Making Tracks on Mars

At last, some form of intelligence is altering the dusty face of our neighboring world


Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet
by Steve Squyres
Hyperion, 2005

Dying Planet: Mars in Science and the Imagination
by Robert Markley
Duke University Press, 2005

The planet Mars--crimson and bright, filling our telescopes with vague intimations of almost-familiar landforms--has long formed a celestial tabula rasa on which we have inscribed our planetological theories, utopian fantasies, and fears of alien invasion or ecological ruin. In the past few years we have been begun inscribing something new in the sands of Mars: tire tracks.

Two recent books come at the planet from very different perspectives. In Roving Mars, Steve Squyres gives us a vivid, intimate travelogue of the spectacularly successful (and as of this writing, ongoing) mission of the Mars Exploration Rovers, for which he serves as principal investigator. Robert Markley's Dying Planet takes a more distant view of the human relationship with Mars. An English professor at the University of Illinois, Markley writes about Mars science as a knowledgeable outsider, weaving in cultural history and science fiction.

Roving Mars is a page-turner. Squyres's writing is clear, with folksy touches, including flashes of dry humor and brief but revealing vignettes illuminating the personalities of a number of the key players. Many books wax eloquent about planetary exploration. Squyres shows how it is actually done. Spirit and Opportunity may not be the best spacecraft names ever, but they do provide the perfect subtitle for this book. We learn just how much spirit, in the form of human ingenuity, perseverance, joy and tears, is distilled into those craft, and how for years opportunity knocked at Squyres's door and then quickly ran off and left him, as proposals were rejected, missions were canceled, and NASA's Mars plans went through countless revisions. His perseverance seems quixotic at times, yet he never stopped answering the door, and when opportunity finally came knocking for real, Squyres was given a chance, with a ridiculously compressed schedule, to get two rovers built, tested and ready for launch in 34 months.

He and his team understandably got attached to the rovers. You, too, will come to identify with the little mechanical puppies as you learn about their troubled gestation, hurried birth and solitary departures. I was initially surprised to find that 65 percent of the book takes place before the first picture is returned from Mars. I came to appreciate this focus on the lesser-known early story.

I already thought of Spirit and Opportunity as the "miracle rovers" for their great longevity. But I had no idea. Even though you know that ultimately nothing serious is going to go wrong before they get to Mars, the tale of tribulations is gripping. Working under intense time and budget pressure, the team wrestles with faulty parachutes, defective instruments, flubbed tests, mysterious short circuits, and design flaws discovered as the pages fly off the calendar toward a launch window that could not be changed, because of the laws of celestial mechanics. I found myself wiping away tears as Squyres described the strange sadness finally evoked by the launch, as he realizes that however it all ends, they ain't never coming back home.

Roving Mars is often refreshingly candid. Describing a design error that got his team's camera rejected from an earlier mission, he confesses, "With one terrible, boneheaded mistake we had thrown away five years of work." He shares some of the less than exemplary behavior needed to win the game of big science: the artful formation of science teams put together, in part, to neutralize the competition, the changing of mission designs to win over potential reviewers, and the sometimes brutal necessity of competing ruthlessly against one's longtime friends and colleagues. He also writes revealingly about the tense battles pitting "the idealistic, impractical scientists against the stubborn, practical engineers." This disarming honesty is one of the aspects of the book I appreciate the most. What are they going to do now, take his mission away? Squyres can tell it like it is because he has succeeded.

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