Wednesday’s Book Review: “Forever Blue”


forever-blue-high-resForever Blue: The True Story of Walter O’Malley, Baseball’s Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles. By Michael D’Antonio. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

There is no doubt but that Walter O’Malley (1903-1979), known to nemeses and fans alike as “The O’Malley,” was one of the most significant forces in major league baseball (MLB) between the 1940s and the 1970s. He gained partial control of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the early 1940s, pushed out the two other members of the Dodger troika—including Branch Rickey—and then assumed sole ownership for the rest of his life. He supported the integration of MLB—although he did not instigate it—fought repeatedly with Jackie Robinson and never really made up, sought a new baseball stadium in Brooklyn but ran afoul of New York public works guru Robert Moses, engineered the movement of the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958, built a great baseball park with a lot of political help in Chavez Ravine after ousting Hispanic squatters, and oversaw a terrific baseball team that dominated the National League in the early 1960s.

In the process O’Malley earned the ire of the whole of Brooklyn, at least partially inappropriately, gained the admiration of movie stars and others who wanted to bask in the glory of the Dodgers as they arrived in luxury in the third inning and left before the end of the seventh, and held the fierce loyalty of such true believers as manager Walter Alston and Buzzie Bavasi. Through all of this, O’Malley created a superb organization that ensured success on the field and generally positive relations outside the lines.

But O’Malley was neither universally liked nor respected; some even considered him evil. I don’t mean the Brooklynites who still condemn him to a special place in hell for spiriting the Dodgers to the West Coast. That story is much more complex than most people appreciate. I am speaking of those inside the MLB power structure. Longtime Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber, for example, characterized O’Malley as “the most devious man I ever met” (p. 335). I tend to believe Barber, in part because of how O’Malley entered the story of Charlie Finley that I researched a few years ago. The characterization of Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley, who also had his share of troubles with MLB’s most powerful owner, was extremely negative. Finley believed, quite rightly, that for decades O’Malley had manipulated baseball and its commissioners in manners that suited the Dodgers and himself. He believed Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, for example, served as a mere puppet to the powerful Dodger owner. And there is no doubt but that he was right.

Michael D’Antonio’s Forever Blue is a passable biography of Walter O’Malley. It is mostly, but not exclusively, about baseball and the Dodgers. D’Antonio gained access to O’Malley papers held by the family and therefore could bring to bear insights not available in any other account of his life. Unfortunately, while he uses these materials I’m not convinced that a real historian rather than a journalist, could not have employed them to write a much more satisfying biography. Until someone does so, this will probably have to suffice. It’s not a bad book, although I think overly apologetic toward an MLB stalwart that has a lot of warts on his face; I just believe the subject is so rich and the opportunity so great that there is much more to be done.

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Comments on the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 (Public Law 75-706)


Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower

I recently participated in a discussion of educational materials to be prepared for helping to understand the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, president between January 1953 and January 1961. Eisenhower, whether one agrees with his policies or not, was a consequential president whose administration should be credited with many accomplishments. At the meeting, however, I learned that he was being credited with some that were undeserved. Most of those in the room had the mistaken impression that before the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 which created the Federal Aviation Agency, renamed the Federal Aviation Administration in 1966 when it became part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, there had been essentially no regulatory environment for aviation. I found this remarkable, and noted that it was not like there was nothing beforehand governing flight operations in the U.S. Accordingly, I thought it appropriate to review briefly the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, which preceded the FAA by twenty years. Here is what I offered to the group.

An earlier Air Commerce Act of 1926 had also been a significant piece of legislation in establishing the nascent aviation industry’s place in the nation’s business culture, but it was far from an ideal mechanism for fostering and regulating aviation. By the latter part of the 1930s many people, including many members of Congress, were convinced of the necessity of overhauling the existing legislation. Even as the Congress was debating what to do with air mail contracts in 1934, Pat McCarran (D-NV) began to frame a bill for the management of aviation in the United States.

