Wednesday’s Book Review: “Why Mars”

lambrightWhy Mars: NASA and the Politics of Space Exploration. By W. Henry Lambright. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. Preface, introduction, conclusion, notes, index. Hardcover. Pp. ix – 320. USD $45.46. ISBN: 978-1-4214-1279-5.

W. Henry Lambright’s Why Mars: NASA and the Politics of Space Exploration is an important new work that discusses the politics of the human exploration of Mars. For all of those who lament the unwillingness of political leaders to empower NASA to undertake a human mission to Mars, and especially those who view it as “the next logical step” Lambright’s study offers a dose of reality to the space policy issues at play. In the interest of full disclosure, I have known and respected the author of Why Mars for nearly 25 years and read this work in manuscript for the press, as well as contributed a blurb to its cover. Regardless, this study is exceptionally fine; it is very well researched, written, and analyzed.

This book is excellent for three interrelated reasons. First, and foremost, this is an excellent policy/political history of the Mars exploration program conducted by NASA. It is especially strong in the discussion of the highly successful Mars “follow the water” strategy that has dominated the NASA effort for nearly twenty years. This made it possible for NASA to garner public and political support for its integrated Mars initiative. No one has come close to explaining this development before Lambright and this alone makes this study a major contribution to the scholarly literature. Second, Lambright names names and offers assessments, some of them harsh, in his discussion of Mars exploration policy. Accordingly, this book elucidates the core issues in science policy and the convergences and divergences in relation to one of the biggest of all big science efforts. Third, Why Mars helps to illuminate several key policy issues, most important the lack of compelling policy reasons to undertake the expenditure of the enormous sums of money necessary to make a Mars mission real.

The subject of this work is, of course, of considerable interest. Mars has long held a special fascination for humans who pondered the planets of the solar ­system—partly because of the possibility that life might either presently exist or at some time in the past have existed ­there. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli published a work in 1877 that laid the foundation for this belief. His map of Mars showed a system of what he called canali, in Italian this meant “channel” and carried no connotation of being an artificial feature. Even so, the word was commonly translated into English as “canal” and began the speculation that Mars held life that were changing the planet’s features for their own purposes. American astronomer Percival Lowell became interested in Mars during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and built what became the Lowell Observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona, to study it. His research advanced the argument that Mars had once been a watery planet and that the topographical features known as canals had been built by intelligent beings. Lowell’s observations gave rise to the Martian myth, one of the most powerful ideas motivating in solar system exploration. People genuinely expected explorers to find life on Mars.

The idea of life on Mars remained in the popular imagination for a long time, and only with the scientific data returned from probes to the planet since the beginning of the space age did this begin to change. In June 1963 the Soviets reached Mars first, but with little scientific return. The United States did not reach Mars until July 1965, when Mariner 4 flew within 6,118 miles of the planet and took 21 ­close-­up pictures. These photographs dashed the hopes of many that life might be present on Mars, for the first ­close-up images showed a cratered, ­lunar-­like surface. They depicted a planet without structures and canals, nothing that even remotely resembled a pattern that intelligent life might produce. Mariner 6 and Mariner 7, launched in February and March 1969, each passed Mars in August 1969, studying its atmosphere and surface to lay the groundwork for an eventual landing on the planet. Their pictures verified the ­moon-­like appearance of Mars and gave no hint that Mars had ever been able to support life.

This study’s greatest strength is its illumination of several key policy issues present in NASA, space exploration, and larger science arena. Let me offer four policy concerns dealt with here: (1) Why Mars; what is it about the Red Planet that entices so many people to seek more information about it? (2) How and why do decisions about missions, technologies, and objectives get made in the modern post-industrial era? (3) What is NASA’s role—as well as the role of its factions—in the policy process? (4) How does the much-debated concept of “big science” relate to this undertaking?

At sum, this is a book about scientific institutions, scientific entrepreneurs, and politicos both elected and unelected  pursuing efforts to free the public purse of treasure to undertake missions to Mars. The story is firmly rooted in Washington, with other loci of policy occasionally emerging and requiring discussion. The central actors are NASA administrators of all levels, the occasional public intellectual, a few political actors, and not many others.

