Destination Mars: New Explorations of the Red Planet
An exciting inside look into missions to Mars
Paperback: 348 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books (April 24, 2012)
Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
In the next decade, NASA, by itself and in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is planning a minimum of four separate missions to Mars. Clearly, exciting times are ahead for Mars exploration.
In Destination Mars, award-winning science writer and documentary producer Rod Pyle provides an insider's look into the amazing projects now being developed here and abroad to visit the legendary red planet. Drawing on his contacts at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pyle provides stunning insights into the history of Mars exploration and the difficulties and dangers of traveling there.
After an entertaining survey of the human fascination with Mars over the centuries, the author offers an introduction to the geography, geology, and water processes of the planet. He then briefly describes the many successful missions by NASA and others to that distant world. But failure and frustration also get their due. As Pyle makes clear, going to Mars is not, and never will be, easy. Later in the book, he describes in detail what each upcoming mission will involve.
In the second half of the book, he offers the reader a glimpse inside the world of Earth-based "Mars analogs," places on Earth where scientists are conducting research in hostile environments that are eerily "Martian." Finally, he constructs a probable scenario of a crewed expedition to Mars, so that readers can see how earlier robotic missions and human Earth simulations will fit together.
All this is punctuated by numerous firsthand interviews with some of the finest Mars explorers of our day, including Stephen Squyres (Mars Exploration Rover), Bruce Murray (former director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and Peter Smith (chief of the Mars Phoenix Lander and the upcoming OSIRIS-REx missions). These stellar individuals give us an insider's view of the difficulties and rewards of roaming the red planet.
The author's infectious enthusiasm and firsthand knowledge of the international space industry combine to make a uniquely appealing and accessible book about Mars.
"The enigmatic Red Planet does not easily give up its secrets. Yet Rod Pyle's Destination Mars takes the reader on a first-class journey to this new world, one that continues to be a magnet for inquisitive scientists and space engineers. This is a superb, fact-filled, up-to-datebook that portrays the legacy of spacecraft and personalities—from cheerleaders to unsung heroes—that have opened up the terra incognito that is Mars to extraordinary exploration." --Leonard David, Insider Columnist, SPACE.com
"Destination Mars brings to life an extraordinary part of human exploration—the preliminary reconnaissance of the planet of dreams over the last fifty years. Enlivened by interviews with many of the participants, you will feel as if you are exploring the planet with them." --Steven J. Dick, former NASA Chief Historian
"Mars has long held a special fascination for Americans, perhaps it might even be a planet that harbors life. Rod Pyle has written a fine account of this fascination; outlining the history of the robotic space probes sent to the red planet and the knowledge gained through these expeditions." --Roger D. Launius, PhD, senior curator, Division of Space History, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
"Destination Mars is an optimistic, enthusiastic survey of humanity's ongoing duel of wits with our neighbor planet. Interviews with some of the people involved in Mars missions show the thread of curiosity and wonder connecting the Mars exploration projects of the last fifty years. Getting to Mars has been really difficult, but for Rod Pyle the problems just make it more interesting and worthwhile." --Stephen Fentress, director, Strasenburgh Planetarium, Rochester, New York, Museum & Science Center
On August 6, 2012, the latest in a long series of exploratory spacecraft will approach the planet Mars at high speed. Slicing into the upper atmosphere, it will unfurl a large parachute, and, when it has slowed sufficiently, eight rocket motors will fire to stop its descent just above the surface of the planet. As the craft hovers, insect-like, a series of winches and cables called Skycrane will lower its payload to a soft land¬ing on the floor of Gale Crater. If all goes well, the Mars Science Labo¬ratory, a robotic rover the size of a Mini Cooper, will begin a long and productive journey of discovery on the Red Planet.
In recent decades, such missions to Mars have become almost routine. Every few years NASA announces the arrival of another one, followed by a series of stun¬ning photographs and press releases describing new evidence for water on the Martian surface. Ho-hum? Science journalist Rod Pyle’s lively overview of Mars missions should be an antidote to any such ennui. It traces the slow evolution of our knowledge about Mars through almost a half century of nail-biting successes and failures, highlighting the remarkable advances in technol¬ogy and science that have made vis¬its to the planet seem so mundane.
Operating a spacecraft on the Martian surface, notes Pyle, is “a bit like doing brain surgery through a mile-long soda straw.” Two-way radio communication can take up to to forty minutes (when Mars is at its most distant from Earth), so that any action has to be carefully planned to avoid sending erroneous instructions that could jam a delicate moving part or send a robotic rover into a ditch. Even the odds for safe arrival aren’t that good: of nearly forty spacecraft that have set forth for Mars since the 1960s, only nineteen have arrived in operating condi¬tion. NASA’s score is thirteen out of twenty. Many, especially early So¬viet spacecraft, failed at launch, but there were several particularly heart¬breaking and embarrassing losses at the other end of the trip. NASA’s 1998 Mars Climate Orbiter memorably crashed into Mars because a segment of mission-control software erroneously used British Imperial units instead of metric units.
But over the years, NASA has scored inspiring successes. The two Viking missions of 1976 soft-landed instrument packages to test for the presence of extraterrestrial life. The 2004 Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, originally designed to operate for ninety days, won the hearts of the Web-watching public when they robo-posted images for years. Spirit went silent after six years of exploration, but Opportunity con¬tinues to trundle around and, as I write, is exploring the rim of the large crater Endeavor.
As a result of these efforts, Mars—once little more than a smudge through the best telescopes—has become a world whose rich and varied geological history is known in increasingly greater detail. The few fuzzy photographs sent back by the first flyby, Mariner 4, in 1965, have now been joined by tens of thousands of photographs.
Pyle’s conversational style is ideal for conveying the excitement of these decades of discovery. He draws heavily on interviews with the engineers and scientists who have worked on these missions, especially at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “I’m a lucky man,” one remarks; “lucky to be able to work with some of the best scientists and engineers in the world. Together we accomplish great deeds.” Read about these great deeds in Pyle’s book, and appreciate them with renewed interest this August, when the Mars Science Laboratory touches down in Gale Crater.
Laurence A. Marschall
Natural History Magazine
Destination Mars: New Explorations of the Red Planet
(2012) The seductive fascination of the red planet never palls, and science writer and documentary maker Rod Pyle stokes our hunger. For the Mars obsessed, the real thrills will be in his detailed descriptions of upcoming missions, the pseudo-Martian research conducted in Earth’s most hostile environments, and interviews with explorers such as Steven Squyres, principal investigator of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover. Pyle’s look at the planet and our perceptions and probings of it also covers Mars’s geography, geology and hydrology, and its cultural history on Earth.
Mars has intrigued humans for a long time. When we looked up at the night sky we saw a red dot which moved across the fields of stars. It was identified as an eye or a god. As humans developed the field of knowledge known as science, we developed an understanding that this was a planet, part of the solar system, moving around the sun. The human urge to explore new places finally led to an interest in going to the moon and planets. We first learned as much as we could using telescopes but eventually realized we needed to send probes to more fully understand these exotic places.
This is a story of the years of dedicated work by many scientists to increase our knowledge of Mars—an effort that continues today. The contents are grouped into 32 chapters, providing a detailed look at the successes and failures of human efforts to study Mars. As is true in all scientific work, lots of preconceived ideas were overturned by new discoveries. One topic that has been focused on throughout these efforts is attempts to determine if life in any form exists or did exist on Mars.
A valuable part of the book is the portfolio of color plates showing the pictures of the Martian surface gathered from orbit and from the surface rovers, showing the significant improvements in making these pictures over the years. There is discussion of the technology used and the ingenuity of the engineers and scientists in developing space exploration systems. There is also discussion of the difficulty of controlling orbitals and rovers from Earth with a 20–minute delay, and the sometimes desperate efforts to reprogram instruments to keep the systems functioning. The book ends with a discussion of the future of Mars exploration, including the possibility of humans traveling to Mars one day. There is currently a lot of cooperation between the U.S., Europe, Russia, and Japan in space exploration, and the book sees cooperation with China and India in the future.
Review posted on 5/29/2012
By Rod Pyle
Reviewed for the National Science Teacher’s Association
Reviewed by Donald Logsdon Jr.