Deep background on the nuts, bolts and sticky-wicket politics of building a payload for NASA’s Mars program and watching it go to work.
On national TV, handling questions on the spectacularly successful twin Rovers that landed in January 2004 and are now mining Mars for scientific data, Squyres seems like a normal, confident guy. Yet the Rover mission’s top scientist writes candidly here about being obsessed with interplanetary exploration since high school, and about the string of stumbles and bumbles that preceded his team’s winning the contract for the $400-million payload comprising the Rovers and their incredibly complex package of instrumentation, sensors, probes, etc. As a geologist analyzing data from NASA fly-by planetary programs going back to 1978, the author always had his mind on Mars. Was there ever water there? How much? When? Squyres brings the reader up to speed on the logic behind the quest: if water existed, then it could have fostered a life-forming process paralleling that of Earth’s, evidence of which would be far less disturbed by seismic upheavals or atmospheric weathering and thus invaluable to science. Pursuing answers, Squyres spent 11 years putting together teams to write unsuccessful payload proposals for NASA. On an early venture, the misreading of a diagram led to a camera design that did not fit the space allocated. “With one terrible boneheaded mistake,” he writes, “we had thrown away five years of work.” The eventual win for the Rovers Spirit and Opportunity changed all that. Squyres details days and weeks of Mars observations (“I love this rock, but it’s starting to drive me nuts”) as tantalizing hints of water presence accrue. Geological implications come fast and furious, with enough human perspectives to boost future manned Mars exploration.
A fascinating, passionate insider’s account.