‘Accessory to War’ probes the uneasy alliance between space science and the military


In Accessory to War, Tyson and Lang chronicle how war-makers have long wielded knowledge of outer space as a weapon. This bloody history features Christopher Columbus exploiting his awareness of an upcoming lunar eclipse to threaten natives on the island of Hispaniola with divine retribution, as well as the United States using satellite intelligence to fight the Gulf War.
“As for America’s forthcoming wars,” Tyson and Lang predict, “they will be waged with even more formidable space assets.”
But just as militaries have long used space science and space-based technology to their advantage, astronomers and astrophysicists have reaped the rewards of military investment. James Cook, a captain in the British Navy, for example, established an observatory in Tahiti. Observations of Venus passing across the face of the sun in 1769 from that observatory helped astronomers pin down the distance between Earth and the sun. During the Cold War, U.S. military satellites designed to watch for nuclear detonations discovered gamma-ray bursts, some of the most spectacular explosions in the universe (SN: 1/10/15, p. 15).
Tyson and Lang’s millennia-long world history is sprawling. The book is exhaustively researched, almost to the point of information overload. It’s easy to get bogged down in parenthetical asides about minor characters or paragraph-long lists. The book is the antithesis of Tyson’s starry-eyed, bite-sized Astrophysics for People in a Hurry and may end up on the shelves of more history buffs than astro nerds.