Cooper, staff writer at The New Yorker and one of the more adroit science writers around (Imaging Saturn, 1983; The Search for Life on Mars, 1980, etc.), crashes and burns in this dull discussion of the Magellan spacecraft and its mission to map Venus. Cooper's not entirely to blame—it's just that the Magellan project is so relentlessly boring, with no real crises, no startling discoveries (at least to nonspecialists), and no eccentric personalities drawing the diagrams or pushing the buttons. The author's explanations are models of lucid science writing for the intelligent layperson, but one wonders how many really care whether Venusian craters come from meteor impact or volcanism, or how to interpret fuzzy squiggles in radar readings. The focus is almost exclusively on the details of deciphering Magellan's orbital photos, resulting in numerous jargon-soaked sentences (``They made sure that processor B, which they mistrusted because it not only had been in operation during the RPE that led to ROM safing during the first LOS but was in operation when the second LOS occurred, could not be brought back on line''). Cooper tries to capture the thrill of discovery—the heart of every good book about space research—but the drone of computers drowns him out. Odd facts about Venus—the surface is hot enough to melt lead; all Venusian features are named after women—do little to alleviate the monotony. Project scientists get grouchy, but no exciting warfare erupts. Technological glitches occur—Magellan stops sending messages a few times; the tape recorders act up—but the whiz kids save the day. Unlike the Apollo missions, there are no human lives at risk; unlike the unmanned missions to Mars, the discovery of alien creatures is never a possibility. This is space exploration for computer nerds. Who would have thought that the planet of love could be so downright blah?
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