Senator Pat McCarran and Senator Key Pittman, (right) both Democrats from Nevada, exchanging opinions on President Roosevelt's proposal that the membership of the Supreme Court be increased to possibly 15 members. They are pictured as they attended a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator Pat McCarran and Senator Key Pittman, (right) both Democrats from Nevada, exchanging opinions on President Roosevelt’s proposal that the membership of the Supreme Court be increased to possibly 15 members. They are pictured as they attended a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

On March 26, 1934, McCarran proposed that all civil aviation be controlled by one authority having quasi-administrative powers similar to the Interstate Commerce Commission. The bill was almost immediately voted down by the Senate, as historian Nick A. Komons has commented, because it “was slightly ahead of its time; but the tide of informed opinion was running, if ever so slowly, in the direction of comprehensive economic regulation.”

McCarran worked almost alone during the next four years to gain passage of a similar bill to what he had proposed in 1934. He exhibited the most systematic thinking about aviation of any member of Congress. A sponsor of several pieces of aeronautics legislation, McCarran eventually developed a far-ranging plan for the region which he called “the blueprint for a new frontier.” A central point of it was the fostering of air transportation. “Huge cargo planes will become commonplace, and millions of tons of cargo will move by air,” he wrote in 1943. He added, “The skies will be filled with cargo vessels, plying the true course through that greatest sea of all—the Aerial Ocean….The inland regions of the west will not be inland, so to speak, because every airline and every airport facility brings these inland regions to the coast.” McCarran glimpsed something of the prospect of aviation for his region in the 1930s, saw much of it fulfilled during the war, and expected even more of it in the postwar environment.

McCarran wanted to be the author of the legislation that by 1938 many people believed was necessary to the safe conduct of air operations. The aeronautics world had been under a state of virtual political siege since May 6, 1935, when another member of Congress, Bronson Cutting, had been killed in the crash of a TWA airliner outside Kansas City, Missouri. He had been returning from New Mexico where he had been campaigning for reelection when the plane went down. More and more, people blamed the lack of firm federal control of aviation for Cutting’s death. McCarran was one, and he wanted to take a lead in avenging it with this legislation. There were a lot of ticklish congressional manueverings as this process went forward, FDR disliked McCarran and froze him out of the game of political give and take that was so much a part of the legislative process.

Instead Roosevelt decided to work through another longstanding aviation proponent, McCarran’s colleague, Representative Clarence F. Lea (D-CA). On March 4, 1938, Lea introduced H.R. 9738, a bill based on a Commerce Department recommendation to the Roosevelt administration. Lea’s bill had several important provisions: (1) a five-member Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) to oversee civil aeronautics; (2) a safety board to investigate and determine the probable cause of aircraft accidents; (3) gave the CAA to supervise intrastate flying; (4) allowed for certifications to remain in effect indefinitely; and (5) grandfathered all present certifications under the new CAA.

McCarran proposed his own legislation, a bill that was much more stringent in its management of aeronautics, that did not have the support of the president. At the same time FDR convinced Senator Harry Truman (D-MO) and Royal S. Copeland (D-VT) to introduce legislation similar to Lea’s which would have the backing of the administration. This effort, they believed, would circumvent McCarran’s efforts and enhance the opportunity for the Senate to pass legislation similar to Lea’s in the House.

There followed some sophisticated political hijinks, as the three senators worked for their various bills. McCarran believed, however, that the end was critical to his region and the nation. At one point he said that he had no pride of authorship and simply wanted a bill to pass. “Take my name off the bill if you want to,” he announced. “We need this legislation more than I need my name on a bill.” At the same time McCarran introduced another aviation bill that was similar to Lea’s. It was reported out of committee in May and on the 13th it was passed by the full Senate.

