Non-Fiction Reviews

Interplanetary Robots
True stories of space exploration

(2019) Rod Pyle, Prometheus, £15 / Can$19 / US$18, trdpbk, 388pp, ISBN 978-1-633-88502-8


After a detour into little-known aspects of manned spaceflight in Amazing Stories of the Space Age, Rod Pyle returns to the unmanned exploration covered in his first two books, and this time I would say that he has a more successful formula.  Destination Mars contained some fascinating material, but because it was compiled from newspaper or magazine interviews which Pyle had conducted during the various missions, it came close to being dominated by how people looked, what they wore and how they spoke at the time. Curiosity was dominated by Pyle’s personal experiences during the mission to date. In Interplanetary Robots he has used the same material as a linking thread, but it’s divided into interpolated chapters titled ‘The Center of the Universe Part 1’ through to Part 5, and the other 32 chapters focus satisfactorily on the spacecraft, their missions and what’s been learned from them.

I appreciate the difficulty of the task. Between 1973 and 1981 I chaired a discussion project which was initially intended to be published in 1976, as a full review of spaceflight within the Solar System. Even in its 1975 first draft it came out to 150,000 words, too large for the publishers of the day, and it had to be split into two books, one on exploration to date and the other on future development. Both books had to be rewritten 3-5 times to accommodate new discoveries in what has been called ‘the Golden Age of space exploration’, when spacecraft reached or set out for almost every major target in the Solar System. I described it at the time as ‘like trying to write a gazeteer of the mediaeval world, with a Columbus or a Marco Polo reporting home every time you think you have it finished’. To cover it all at that depth in a single book now would be an impossible task, and instead Pyle has chosen his topics with care, leaving out manned spaceflight and missions to the comets and asteroids altogether to focus on the planets, carefully separating his historical material from future possibilities which are dealt with in short follow-on chapters each called ‘Flash Forward’. He’s picked a good time to do it, in a relative lull when ‘only’ the Moon, Mars and Jupiter are currently under close-up examination. When those ‘Flash Forward’ missions become reality, it may be impossible to conduct even an overview like this within a single volume.

There’s an interesting comparison with the late Martin Caidin’s Race for the Moon (1965). Before he branched out into fiction via Marooned and the Six Million Dollar Man novels, Caidin was writing about the early US lunar probes, with which Pyle’s account begins, and like Pyle he was writing from the privileged position of a well-established aerospace journalist, with access to the events and to the top people in the field. Their viewpoints, at the beginning of the process and at the current peak nearly 60 years later, are remarkably similar and both make excellent reading.

As an author in the same field, known for making unexpected connections, for me one test of a book like this is how many details it contains which are new to me. This book has ten of them, none of them showstoppers, but all of them interesting. I didn’t know, for instance, that the Soviet Mars-sample-return vehicle seen in the film Red Planet had an actual counterpart in the 1970s, which never flew, nor that the Chang’e 5 Chinese lander will attempt to return drill cores from no less than seven feet below the lunar surface. Hitherto we’ve had only the ones brought back by Apollo 15 and 17, and only the latter went deeper. Nor did I know that Japan’s SLIM lunar lander is going to investigate a lava tube in the Marius Hills, one of the Moon’s most interesting sites.

‘The Center of the Universe’ to which Pyle repeatedly returns is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where most US interplanetary missions are built and managed, still anomalously part of the California Institute of Technology, which refused to surrender it when NASA was created. (The actual ‘Center’ is a plaque set in the floor of JPL’s mission control, which is deliberately not capitalised as in NASA usage.) In a poignant end to the book, as Pyle drives out of JPL at the end of the Cassini mission to Saturn, his press badge is confiscated because it’s expired. Like NASA, JPL is normally very thorough about that – I kept my last visitor’s pass only because I left JPL in the company of a Voyager team controller, and it’s now in the space memorabilia collection of the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory.

But Pyle is confident that he’ll be back for the next phase. In Race for the Moon, Caidin described a night scene at Cape Canaveral with the first satellite launches in progress, the first moon probes in preparation and the man-in-space programme underway, adding, “It is given to very few of us to see our dreams come true”. As he drives away from JPL, while looking forward to future missions, Pyle’s last thoughts are “What a great time to be alive”.

Duncan Lunan


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