There are three things that this book is not really about although one could make the case that these are appropriate topics for future work:

  1. This is not a history of technology. There is virtually no discussion of the unique technologies developed to accomplish the Mars exploration program. While there is mention of rovers, landing methods, etc., this is not a history of technology innovation in the context of NASA’s Mars program. That is a project well worth undertaking, and I hope someone does so at some point, but that is not the theme of this manuscript.
  2. This is not a history of science. One will be hard pressed to learn much of anything about the physical properties of Mars, its atmosphere, climate, geology, etc., in these pages. Scientific studies of the planet do exist, although they are all written by scientists and have precious little insight into the historical evolution of this scientific inquiry. This would be a good study for someone to undertake, but it is not Lambright’s focus.
  3. This is not a sophisticated cultural history. The imagination of humans in relation to Mars, even up to the present, is not a central aspect of this manuscript. A book called “Mars and the American Imagination” would be well worth writing. It still awaits its historian.

Each of these three approaches would be excellent historical subjects to pursue. Perhaps other historians will take them on.

The persistence of belief that life had once been on Mars has motivated a major effort to land, rove, and learn about Mars. Lambright does a good job of telling the story of the desire and the divergences from Mars exploration in this policy history of exploration of the red planet.

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4 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Why Mars”

  1. The notion that Mariner 4, 6, and 7 dashed hopes of life on Mars is true to an extent, but was by no means as black-and-white as portrayed here. While Mars appeared moon-like to many, others noted that its craters were not sharply delineated, nor were they deep, and others pointed to the still unexplained (at that time) “wave of darkening” and other seasonal changes visible from Earth. “Variable features” remained an inspiration to seekers of martian life all the way up to Mariner 9; then they were replaced by the volcanoes and outflow channels, clear signs that Mars had once been different. This was enough – admittedly, in conjunction with Soviet claims about their Solar System goals – to build support for Viking. In fact, optimism about Mars life ultimately undermined Viking and NASA’s other Mars efforts; the belief that microscopic life would be ubiquitous on the planet’s surface set us up for disappointment.

    Mariner 9 was, of course, the second of two Mariners targeted for Mars in 1971; Mariner 8 was lost to a booster malfunction. It’s not widely known that one of the two 1971 Mariners was intended to focus on variable features; the edges of the melting martian ice caps were of particular interest. Carl Sagan was instrumental in this. The loss of Mariner 8 meant a combined mission for Mariner 9, which caused these goals to become deemphasized, though many of the planned observations were in fact accomplished.

    In the years since Viking, we have learned that life can thrive in many different niches, using many different energy sources, and that planets exchange materials through impact processes. We have determined that as much or more biomass exists on Earth far below its surface than on its surface. We have learned that the Viking biology experiments were naively conceived, and that their results were at best equivocal. One can argue that we never really searched for life on Mars; we searched on Mars for Earth life as we understood it in about 1968.

    I hope you will forgive me for noting that my NASA-published book HUMANS TO MARS is available online and includes additional insights into our relationship with Mars and our hopes for its exploration.



  2. spacegary says:

    You say the author points out “lack of compelling policy reasons to make a Mars mission real.” Are there any compelling science reasons, or have our robots learned enough to make human exploration unecessary? Or are there compelling emotional reasons, like creating a second home for humans (terraforming)? I would like to see these discussed too.
    Thanks for bringing this to my attention. An e-Book version instead of the expensive hardcover would make it available to a much wider audience.


  3. Dan Lester says:

    I look forward to reading this book. The emphasis on policy is of great value

    I have to say that much of the public and political support for the NASA Mars initiative is probably not founded on looking for life there. It won’t take sending humans to the surface of Mars to establish if native life is there, and doing so may actually complicate that endeavor. So “big science” is probably somewhat secondary to the human spaceflight component of our Mars initiative. I should also note that it really isn’t even the seeking of information about Mars that entices the public to try to send humans there. As pointed out in this review, and presumably by Lambright in his book, that enticement is the product of a century or more of highly imaginative thinking about the habitability of Mars for us, and the “Mars myth”. Certainly, the challenge of putting in-the-flesh human presence on Mars is an attractive one, though without a clear goal it has to look a little like a “because it’s there” stunt, perhaps one that mainly serves geopolitical exceptionalism. There are those who believe that colonization and settlement beyond Earth are required for species insurance, though careful biological work on this suggests that such insurance will require a critical mass of tens of thousands of human genomes, rather than just a mom and pop at an outpost. As such, it may be that large scale colonization of Mars is not the most cost effective way to insure our species.

    This being the case, the lack of compelling policy for sending humans to Mars is indeed conspicuous and exasperating, and will handicap any efforts to make it happen.

    Liked by 1 person

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