On May 18, 1934, the House passed Lea’s bill, and the two bodies formed a conference to complete the legislation. In considering the act McCarran gave one of his most impassioned speeches. Having just returned from a funeral in Nevada, he told how he had traveled 3,000 miles in a single day. “Every inch of the way there sat at the controls of that great plane a young man who had in his hands my life,” he said, adding that the U.S. must pass this legislation so that it “may take its place in the forefront of this great science and this great industry.”

Members of new Civil Aeronautics Authority take Oath of Office. Washington, D.C., August 8, 1938. Members of the newly created Civil Aeronautics Authority were administered the Oath of Office enmasse today by Associate Justice Harold M. Stephens of the Supreme Court.

Members of new Civil Aeronautics Authority take Oath of Office. Washington, D.C., August 8, 1938. Members of the newly created Civil Aeronautics Authority were administered the Oath of Office enmasse today by Associate Justice Harold M. Stephens of the Supreme Court.

McCarran’s rhetoric proved decisive. On June 11, 1938, the House agreed to the conference bill, and the Senate concurred two days later. Roosevelt signed the Civil Aeronautics Act into law on June 23, 1938, and it went into effect two months later. The act gave the air carriers an economic charter. It also created the Civil Aeronautics Authority and Air Safety Board, both with broad powers to establish and operate airways, and to regulate commercial air operations.

Robert H. Hinckley (right) discusses aviation with Orville Wright.

Robert H. Hinckley (right) discusses aviation with Orville Wright.

When the CAA was created one of the key figures in it was Robert H. Hinckley, who first entered it in 1938 and became its chairman in April 1939. From this post Hinckley tried to acclimate Americans to flying as a way of life. He summarized this perspective as “air conditioning,” the romance of flying. He said that this was “conditioning people to the air; just as the people of the South Sea Islands are conditioned to the water, that other strange element to man.” He wrote, “to be air-conditioned means to be in a state of readiness to do something about aviation and not just to feel strongly about it.”

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Reflections on the Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb


A couple of years ago I published on this blog the following discussion of the decision to use the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. On the seventieth anniversary of this defining event in human history I am calling attention to it anew. I would welcome your comments.

The B-29 built by Boeing during World War was a critical new technology that transformed post-war aviation.

The B-29 built by Boeing during World War was a critical new technology that transformed post-war aviation.

It comes up every year at the time of the anniversary. It is one of the most difficult and complex questions in American history. Why did the leadership of the United States choose to drop the atomic bomb on Japan in August 1945, not once but twice?

This represents one of the most complex, divisive, and nuanced debates in the history of the United States in the twentieth century. U.S. President Harry S. Truman in August 1945 chose to drop two atomic bombs from B-29s on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, thereby forcing Japan to surrender and thereby ending World War II. A traditional conception of the decision, indeed the one most often voiced by actors in the decision, was that it was done to speed the end of the war and thereby preserve American lives that might be lost in future combat.

A revisionist interpretation, often identified with Gar Alperowitz, argues that the war was almost over and that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender anyway. The reason to drop the bomb, therefore, had little to do with the ending of World War II and was aimed more at impressing and influencing future relations with the Soviet Union. Another interpretation suggests that the use of the atomic bomb had more to do with American racism, and that the U.S. would have refrained from using such a horrific weapon on other Caucasians in Europe. Other scholars condemn the use of such a weapon targeting large populations, including non-combatants, as immoral and obscene. Subsequent historians have argued various permutations of these interpretations and the debate remains far from settled.

In the end historians have offered five fundamental considerations that played into the decision by Truman to use atomic bombs in August 1945. First, the decision makers, especially Truman, sought to end the war at the earliest possible moment. They believed this new and terrifying weapon would do so and should therefore be employed for what they considered the greater good of ending the bloodshed. Wrapped up in this argument, although historian J. Samuel Walker, who has written a book on the interpretations of the decision, thinks it a bit of side issue, was a widely held belief that bringing the Japanese to the surrender table would require an invasion of its islands.

