Chaikin: A Passion for Mars
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Andrew Chaikin, A Passion for Mars : Intrepid Explorers of the Red Planet. New York : Abrams, 2008. 279 pages; copiously illustrated with black-and-white and color photographs; with index.
I am going to admit first thing that my main issue with Chaikin's Mars was my own misguided expectations: I thought the book would be more about Mars, less about people. I wanted more martian scienticity than I got and at first I blamed the author. Obviously I didn't pay enough attention to the subtitle of the book! Once I relaxed and got aligned with the book the author did choose to write I found it quite enjoyable, even exciting, certainly inspiring.
Chaikin, who acquired his own passion for Mars as a youngster and got to live out a fair amount of it professionally, wanted to talk about other people's passions for Mars and show some of where that passion has taken human culture, in fact and in imagination.
So, the book is all about people, mostly scientists, predominantly working for NASA, and their projects. Each chapter adopts a central character who made things happen and about whom things happened, the things being mostly NASA missions of one sort or another to Mars.
Sending a spacecraft to Mars to do some science is a massive, long-term project that can dominate a person's career: just one mission can be in preparation for 10 or even 20 years. Chaikin focuses on the human drama, the excitement and frustrations of such missions, and he does it well.
Just past 6:00 AM on Thursday morning, July 15 , the first bits of picture number 1 from Mariner 4 streamed into JPL [NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory], relayed via teletype from NASA's receiving station in Johannesburg, South Africa. A cheer went up in the control room, as much out of relief as exhilaration. On the television monitors, the first lines of the image slowly appeared, each line requiring two and a half minutes to be reconstructed. With excruciating slowness the image built up. After more than two hours a bright shape began to appear along the right-hand edge of the picture. As Mars set in the sky over South Africa the eighty-five-foot antenna in Goldstone, California, took over. Finally, eight hours after it had begun, the first picture was complete, and there was the bright edge of Mars, slanting across the middle of the frame, set against the blackness of space. There seemed to be some kind of haze just above the horizon; at first [physicist Robert] Leighton and the others thought it might be a cloud high in the Martian atmosphere, but they soon decided that it was actually a defect in the image, caused by stray light entering the camera. On the surface there was hardly any detail. The sun was nearly overhead in this part of Mars, and in the noonday glare the landscape appeared washed out and almost featureless. [pp. 26—27]
The science that comes from a Martian mission unfolds slowly. The spoken or unspoken question that accompanies every mission to Mars is whether it will find any evidence of life, past or present, or even just the possibility of life on Mars. It's been the question ever since Giovanni Schiaparelli believed he observed "canals" on the martian surface in 1877.
Some martian surprises didn't even require a trip to the planet. Here Chaikin discusses the examination of a meteorite that made it to Earth but was demonstrably from Mars. This is Chakin at the height of his scienticity, which is not so high, but the excitement of discovery is keenly portrayed.
It was mind-boggling simply to contemplate the infinitesimal size of the things the McKay team had described inside [meteorite from Mars] ALH84001. They were working at scales a thousand times smaller than most geologists ever ventured, so far down the powers-of-ten ladder that their unit of measurement was not millimeters, or even microns, but nanometers—billionths of a meter. At those scales a chip of rock became a universe unto itself. Probing it required state-of-the-art instruments and techniques, like the new scanning electron microscope at the Houston space center that could magnify up to two hundred thousand times, and a device at Stanford called the double-laser mass spectrometer that could sniff out and analyze the barest traces of organic molecules. For two and a half years Dave McKay and his teammates had labored through the tedious and time-consuming work of exploring the nanoverse inside ALH84001. After the first year, they were sure they'd found compelling evidence for biology. They spent the next year and a half trying to convince themselves they were wrong—and they were unable to do so. By August 1996, when they published their paper in Science, they knew they would cause a stir, to say the least. But they also felt confident enough to say, in the last paragraph of the paper, that although none of the individual observations by themselves would prove there had been Martian biology, "when they are considered collectively, particularly in view of their spatial association, we conclude that they are evidence for primitive life on early Mars." [pp. 170—171]
Here's another example. I would have liked the author to add a few words about the technique and to make clear the precision of the MOLA instrument by telling us from what height it could detect height differences of a few feet but, once again, the intention is to capture some of investigator Garvin's challenges and excitement.
Garvin lived by those words, even as he joined NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center at the end of 1984 to begin a career as a planetary geologist. Soon he was pushing for a new kind of instrument, an altimeter that would use rapid-fire pulses of laser light to map Martian topography from an orbiting spacecraft, at resolutions ten to hundreds of times better than existing data. His colleagues' skepticism—they said the technology was too new and unproven for a space mission—was no match for Garvin's high-octane enthusiasm. Working with engineers at Goddard, he helped develop the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter, or MOLA, and instrument so accurate it could detect height difference of a few feet. From the most jagged cliffs to the gentlest slopes, MOLA would, in Garvin's words, "give Mars its third dimension." [pp. 230—231]
From the perspective of its scienticity and the emphasis of science book notes, then, I felt there were a few shortcomings to the book. However, it was entertaining and informative writing about the intellectual and engineering pioneers who increased our knowledge and understanding of Mars in the past few decades. On balance, I enjoyed it.
-- Notes by JNS