Arts book review

Engineering miracles and unsung heroes: A guide to Mars exploration

Destination Mars is a fascinating account of our quest for the secrets of Mars


Destination Mars: New Explorations of the Red Planet

By Rod Pyle

Prometheus Books

September 2012

By now you must have heard about Curiosity, NASA’s latest robotic ambassador to Mars. It has been making headlines for weeks, first with its nail-biting landing sequence, fit for a sci-fi movie, and more recently with its discovery of evidence of streaming water in the Martian past. Curiosity is the stuff geeks dream about: a largely autonomous laboratory on wheels, the size of a small car and loaded to the brim with the most sophisticated science equipment ever sent to another world.

The pinnacle of Mars exploration, Curiosity, is just another iteration in an ongoing exploration effort that has tested human ingenuity for generations and pushed engineering to new limits. As the spotlight shines on Curiosity, it is a humbling and enlightening exercise to review the perilous road that led us here. I can’t think of a more timely and enlightening reminder of that long and proud lineage than Rod Pyle’s Destination Mars: New Explorations of the Red Planet.

Pyle’s book is mostly a thorough and enthralling retelling of the remarkable history of human exploration of the red planet, from the ’60s to the present. A few editorial mishaps notwithstanding, Destination Mars is a remarkable achievement, and a truly fascinating read.

The book wastes no time; it hooks you from the start with an account of the landing and awakening of the first Martians, the Viking 1 and 2. The second chapter, “Mars 101,” presents a dense primer on what we know about the planet, and the third takes a look back at how Mars has been seen and imagined through the ages, from Babylon’s mythology to Bradbury’s stories. From Chapter 4 and continuing through the following 25 chapters, the book follows a simple yet very effective one-two structure, discussing a specific mission to Mars in one chapter and then presenting the profile of an individual involved with that mission in the next. This quasi-parallel exposition of the miraculous engineering and the brilliant engineers that created it, of the fascinating science and the visionary scientists behind it, works like a charm.

We learn first about the Mariner missions that NASA launched between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s, and then more about the next generation of missions, the Vikings. Pyle then takes us through the twenty years of stagnation in Mars exploration, NASA’s return to Mars with the Mars Global Surveyor in the early ‘90s, and the first rover, Sojourner, in the late ’90s. Finally, Pyle reviews the more sophisticated missions of the new millennium, including orbiters such as the Mars Express, the Mars Odyssey, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; a polar, lander, the Mars Phoenix; and of course the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, both of which delivered beyond expectations.

Destination Mars concludes with a discussion of the technical details of the Mars Science Laboratory, whose rover, Curiosity, has lately generated so much hype. Subsequent chapters discuss how new missions to Mars are being tested in inhospitable environments on Earth and speculate on how a future manned exploration of Mars may look.

With about 300 pages of Martian soup for the geeky soul, this book is a real treat, and is definitely on my short list for gifts for some of my friends. I cannot imagine any of my MIT colleagues who would not be captivated by the tenacity of the engineers and scientists (some of them MITers themselves) and the ingenuity of the missions that have been sent to Mars so far.