This would be, as those considering it believed, a costly and lengthy campaign that might mean the loss of thousands of lives on both sides. Casualty estimates of all types exist, and they have been used in the debate since then to justify or condemn the use of the bomb. Those estimates, which are at best educated guesses that range broadly depending on the assumptions and the perspectives of those making them, are less useful in assessing what took place than the understanding that Truman was unwilling to accept any more casualties than absolutely necessary.

Second, Truman and his advisors were intensely concerned that they had to justify the enormous cost of developing the atomic weapon, and a decision not to use it once it existed would open them to significant criticism. As historian J. Samuel Walker concluded in “prompt & utter destruction”: Truman and the Use of the Atomic Bomb against Japan (1997): “The success of the Manhattan Project in building the bombs and ending the war was a source of satisfaction and relief.”

In this context, Truman expressed great concern that should he decide not to use the weapon once he had it that every American life lost thereafter would have been wasted. As he explained to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in 1947, “I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.”

Third, at least one of Truman’s advisors, Secretary of State Byrnes, realized immediately and argued to his colleagues that this weapon would be useful in helping to bend the Soviet Union to American wishes in the post-war era. Truman recognized this as well, but according to Walker this was definitely an added bonus and not the primary consideration in using the bomb. As Walker concluded, “Growing differences with the Soviet Union were a factor in the thinking of American officials about the bomb but were not the main reason that they rushed to drop it on Japan.” Gar Alperowitz’s “atomic diplomacy” thesis, therefore, has merit however overstated it might have been.

Fourth, there was a lack of incentives among those making these decisions not to use the bomb. “Truman,” as Walker notes, “used the bomb because he had no compelling reason to avoid it.” While many people since 1945 have questioned the morality of its use, Truman and his advisors did not let those scruples—and they did exist among them—outweigh their goal of ending the war as quickly as possible.

Indeed, by the last year of the war conventional weaponry had laid waste to so many cities containing thousands of non-combatants—witness the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo—that virtually no one in a senior decision-making role in the U.S. questioned the use of nuclear weapons despite their destructiveness since they believed dropping these bombs would shorten the war and save American and perhaps enemy lives.

Fifth, there is no question that such comments as these affected the debate: “Hatred of the Japanese, a desire for revenge for Pearl Harbor, and racist attitudes were a part of the mix of motives that led to the atomic attacks.” Again, this was not the primary consideration in dropping the bomb on Japan, “But the prevalent loathing of Japan, both among policymakers and the American people,” according to Walker, “helped override any hesitation or ambivalence that Truman and his advisors might have felt about use of atomic bombs.”

There are a series of questions still being debated about the decision to use the bomb. These include: “(1) how long the war would have continued if the bomb had not been used; (2) how many casualties American forces would have suffered if the bomb had not been dropped; (3) whether an invasion would have been necessary without the use of the bomb; (4) the number of American lives and casualties an invasion would have exacted had it proven necessary; (5) whether Japan would have responded favorably to an American offer to allow the emperor to remain on the throne before Hiroshima, or whether such an offer would have prolonged the war; and (6) whether any of the alternatives to the use of the bomb would have ended the war as quickly on a basis satisfactory to the United States.”

These historiographical questions ensure that future study of this subject will remain contested; overlaying all of it, of course, is the question of the morality of Truman’s decision. There is probably no conclusion to the debate, instead further inquiry and exposition will make a contribution to the marketplace of ideas where positions will be evaluated and accepted, rejected, or modified.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Roots of American Exceptionalism”


The Roots of American ExceptionalismThe Roots of American Exceptionalism: Institutions, Culture, and Policies. By Charles Lockhart. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

This book seeks to answer the core question: is the United States different from other wealthy democracies, and if so how? Is it exceptional? In this short book political scientist Charles Lockhart compares four basic policy issues—taxation, medical care, abortion, and immigration and citizenship—between the U.S. and other nations in the world. His answer is that the U.S. is different from several other nations; whether better or not Lockhart leaves to the reader.

