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Book review: “Incredible Stories From Space” – Nancy Atkinson

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Space enthusiasts and readers of popular science books know full well that behind every space mission – success or failure – there are human stories every bit as compelling and exciting as the tales of the engineering and technology needed for those missions.  We know that every photo returned from the rocky surface of Mars, above the swirling clouds of Jupiter or beneath the Sun was only taken after months if not years of hard work and dedication by amazing people.  But I think it’s fair to say that many of the general public don’t.  I know from conversations with people after my outreach talks that many of them see the images space probes return and think they’re all taken automatically after getting to their destination. And they still think – perhaps because it’s how Hollywood still insists on portraying them – that space scientists are either a wild-haired, goggle-eyed boffins who run like lunatics around lab benches covered in smoking jars and jugs of bubbling chemicals, their arms flailing like ET,  or b) cold, unemotional  robots who stare at screens all day like computer hackers with their hearts removed, worshipping or looking for beauty in their strange graphs, diagrams and charts…

Nancy Atkinson (no, no relation!) knows they’re neither of those things, so she wrote a book about the real people behind the missions that fascinate and inspire us so much. Her book doesn’t bombard us with facts, figures and statistics. It sits us down by a virtual fireside on a stormy night, hands us a glass of wine, and shares with us “Incredible Stories From Space”.

Nancy writes with a real passion and love for the subject. She clearly loves and lives this stuff. Basically, she “gets it”, unlike some more established writers who simply repeat, regurgitate and repackage NASA’s press releases. She writes very visually, so visually that reading this book is like watching a really good TV documentary, one that tells real stories with clever and fitting language, and doesn’t need to rely on stupid trendy juddery camera angles and in-your-face CGI to tell those stories.

The book starts, fittingly, with a detailed look at the New Horizons mission to Pluto. I say “fittingly” because NH was, arguably, the most high profile and successful space mission of the last couple of decades. Space enthusiasts know how, after a difficult birth and very troubled childhood, NH revealed Pluto to be a fantastic and fascinating world in its own right, and even though I thought I knew the mission back to front and inside out I learned a lot of new information here. But best of all, it brought the men and women behind the mission – the ones we saw waving tiny Stars and Stripes  and grinning like Cheshire cats at the press conferences – to life.

The next section, on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, is another great fly-on-the-wall account of one of the most important space missions of our generation and, again, I learned a lot from it. MSL is a fascinating, history-making mission, which is doing spectacular science on the red planet and will help NASA prepare to land a crew on the surface one day. One thing I learned from this section, or rather had confirmed, because it’s something I’ve thought for a while now,  is that the MSL team hasn’t really bonded with their robotic ambassador; they haven’t anthropomorphized it like other teams – most notably the Mars Exploration Rover teams – have done with their hardware. Curiosity really is just a machine to them, a collection of tools dropped on Mars to do science. They don’t love Curiosity like Opportunity’s team clearly do. And that’s a shame, I think. They’re missing out on a lot. But that’s just me, I know others really can’t stand the way some probes and rovers are given personalities. Each to their own.  But I do think that the MSL are a quite serious lot compared to the MER team, and seem to have less passion for outreach and communicating their goals and results to the public, and I got that impression from this section too, although I readily admit that might just be my interpretation.

The section of the book on the Hubble Space Telescope is very enjoyable to read, a very pleasant review of the Hubble’s incredible impact on astronomy and its great value as an outreach tool. We take Hubble for granted now… “Oh look, another gorgeous Hubble image…” but its story, when you remind yourself, is pretty amazing, and will surely make a great film one day.

I was very pleased to see Nancy had devoted a large section of her book to the Kepler mission. One of my great passions is SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and although Kepler isn’t looking directly for alien life “out there” its surveys of the stars are turning up worlds where life might be possible, so in my head it’s a SETI mission, ok? Kepler isn’t really a “public” mission like MER or MSL in that it doesn’t produce pretty pictures;  its products are those aforementioned charts, graphs and squiggly lines, but Nancy shows how the people behind those are every bit as passionate and driven as the ones who take the front page-hogging portraits of martian mountains and Enceladean geysers. And this chapter gives a lot of insight into the fascinating science being conducted by the Kepler mission. I don’t think people have grasped yet the true significance of Kepler. We’ve started to take for granted its detections of planets whirling around alien stars, forgotten that what it is now doing regularly was, just a few years ago, science fiction. The fact is, Kepler is very possibly finding humanity’s far future homes.  One day flags will flutter, cities will be built and children will laugh and play on worlds discovered by Kepler, and the men and women working on the mission will be seen as every bit as heroic as the fictional starship captains who whooshed casually from star to star in their shiny, twin-nacelled Federation ships way back in the 21st century, so I appreciated Nancy’s book pulling back the curtain that separates me from them.

