The Industrial Physicis
past issues contact us reprints TIP home

American Institute of Physics



Book Review

The Space Environment: Implications for Spacecraft Design (revised and expanded edition)

Alan C. Tribble
Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 2003
232 pp., ISBN 0-691-10299-6

Reviewed by Henry J. P. Smith

see all book reviews

book coverThe Space Environment: Implications for Spacecraft Design gives a broad overview of a number of physical disciplines that need to be dealt with in the design of any space mission. The author, Alan C. Tribble, is an executive with a well-known U.S. aerospace company and has taught courses in the subject both in universities and at professional meetings. First printed in 1995, this revised edition includes some information developed during the intervening years. It is of course obvious that space is an environment quite different from our everyday experience, but one does not realize just how alien it is until one starts to think of the details included in this volume. Tribble employs some basic physical concepts to introduce the material of each chapter, using equations that ought to be accessible to most undergraduates in physical science and engineering. It is always interesting to see how far one can get with quite simple concepts, and Tribble carries this out rather well. Some of these could be useful for motivating students with topical issues, such as the Columbia shuttle disaster.

The text covers five distinct environmental factors that can affect the performance of spacecraft: vacuum, the extremely low pressure encountered by a spacecraft and its instrumentation; neutral, the residual atmosphere at various orbital altitudes; plasma, produced by the charged particles in space itself; radiation, the high-energy charged particles and photons in the background; and finally, micrometeoroid/orbital debris, which may cause kinetic damage to a space vehicle or its instruments. Each subject forms a separate chapter so a reader may use the book to review what issues need to be addressed in planning a particular space experiment or mission for any one of these design issues. Each chapter provides a number of exercises and a fairly extensive bibliography, which will be needed by anyone considering these issues for an operational design.

As might be expected, most of the referenced papers and books are from the engineering literature, with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets cited most often. I did note several apparent minor errors in the text. For example, in the first chapter, Tribble presents an equation to illustrate the basic nuclear fusion reactions in the sun, a subject of only peripheral interest to the remainder of the book. This equation was wrong in the first edition and has not been corrected in the new one. In fact, the nuclear reaction chain in the sun is more complex than a single reaction can describe. Also, in discussing the cosmic radiation background, Tribble uses a figure that has the atomic number Z as a parameter, but he never clearly defines what Z is. There are also a number of grammatical and stylistic issues that I found jarring, such as referring to the “Aurora australialis” instead of the correct “australis.”

I found the book useful overall. The author’s style keeps the reader interested in spite of the few minor faults mentioned. If one needs a good introduction to the issues that may arise in the design of an instrument for a space-based measurement, this would be a good place to start, but one will definitely need to follow up with more detailed references such as those the author provides. Those who are teaching undergraduate courses in science or engineering may find some useful examples in this book.


Henry J.P. Smith is a part-time lecturer in physics at Northeastern University in Boston. Semi-retired, he worked for almost 30 years in industry, in atmospheric and infrared physics, and he built large-scale computer codes for use in such studies.