In every case, Lockhart finds that the different nations’ “unique historical experiences, distinctive paths of institutional development and the resulting disparities in the influence of rival cultures within them routinely produce cross-societal variations in particular policies” (p. 159).

He finds in every comparison that the United States has a set of baseline perspectives that press policy choices in certain directions. First, Lockhart emphasizes that the United States has adopted “a modestly extractive and minimally progressive tax regime, limited public financing of medical care (and limited social programs generally), and abortion policy which locates decision-making in the hands of ordinary women, and policies of relative openness with regard to immigration and inclusiveness with respect to citizenship” (pp. 169-60).

Second, the author then suggests that in relation to the other nations he surveys—Canada, Sweden, France, and Japan—Americans enjoy more freedom to make their own decisions, find their own way, rely less on government support, and “share their collective life with a more rapidly growing number of new immigrants and citizens” (p. 160).

American ideals support this approach to dealing with these issues. Lockhart emphasizes the longstanding American beliefs in individualism, egalitarianism, and opposition to hierarchy as major drivers in making the U.S. different from other wealthy democracies in its approach to these questions. If there is an American exceptionalism, Lockhart suggests, it rests on these longstanding values.

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Beginning the Age of Satellite Communication: Echo 1, August 1960


I just spoke with a journalist about the Echo 1 communications satellite test that took place in August 1960. It’s interesting that this month marks the fifty-fifth anniversary of the world’s first communication satellite, but it is an anniversary that passing with modest recollection. Why? It seems that this may have been because this was a very unique satellite, not at all what we have come to expect from communication satellite technology. Echo 1 was an experiment, and little more; an inflated sphere that ground stations could bounce a signal off.

Echo 1 in a NASA hangar during and inflation test. Note the people and the auto at the bottom.

Launched on August 12, 1960, Echo 1was designed to test the concept of a communication satellite. The idea for communication satellites really gained credence in 1945 when science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke posited that three satellites placed in geosynchronous (stationary) orbit 22,240 miles above the equator could be used to bounce radio waves around the globe. The idea thrilled many scientists and with the dawning of the space age NASA began an effort to make it a reality.

Echo 1’s design was remarkably simple: a reflective sphere 100 feet in diameter that bounced signals directed at it from one location on Earth to another.  For several weeks ground stations experimented with the sphere, easily visible from the ground as it passed overhead, by bouncing signals from one station on the Earth to another. And it was successful. It worked between points in America, and it worked transatlantically.

The Echo satellite test posed a unique technical challenge.  It was in essence a balloon sent into orbit folded flat and then inflated in space.  Inflation had to be accomplished carefully to keep the sphere from exploding, and at least one did so during a test in a vacuum chamber.

Difficulties abounded in trying to launch an inflatable, passive satellite, but tests were successful on August 12, 1960, and thereafter.

Telstar 1

At the same time active-repeater communications satellites were being developed, the first of which was the Bell Telephone Laboratories Telstar project. Beginning in 1962, several generations of Telstars, as well as other types of communications satellites in Earth orbit, helped to make Clarke’s idea of real-time global communications a reality by the mid-1960s.

Communications satellites became ubiquitous thereafter. Seeing the enormous commercial potential of space-based communications, the U.S. Congress passed the Communications Satellite Act of 1962, creating a Communication Satellite Corporation (Comsat) with ownership divided fifty/fifty between the general public and the telecommunications corporations to manage global satellite communications for the United States.

Near the same time U.S. leaders recognized the possibility of competition and participated in the establishment of the International Telecommunication Satellite Consortium (INTELSAT), with Comsat as manager, to provide an international communication satellite system. Founded by nineteen nations, with eventual membership of well over a hundred, it was initially very much an American organization, with the United States controlling sixty‑one percent of the voting authority and all the technology. It oversaw the development of Intelsat 1 in 1965, the first of what would later become a global communications satellite network. With this satellite system in orbit the world became a far different place. Within a few years telephone circuits increased from five hundred to thousands and live television coverage of events anywhere in the world became commonplace.

