, but I find it more inspirational to read something like Arthur C. Clark, doesn’t break the laws of physics. It looks at what actual future technology would look like. One of the best science fiction books ever is (Clark’s) Rendezvous with Rama. So, so good. That talks about what an alien visit to our solar system would look like.

(Courtesy of Andrew Rader)

What are you hoping people walk away from Beyond the Known with?

I hope they learn something, I hope they enjoy it, and I hope they get a sense for how technology works, why exploration is important. And why it’s important to push our limits and challenge ourselves. On so many levels — on a level of civilizations, on a level of nations, on a level of individuals, on a level of groups, it’s necessary to challenge ourselves. That’s the main thesis of the book: By creating challenges we motivate ourselves to accomplish great things.

What do you say to folks who don’t agree that space is the logical next step in exploration?

Sure, lots of people. But what is the next step then? Some probably think there is no next step, and shouldn’t be. I talk about history a lot, I find it funny — a lot of the arguments about space exploration. ‘We should wait until we solve the problems on Earth,’ which is funny because any time in the past when exploration has been a priority, things were way worse. Humans are way better off now than we’ve ever been before. If there’s ever been a time where we can say we’ve fixed our problems, it’s now. Just imagine being in the middle ages.

Learning about the world is really where Europe gained its advantage — by placing itself at forefront of technology, exposing itself to ideas. They saw different forms of government and dominated global trade and exploited people, really. Exploration is what gave Europe its technological advantage.

And the book talks about how Europe didn’t start with a technological advantage. Europeans explored the world because they were relatively poor and backwards relative to India and China. By exploring they gained the advantage, so that by the 1900s they controlled most of the world.

Tell me a little bit about how you arrived at Space X.

I was super motivated to come here. I was at a conference in Long Beach and I met a recruiter who took me on a tour, and this was about two years before I started, I think in 2010. I thought, ‘This place is just absolutely amazing.’ I made it my life’s mission to work here. This is what I want to do, basically.

Andrew Rader will host a book talk at Kepler’s in Menlo Park Thursday, January 9th from 7 to 9 pm. More information here.

Rader’s new book—Beyond the Known: How Exploration Created the Modern World and Will Take Us To the Stars—is available now via Simon & Schuster

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Sarah Klearman

East coast transplant working her way through all things Peninsula. On Twitter @SarahKlearman

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