An inside look at a Mars mission.
Kessler, who co-produced a Discovery Channel feature on the quest for life on Mars, was chosen to chronicle the 2008 Phoenix lander’s 90 days around the red planet’s north pole, with daily access to the earth-side scientists running the experiments. The mission was to search for evidence of water and organic chemistry, two prerequisites for determining whether life exists (or ever did) on Mars. The author credits the idea to mission leader Peter Smith, who thought a popular account of the discoveries and the scientists behind them would help inspire a new generation to enter space science. The book may instead serve to weed out those with insufficient passion for the enterprise, portraying as it does all the bureaucratic tangles, internal squabbles and technical glitches of the mission—not to mention trying to adjust to the Martian clock, with days 40 minutes longer than our own creating something like a perpetual jet lag. Another ongoing problem was the media’s yearning for spectacular breakthroughs, which led to distorted coverage and predisposed many of the scientists to be suspicious of Kessler. Still, the author provides some fascinating glimpses of the real work of a space mission: planning activities for the lander, dealing with peremptory orders from NASA and JPL, interpreting the sometimes ambiguous data and occasionally letting one’s hair down for a party. The mission spent several weeks trying to satisfy NASA’s peremptory call for an ice sample, when both the robot arm and the onboard analytical equipment were acting up. At another point, two researchers feuded violently when one claimed to have detected liquid water on the surface—which, according to theory, should be impossible. (The discovery eventually held up, and was published.) Unfortunately, Kessler projects a needy, insecure persona, fretting over being excluded from meetings and reacting jealously when another journalist was allowed into the project. This gets old quickly, as does some of the jargon that creeps in.
Fascinating subject, less-than-stellar treatment—though die-hard space fans will find enough to keep the pages turning.