A memoir by one of the builders of the ChemCam laser instrument now on board the Mars exploration vehicle Curiosity.
Now the principal investigator for the ChemCam instrument, Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Wiens describes its current operation and the development of the program. He has worked on NASA's robotic exploration program since its inception, and he helped design the instruments taken aloft as part of the Genesis program to capture particles in the solar wind and return them to Earth, which began in 1990 and ended successfully in 2004. Wiens began work on Mars exploration and laser instruments in 1997. Both programs, unlike the shuttle and moon-shot efforts, involved scientist-led small groups. They bid competitively to place their experimental instruments on space-exploration vehicles and landing modules and dealt with cost pressures that dictated building equipment from off-the-shelf components. Improvisation was the rule. To offset the budget constraints that delayed and threatened to undermine the efforts, it became an international program, enlisting support from French researchers. Even so, ChemCam was nearly eliminated to save funds. Wiens explains the ultimate scientific success of the earlier Genesis program, which established that solar oxygen is not composed of the same isotope that predominates in the Earth's atmosphere. The author provides fascinating insight into the struggle to solve scientific problems despite technical constraints and equipment failures. Their success also depended on their ability to creatively deal with ongoing bureaucratic and budgetary hassles.
A winning memoir of great achievement.