An Echo 1 commemorative cover.

One could make the case that the most significant change to the life of the ordinary Earthling coming from our ability to fly in space is global instantaneous telecommunications. This is made possible by the constellations of communications satellites in Earth orbit. Without them, there would be at best a limited Internet, real time news and sports coverage worldwide, and a host of other capabilities that have come to dominate our lives.

Whether our lives would be significantly better or worse if this capability did not exist is problematic, but I think it would be quite different. Some of us might well think that a positive development, though I doubt most would want to go back to problematic global communication. The point, of course, is that the past did not have to develop in the way that it did, and that there is evidence to suggest that the larger space program pushed technological development in certain paths that might have not been followed otherwise, both for good and ill. It remains to be seen how historians might seek to look at the overall impact of satellite communications on American lifestyles a century from now.

This transformation began, albeit in a small way, with the launch of Echo 1 in August 1960. It accelerated thereafter and we live in a different world because of instantaneous global telecommunications.

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Boarding the Spaceplane?


I posted this originally to the blog, “Above and Beyond,” on June 15, 2015. I thought I would reprint here.

Artist's concept of the X-30 aerospace plane flying through Earth's atmosphere on its way to low-Earth orbit. the experimental concept is part of the National Aero-Space Plane Program. The X-30 is planned to demonstrate the technology for airbreathing space launch and hypersonic cruise vehicles.

Artist’s concept of the X-30 aerospace plane flying through Earth’s atmosphere on its way to low-Earth orbit. the experimental concept is part of the National Aero-Space Plane Program. The X-30 is planned to demonstrate the technology for airbreathing space launch and hypersonic cruise vehicles.

During the administration of President Ronald Reagan, senior government officials began to discuss the possibility of developing an “Orient Express,” a hybrid air and spaceplane that could carry ordinary people between New York City and Tokyo in about one hour. How is this possible? Actually, the concept is quite simple: Develop an aerospace plane that can take off like a conventional jetliner from an ordinary runway. Flying supersonic, it reaches an altitude of 45,000-50,000 feet, where the pilots start scramjet engines, a jet technology that has the potential to push jetcraft to hypersonic speeds.

The spaceplane would rise to the edge of space and darts to the opposite side of the globe, where the process is reversed and the vehicle lands like a conventional airplane. It never reaches orbit, but technically it flies in space. The experience is similar to orbital flight, except for the shorter time.

The spaceplane concept has long been a staple of dreams of spaceflight. Seemingly, it holds enormous promise and could become reality in the twenty-first century. Spaceplanes promise passengers an opportunity to travel around the globe with greater speed and ease than any jetliners provide today.

The cost of such flights will be high, without question. New technologies would be necessary to build passenger spaceplanes and sell tickets for about $100,000 per seat. Does a market sufficiently robust exist to support this effort? Market studies suggest that at least 100,000 passengers a year might fly spaceplanes at the price noted here. That is a $10 billion per year business. It could grow in size and become less expensive as technology progresses.

This model of the National Aero-Space Plane (NASP) was tested in the Transonic Dynamics Tunnel (TDT) at NASA's Langley Research Center in 1992. It had a long, flexible, lifting-body fuselage and relatively small, highly swept, all-movable, clipped-delta wings. The fuselage flexibility and the all-movable feature of the clipped-delta wings may make the vehicle susceptible to aeroelastic instabilities throughout the flight envelope, hence the testing in the TDT. This was a one-tenth scale model.

