Wednesday’s Book Review: “Dreams of Other Worlds”

Dreams of other WorldsDreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration. By Chris Impey and Holly Henry (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2013). Pp. 450. $35. ISBN: 978-0-691-14753-6.

Should scientists write history? Most of the time, I don’t think so. This is one of those times. Chris Impey is a very fine astronomer who has been involved in many space science investigations over the years. His co-author, Holly Henry, is a professor of English and therefore knows how to turn a phrase. Neither is an historian, nor should they pretend to be. Overall, the narrative presented here is a mission-by-mission summary of individual efforts, all but one of them from NASA, and a summation of what was learned from the effort. That is fine as far as it goes. But, the reality is that there is little context offered for why those missions were undertaken, the questions that they pursued, the breadth of effort necessary to execute them, and the place of those missions in larger stories of solar system science and knowledge production.

As only one example, after a breathless introductory chapter that ranges from the ancients to the space age, the authors pursue two chapters on Mars missions, one on the Viking missions of the 1970s and another on the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) that landed in 2004. The authors exploit the longstanding fascination humans have harbored for Mars, invoking gentleman astronomer Percival Lowell and the “canals” he claimed to see. Lowell 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. This concept dominated studies of the Red Planet until the space age although many scientists are convinced that Mars was once a watery planet and NASA’s official strategy, “Follow the Water,” has guided its efforts since the 1990s.

Where this book fails is concerning the cul-de-sacs and contours of the history of science and technology. Using the Mars example, Impey and Hunter fail to appreciate the nuances this effort. Discussions of personalities, planning, politics, budgets, decision-making, setbacks, and coups are conspicuous by their absence.

One example of this problem will suffice. In 1967 the Mars scientific community pursued a planetary lander. In response, NASA’s Office of Space Science formulated a $2 billion program (in 1960s dollars) to search for life on Mars. At the same time NASA canceled plans for other efforts to make possible this expensive Mars mission. While Mars specialists supported this mission, many other scientists opposed it. A public dispute spilled into the Capitol. In the summer of 1967 because of conflicting testimony from scientists and funding shortfalls elsewhere politician forced a cancelation of the Mars lander. Not until the 1970s did this project come to fruition as the Viking program. Everyone learned a hard lesson: resolve internal disputes before they reach Congress and present a united front to the public. While strong support from scientists could not necessarily guarantee political support, lack of agreement would ensure a program’s demise.

I have just told you more about this effort to land on Mars, a turning point in both the planetary science program and Mars explorations, than is contained in Dreams of Other Worlds. Instead, this work views history as an ever upward and outward march of progress.

The rest of the book takes much the same approach. Chapters may be found on the Voyager mission to the outer solar system gas giants, the Cassini mission to Saturn, the Stardust mission to sample cometary dust, the Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO), the Hipparcos space astrometry mission that pinpointed the positions of some 100,000 stars, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). There is no question about the importance of each of these projects, but it begs the question about why these and not others—Galileo to Jupiter and Magellan to Venus come to mind—received profiles. The process of determining what do discuss is a bit arbitrary and idiosyncratic.

Moreover, what does this all mean? The authors seek to deal with this as cosmology in the concluding chapter. There discussion of the immensity and diversity of our universe morphs into generic cosmological explication. Impey and Henry focus on the context of other worlds on which life might reside and on contemplating multiple universes that could harbor other life. As a work of cosmology, seeking to “redefine what it means to be the temporary tenants of a small planet in a vast cosmos” (dustjacket) this book may be useful. As a work of history that documents, analyses, and explains the history of a major effort to understand worlds beyond Earth it leaves something to be desired. I wish a capable historian had participated on this writing team.

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3 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Dreams of Other Worlds”

  1. spacegary says:

    Very informative review thank you. Interesting story about NASA’s funding politics in 1967 – as a 12-year old I missed that.


  2. I wrote a little essay about some of the difficulties space history faces –

    Not too long ago I read the first chapter of a book about Voyager (the outer planets mission). I gave it a one-star Amazon review and didn’t read further because the author had completely bollixed the origins of modern gravity-assist. The author took umbrage, telling me he’d relied not on written sources – primary source documents – but on recollections of people involved. He said this as though that was a superior approach.

    It’s great to include recollections, but they need to be checked against source docs since they are often faulty. If, on top of relying only on recollections one chats with the wrong people, then the result is hash.

    What surprised me was how other reviewers of the book were happy to give him a pass because this author is famous and popular. Never mind reality, they seemed to say, I like the author, so pointing out serious faults is unwelcome. One reviewer wrote that he read space history books for fun and the author’s story was good enough for him.

    So – popular space history seems to be viewed as a sort of science fiction, not real history. It’s about nostalgia, about perpetuating a heroic narrative, not about getting at what happened and why.



    • launiusr says:

      That’s a great comment David. I agree much of what passes for space history is problematic. I don’t mind first person accounts but if they contradict what we already know, or think we know, there had better be a good reason.


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