Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Scientific Exploration of Mars”

scientific exploration of MarsThe Scientific Exploration of Mars. By Frederic W. Taylor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010. V + 348 pages. Prologue, acknowledgments, notes, illustrations, appendices, index. ISBN: 978-0-521-82956-4. $45, hardcover.

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 there or at some time in the past it might have existed ­there. Astronomer Percival Lowell became interested in Mars during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and he built what became the Lowell Observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona, to study the planet. He argued that Mars had once been a watery planet and that the topographical features known as canals had been built by intelligent beings, created as a planetary-wide effort to bring precious water from the poles to inhabited parts of Mars nearer the equator. The idea of intelligent life on Mars remained in the pop­u­lar imagination for a long time, and not until the scientific data returned from probes to the planet beginning in the mid-1960s did this begin to change.

But near the dawn of the new millennium this began to change as probe after probe peeled back the mysteries of Mars. NASA’s official strategy, “Follow the Water,” yielded enormously significant results. Since then satellite have imaged gullies on Martian cliffs and crater walls, suggesting that liquid water has seeped onto the surface in the geologically recent past. This was confirmed by Mars Odyssey 2001, a recent NASA orbiter, which found that hydrogen-rich regions are located in areas known to be very cold and where ice should be stable. This relationship between high hydrogen content with regions of predicted ice stability led scientists to conclude that the hydrogen is, in fact, in the form of ice. The ice-rich layer may be about two feet beneath the surface at 60 degrees south latitude, and gets to within about one foot of the surface at 75 degrees south latitude. Only time and more research will tell if these findings will prove out. If they do, then human opportunities for colonization of Mars expand exponentially. With water, either in its liquid or solid form, humans can make many other necessary compounds necessary to live and work on Mars.

The Scientific Exploration of Mars by Frederic W. Taylor is a welcome addition to the literature on the Red Planet. It is part history, part statement of the scientific balance sheet, and part personal memoir of the place of Mars in modern science by a well-respected space scientist. Taylor provides a sophisticated, but accessible account of what we know about the red planet, along with some discussion of how we know it. He also offers insight on occasion into how some of this science was accomplished. He is at his best in descriptions of the origin and evolution of the planet, the nature of its changing climate; the nature of the volcanism, impacts, and water; and the search for life.

Where this book fails is concerning the history of Mars exploration. Frederic Taylor is a fine scientist but a poor historian. The basic chronology is correct, B follows A and the like; the core questions of why and so what are elusive. This is very much history written by a non-historian. One will look long and hard for human actors in this story. Discussions of planning, politics, budgets, decision-making, setbacks, personalities, and coups are conspicuous for their absence.

One example of this problem in reciting this history will suffice. In 1967 the space science community learned a hard lesson concerning planetary science when because of political infighting it lost a Mars lander. In that instance, based on recommendations from planetary scientists, NASA’s Office of Space Science had formulated a $2 billion program (in 1960s dollars) to search for life on Mars known at that time as Voyager (not to be confused with Voyagers 1 and 2 that went to the outer planets a decade later). At the same time Homer Newell, leading the NASA science program, canceled plans for missions to other planets to make possible this expensive Mars mission. While a few scientists supported the Voyager mission, many thought it too risky and expensive. A public dispute spilled into the Capitol before the general public.

In the fall of 1967, frustrated by the Congressional action and irritated at this strife, NASA Administrator James E. Webb stopped all work on new planetary missions until the scientists could agree on a planetary program. Thereafter, the scientific community went to work hammered out a mutually acceptable planetary program for the 1970s. Retrenched and restructured, a program emerged that led to a succession of stunning missions throughout the 1970s, even as budgetary pressures and reduced political support remained.

The scientific community learned a hard lesson about the pragmatic, and sometimes brutal, politics associated with the execution of “Big Science” under the suzerainty of the federal government. Most important, it realized that strife within the discipline had to be kept within the discipline in order to put forward a united front against the priorities of other interest groups and other government leaders. While imposing support from the scientific community could not guarantee that any initiative would become a political reality, without it a program could not be funded. It also learned that while a $750 million program found little opposition at any level, a $2 billion project crossed an ill-defined but very real threshold triggering intense competition for those dollars. Having learned these lessons, as well as some more subtle ones, the space science community regrouped and went forward in the latter part of the 1960s with a trimmed-down Mars lander program, called Viking, which was funded and provided astounding scientific data in the mid-1970s.

I have just told you more about the Voyager program, a turning point in both the planetary science program in the United States and the efforts to understanding the red planet, than is contained in Taylor’s study. His discussion is confined to a single paragraph, with not one whiff of the political controversy surrounding it. The Scientific Exploration of Mars views history as an ever upward and outward march of progress.

We see this same approach in other episodes in this book, not the least of which is Taylor’s discussion in the last section of a possible human exploration of Mars in the near future. There are discussions of planning exercises and the like, but no effort to answer the core question, why a human expedition to Mars or a closely related one, why should the public expend precious treasure on such an expedition? Here, Taylor might have pondered such questions as the nature of the human/robot debate in space exploration, as well as any number of others that are germane to the issue of human expeditions to Mars. Instead, he falls back on clichéd phraseology extolling the virtues of such an exploration, and the sometime zany ideas of Robert Zubrin as offered in The Case for Mars (1996).

As a work of Mars planetology written for a general audience this book is quite satisfactory. As a work of history it is sadly lacking.

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4 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Scientific Exploration of Mars”

  1. Roger:

    This paragraph of your fine review caught my eye –

    >>The space science community learned a hard lesson in practical politics from the Voyager fiasco. Most important, it learned to resolve differences in internal discussions, not in public complaints to the media or in testimony before Congress. It also learned that while strong support from scientists could not necessarily guarantee political support for a mission, lack of agreement among the space science community would certainly ensure a program’s demise.<<

    I agree especially with your final sentence. But did they really learn? I've been delving into the US Halley probe fiasco – a complex brew of ego, technology promises that couldn't be kept, and dumb politicking – and I think it meant a great deal more as an educational experience for scientists than did Mars/Venus Voyager.



    • launiusr says:

      I guess we can debate whether they actually learned anything. I believe they did because they went on to develop the decadal surveys which help to create a rallying point for the community. They still fight a lot, but it’s not so public.


      • Roger:

        Thinking on it further, the problem in these cases was not so much the science community as the science community and the engineers. The latter promised the scientists things they couldn’t deliver for a cost anyone would pay. Halley turned into a battle over advanced propulsion instead of a comet mission, for example. Mars Sample Return is the story of one engineering battle after another; since the mid-1980s it hasn’t even been about MSR, it has been about how JPL could get a rover out of MSR. The scientists were either swept up in the technological promises or preached caution, though typically they didn’t have much influence in these cases.



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