Non-Fiction Reviews

An Inside Look at the Mars Rover Mission
and the People Who Made It Happen

(2014) Rod Pyle, Prometheus Books, 17.99 / Can$21.00 / US$ 19.95, tpbk, 300pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14933-8


Two years ago I reviewed Rod Pyle's Destination Mars here. That book was compiled from interviews with the principal investors on the various Mars missions from the early 1960s to the present, with two of the closing chapters looking forward to the Curiosity mission, then in flight. They ended, "Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars in August 2012. Stand by." This new book went to press in April 2014, 18 months after the landing, when the rover had reached the Kimberley formation and was still well short of its main target, the foothills of Mount Sharp at the centre of Gale Crater.Now, as I writein December (2014), Curiosity has reached the foothills and established that they are sedimentary rock, as had been hoped, piled up on the floor of a lake which once filled the crater to near the rim. But well before that the rover had fulfilled one of its major scientific objectives, establishing that the lake had been fed by streams running down the crater walls and that it had lasted for a considerable period, now thought to run into millions of years, with water fresh enough to have possibly sustained life. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers had previously found evidence for large, long-lasting bodies of water, but they were too salty for anything but 'extremophiles' (in terrestrial biology, that is).

Curiosity has yet to find organic compounds, but the dramatic news at the end of Destination Mars was that the Viking Lander results, reinterpreted in the light of data from the Phoenix lander, belatedly suggested that there could have been organic compounds in their soil samples after all. Pyle and his publishers have perhaps decided to write up the Curiosity mission and the first 18 months on Mars now, in hopes of another breakthrough and another book to come. I sometimes accuse series fiction-writers of 'marking time', writing novels in which little happens except repositioning the characters for the next one, but it is unusual to find a non-fiction book which threatens to lapse into that category.

Although I praised Destination Mars for its informational content, I pointed out that because of its interview format, I would have to reread it to get past the descriptions of the researchers, their hairstyles, clothing and manner. And I know another reader who did not penetrate that surface layer to reach the factual information underneath. This book suffers badly from the same effect, because the character in the foreground is Pyle himself, telling us how he responds to the events.

The book begins with him on a geology field trip in Death Valley, led by 'Dr. John Grotzinger, mission scientist (a.k.a. Big Kahuna) of the Mars Science Laboratory'. Pyle is not appropriately dressed or shod, he has run out of water in the first mile and is already attracting the attention of the organiser responsible for health and safety, while he fantasises about dying out there, as ill-prepared people can easily do all this on the first page and a half. As the walk continues he repeatedly falls behind, misses lectures he's come to hear, and has to go on without adequate rest. He learns something about the geology of Death Valley and something about how it compares to Mars, but the lasting impression is that both he and the reader would have learned a lot more if he had been better prepared.

Going through the book again, to check the pages I'd marked for rereading, it was depressing to see how few were factual points relating to either Mars or the Curiosity mission. Aristotle's view of a Mars occultation; "Curiosity would make the 1976 mission look like it had the capabilities of a sewing machine"; a backward look at the inadequate anti-back-contamination measures on the first Apollo missions; "evil Mariner 4 forever ruined Barsoom"; memories of Griffith Observatory in Pyle's student days; "Mars does not appear to have measurable tectonic acitivity", which Mars Express disproved years ago with regard to Valles Marineris; the interesting history of Kimberley in Australia, site of the brief Japanese invasion in World War 2... and the interim mission results I have already mentioned.

I got a lot more than that out of Destination Mars, especially reading it along with Martin J. L. Turner's Expedition Mars, on the feasibility of manned missions. For readers less familiar with the subject matter, Curiosity might be informative, but Pyle's 'humanising' of the topic with his personal narrative could get in the way or even be off-putting. It seems certain that there will be another book from him, later in the mission or at the end of it, and when that appears perhaps Curiositywill itself be a curiosity, an interim report before the big story breaks.

Duncan Lunan

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