Although less sexy than manned space travel, satellites, probes and landers have produced a scientific bonanza with more to come. Impey (Astronomy/Univ. of Arizona; How It Began: A Time-Traveler’s Guide to the Universe, 2012, etc.) and Henry (English/California State Univ., San Bernardino; Virginia Woolf and the Discourse of Science: The Aesthetics of Astronomy, 2003) team up for an enthusiastic account of a dozen programs.
When the technologically primitive, glitch-prone Mariner 4 flew past Mars in 1965, sending back 21 grainy black-and-white photographs, the world exulted. Within a decade, two Viking landers settled on Mars, sending back far superior pictures and some unsettling news: Maybe there is life beyond Earth, but maybe not. Two Voyager craft, 35 years after their launch, are still returning data from far outside the solar system after passing close to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Probes have visited comets, gathered their dust and returned to Earth. Readers aware that that the Hubble telescope produces vastly sharper pictures than terrestrial observatories will learn that other space telescopes named Spitzer, Chandra and Wilkinson produce even better images due to their increased sensitivity to infrared, X-ray and microwave radiation blocked by the atmosphere. Countless readers are fascinated by the existence of planets around distant stars; the sprinkling turned up by Earth-based telescopes turned into an avalanche with the 2009 launch of the Kepler satellite. Few deny that manned space exploration is inevitable and that a great nation must lead the way; however, since Congress is unwilling to foot the bill, that great nation is likely to be China.
The authors’ largely uncritical, gee-whiz approach is entirely appropriate since these programs were not only technological marvels, but produced dazzling, quantum-leap discoveries.