The Cassini mission is also covered well, but reading it I found myself feeling very sad that this amazing mission will soon be over: Cassini is due to be sent into a death dive into Saturn’s clouds later this year…

It was a lovely surprise to see the Solar Dynamics Obsevatory (“SDO” ) mission covered in Nancy’s book, as SDO is unfairly overlooked or even ignored by reporters and space enthusiasts because, for some reason, the Sun – that enormous hissing, spitting, flame-belching, roaring dragon at the solar system’s heart – is not seen as being as sexy or exciting as Mars, or Jupiter, or Saturn. This chapter makes it very clear just how fascinating an object our nearest star is, and how fascinated by it the people behind the SDO mission are.  I loved the chapter title too: “Downloading the Sun 24/7”, which describes accurately and very succinctly exactly what SDO does, drinking in data like a man dying of thirst who stumbles across an oasis in the middle of the desert.  And the book highlights the SDO team’s commitment to outreach, and the amazing outreach success of Camilla, the mission’s rubber chicken mascot, which has become a space celebrity in its… her… own right. Whoever came up with the idea of making a rubber chicken the public face of a multi-gazillion dollar mission to study the Sun either needs counselling or deserves a medal, I’m still not sure which..! But it’s a great example of how getting a mission mascot right can give that mission a huge public following and a priceless connection with the public. When it doesn’t work – and I’m looking at you, whichever genius thought it was a good idea to put a cat inside the Phoenix lander and send it to Mars, a planet which every space mad kid knows has no water, no food and no balls of string to play with – it’s cringe-worthy.

Next – MRO and HiRISE, obviously a big chapter for me, as a well-known Mars fanatic. Nancy relates how MRO was under quite incredible pressure to work after the humiliating failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander missions, which famously fell foul of the “Faster, Better, Cheaper” philosophy introduced by Dan Goldin when he was heading NASA.  Corners were cut, and Mars happily claimed two more scalps. If MRO had failed too, Mars might have been abandoned by NASA for a generation. Luckily it succeeded – no, not luckily. It succeeded because amazing people working ridiculously hard made sure it worked, and an orbiter reached Mars that could photograph objects on its surface just 3 feet across, as the book describes.

The MRO chapter does a great job of describing how effective and revolutionary the probe’s HiRISE camera is, and, like many other books have done, and no doubt will do for years to come, illustrates its incredible spy satellite capabilities with a beautiful colour image showing Victoria Crater, with the Mars Exploration Rover “Opportunity” visible on its crumbling edge, circled to aid identification. Unfortunately, it’s identified wrongly.  I realised as soon as I saw the picture that the black dot supposed to be Opportunity was in fact just a rock – it had to be, because Opportunity never reached that part of the crater rim. This is an unfortunate error, and really should have been caught before the book went to print, but these things happen, and no doubt it will be corrected in the reprint.

The chapter on LRO, the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter was very interesting to read, mainly because, I’ll freely admit, LRO hasn’t captured my attention or interest as much as other missions have done. Why? It’s not that I’m not interested in the Moon, I am! I think the problem has been that LRO’s images are not promoted and celebrated as much by NASA and the LRO team itself as those taken by other missons.  Also, as the book describes, LRO rather had the rug pulled out from under it early on, when NASA backed off from its ambitious plans to send astronauts back to the Moon in the near future. LRO’s mission was to support that endeavour by, as its name suggests, carrying out a detailed reconnaissance of the lunar surface. When NASA backed off from the Moon and turned its eyes to Mars once more, LRO was left floundering slightly. Which is a shame because its cameras have taken some jaw-droppingly gorgeous photos of the Moon!  Sadly,  the only time LRO images get any real exposure seems to be when they show Apollo hardware on the surface of the Moon, which must be very frustrating for the teams.

The book closes with a useful look at missions being planned for the future, and a thoughtful essay on “Why explore space?”

Ok, to wrap this up… This really is a good book and I can definitely recommend it to anyone interested in space exploration. Its great strengths are its writer, Nancy, and the way it is packed to bursting point with interviews with and quotes and comments from real people, the men and women who actually get the probes and rovers to their destination and keep them working there. That sets it aside from many of the other space exploration books out there.

If I have one criticism – and some of you will know what’s coming! – it’s that there’s no chapter dedicated to the Mars Exploration Rover missions of Spirit and Opportunity. They’re not ignored – they are covered, very briefly, in the Curiosity chapter – but surely those record-breaking rovers deserved their own section? I know authors like Nancy struggle to fit in everything they want to, because of limited space, and maybe she wanted to cover MER as well as MSL, I don’t know, but the MERs have been so successful, have achieved so much and enjoyed such huge public support that they warranted a chapter. The people who built the rovers, landed them safely on Mars and have driven them across Mars for so far and for so long have literally a generation’s worth of ‘Incredible Stories’ to tell, and I would have loved to read about those stories in this book.  I would especially have liked to have read about the heroic efforts to free Spirit after she got stuck in that dust-filled crater beside Home Plate in the shadow of the Columbia Hills. Now there’s an Incredible Story…!

But that omission doesn’t take ANYTHING away from the book as it is. It’s a great read, and really does a good job of describing the complexities behind the missions that intrigue, inspire and excite us. If you’re already a space enthusiast it will provide you with a lot of new information. If you’re just getting into space exploration it will open your eyes to the incredibly stressful but incredibly professional and passionate jobs real people do in order to get us priceless scientific data and beautiful pictures from across the solar system.

“INCREDIBLE STORIES FROM SPACE”

By Nancy Atkinson

Page Street Publishing

ISBN 978-1-62414-317-5