"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Monday, August 1, 2011

A 'Martian Summer' For the Books

Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars MissionMartian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission by Andrew Kessler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For me, there is a sentimental connection to the Phoenix Mars Mission. Along with many others, my name is preserved in a special data disc mounted on the outside of the lander. Phoenix now rests silent on the surface of the red planet. The disc awaits recovery by future Martian explorers.

Martian Summer focuses as much on human drama as it does on science. Many personal stories lie behind the mission, which rocketed a robotic lander all the way to Mars’s polar landscape. To his credit, author Andrew Kessler constantly shines the spotlight on several mission MVPs. Still it’s fair to say the heart of this book is Kessler’s personal quest to access the protected environment of mission control. Consider this profound moment:

“I ended up squished in the back of some half-crazed Hollywood producer’s Mustang with a pile of scientists on my lap.”

Okay, so trying to embed yourself in a space mission can sometimes be a comedy of errors. It’s no exaggeration to say I laughed out loud many times while reading Martian Summer. It is loaded with entertaining gems like the one above. Kessler, who begins the book as an outsider, rightly compares the culture of mission control to the hit sitcom The Office. So if you enjoy that sitcom, there is a good chance you’d enjoy following a NASA mission.

It helps immensely that Kessler is a gifted writer. To keep the intricate story readable, he makes some great choices. He keeps the prose light whenever possible (which is often). He provides needed context without letting the narrative grind to a halt--even as the mission itself progresses in fits and starts. Plus, Kessler always stays close to one or two human subplots. Though a few technical passages went over my head, I never felt lost while reading Martian Summer.

The joy of lively prose notwithstanding, there was a point in this book when I grew disheartened. Not coincidentally, so did Kessler and mission personnel. There were incessant technical glitches, losses of vital image data and distracting intrusions by politically-minded higher-ups. Personally, I started wondering if space exploration is just too challenging for humans. But as I kept reading, I remembered the following line Kessler wrote earlier in the book:

“If I can find the beauty in moving bits across space, there’s hope for me.”

Here on Earth we enjoy, even depend on, an information superhighway. As this book shows, the data route between Earth and Mars is more of a hazardous byway. Yet through cooperation and persistence, the Phoenix mission team traversed the void many times over one summer. Discovery resulted when the data came home safely. And via Martian Summer, a similar gap has been bridged between elite scientists and lay enthusiasts.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment