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Review: Martian Summer


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Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission
by Andrew Kessler
Pegasus Books, 2011
hardcover, 352 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-60598-176-5
US$27.95

Countless space enthusiasts would no doubt love to spend their summer vacation on Mars. That’s not happening any time in the foreseeable future, though, so what’s the next best thing? For Andrew Kessler, a self-described “regular guy who loves space” and “luckiest fanboy in fandom”, it’s spending the summer of 2008 with the scientists and engineers in Tucson who were operating the Phoenix Mars Lander spacecraft as it scraped and scrutinized the Martian surface near the planet’s north pole. Martian Summer offers his insider’s account of the trials and triumphs of that summer.

Kessler is very much a part of the book, injecting his experiences and feelings, in particular naiveté and insecurity—he seems perpetually concerned he’ll be kicked out of meetings or even the project itself.

Kessler is neither a scientist nor an engineer, but rather the Martian equivalent of an embedded journalist, brought in as something of an experiment by Peter Smith, Phoenix’s principal investigator, to chronicle the mission. Treated warily by some but warmly embraced by others, he brings an outsider’s perspective to his insider’s role sitting in on meetings and observing work at the mission operations center at the University of Arizona as the project team tries to get the most out of their spacecraft during its limited life on the surface of the Red Planet.

Phoenix, which rose from the ashes of a 2001 Mars lander mission cancelled in the wake of the failure of the Mars Polar Lander mission in 1999, had a mission to look for evidence of water ice scientists thought might be just below the surface. And while Phoenix did indeed discover that water ice, and more, it was hardly a simple mission. The Phoenix team, running on a shoestring budget, encountered technical challenges along the way, conflicts between the project team and NASA headquarters (where people were concerned that a key instrument on the spacecraft might fail before it could confirm the presence of water ice), and arguments among project scientists. Compounding all this is a schedule that put the project team on Martian time, where the day is about 40 minutes longer than the Earth, wreaking havoc on their circadian rhythms.

Martian Summer is not the conventional account of a mission where the author is effectively invisible, not inserting him or herself into the narrative. Kessler is very much a part of the book, injecting his experiences and feelings, in particular naiveté and insecurity—he seems perpetually concerned he’ll be kicked out of meetings or even the project itself, be scooped by another writer, or fail to bond with the team and Smith in particular. At times this approach can be refreshing and even entertaining, such as when he describes the effects of using prescription drugs to counteract the effects of living on Mars rather than Earth time. At other times, though, it can be a little annoying: you’re probably less interested in the author’s self-doubts than about what’s going on with the mission itself.

“There is no routine mission to space. NASA failed the moment they let us think that,” Kessler says. “It all went flat when NASA stopped telling us that space is risky, nearly impossible.”

Despite the author’s chatty tone, full of asides about various aspects of the mission and the people involved, the reader can get bogged down at times in debates about the nuts and bolts of aspects of the mission and the arcane acronyms and terminology that pepper those discussions. And sometimes Kessler gets those details wrong: in one passage about the media firestorm that erupted around claims that Phoenix had found evidence about Mars’s habitability (or life itself), he makes repeated references to then-CNN science correspondent “Miles O’Brian” and NASA Watch editor “Keith Cowling”.

Perhaps the most fascinating passage in Martian Summer is in the middle of the book, where Kessler writes—or rants, as he admits—about what he thinks went wrong with NASA. “There is no routine mission to space. NASA failed the moment they let us think that,” he says. “It all went flat when NASA stopped telling us that space is risky, nearly impossible.” He thinks NASA should embrace risk, rather than seek to minimize it by focusing on “uninteresting” scientific objectives. “Give us heroes who explore the universe, people engaged in an inherently risky business, and tell us about them. Show us their flaws, their drive, make us feel empathy and let us root for them.” While it may be oversimplifying to say that NASA’s flaws can be traced back to those roots, it’s clear than in this book, Kessler has tried to do just that: turn what might be an ordinary, almost forgettable scientific mission into a compelling tale of the people who made that mission possible.


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