This model of the National Aero-Space Plane (NASP) was tested in the Transonic Dynamics Tunnel (TDT) at NASA’s Langley Research Center in 1992. It had a long, flexible, lifting-body fuselage and relatively small, highly swept, all-movable, clipped-delta wings. The fuselage flexibility and the all-movable feature of the clipped-delta wings may make the vehicle susceptible to aeroelastic instabilities throughout the flight envelope, hence the testing in the TDT. This was a one-tenth scale model.

The most attractive part of spaceplane travel at first will be its novelty. Like flying on the Concorde between Europe and New York City, it could not sustain itself solely as a practical means of transportation. Instead, bragging rights for having flown at hypersonic speeds would sustain much of the effort early on—that and the most exciting part of the flight, weightlessness. As the spaceplane travels at the edge of the atmosphere, passengers would experience about twenty minutes of free-fall. Floating within the cabin, they could peer out of ports into the blackness of space and the blue-green Earth below. Given the technical definition of the term, they would qualify as astronauts—persons engaged in spaceflight.

Passenger service of this sort offers a powerful incentive for the financing of commercial space ventures. No longer might may dependent on government largesse, space entrepreneurs might be able to raise funds for human spaceflight through the private sector. This could be a critical step in opening the space frontier to ordinary people, thus helping to realize the promise that anyone can fly (with enough money).

We may be closer to a spaceplane than most realize at present. Perhaps the private sector efforts of SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, Virgin Galactic, Sierra Nevada, and others will bear fruit in this arena. The successes thus far are positive signs, but I urge caution in trumpeting this as THE answer for the future. Although the trajectory is positive, there is still a long road to hoe before achieving an operational system. Likewise, the U.S. Air Force’s recent success with a modified X-37B reusable orbital vehicle suggests that spaceplanes may soon be a reality.

An artist's conception of the X-37B in orbit. Will this military spaceplane become the precursor of a piloted military Earth-orbital vehicle?

An artist’s conception of the X-37B in orbit. Will this military spaceplane become the precursor of a piloted military Earth-orbital vehicle?

Interestingly, beyond technology R&D at NASA the space agency may well have to look beyond its personnel and its various centers for the next human space access system. President Obama’s decision to rely on private sector efforts to develop next generation human space access capabilities was a bold, controversial initiative. However it turns out, it represents a path that hearkens back to an earlier model in which NASA had more equal partnerships with other organizations to accomplish its mandate. I am heartened by recent developments in this arena. With sufficient diligence and resources, of course, virtually anything humans can imagine in spaceflight may be achieved.

Might we yet be able to board the spaceplane in our lifetimes?

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Matty—An American Hero”


MattyMatty—An American Hero: Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants. By Ray Robinson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Ray Robinson is a sports journalist and editor, and this book is very much in the genre of many other conventional sports biographies. It is a good, serviceable biography; but it is far from great. In it, we learn about one of the earliest stars of major league baseball. Christy Mathewson had been born in 1880, attended Bucknell University and gained fame there as both a football and baseball player. He signed with the New York Giants and played sixteen seasons with them; arguably the most dominant pitcher in major league baseball during his time in the Majors.

While with the Giants, Mathewson won 20 games thirteen times and 30 games four times. During that same period, he won at least 20 games twelve consecutive years (1903-1914). A power pitcher, Mathewson had the most wins in Giant franchise history (372), and had more than 2,500 strikeouts. Perhaps his most dominant performance came in the 1905 World Series when he pitched a record three shutouts in six days against the Philadelphia Athletics, leading the Giants to the championship.

Robinson does a credible job telling the story of Mathewson’s remarkable career. He expends considerable effort narrating the dramatic events of his various pitching performances. He also delves into the story of Mathewson’s close relationship with his Giants manager, the legendary John McGraw, who is credited with working effectively with a sensitive and talented player to make him more dominant than he might have been otherwise.

Robinson also explores the role Mathewson plays in helping to remake the image of major league baseball from one of rowdy hooliganism into one of the “national pastime.” Mathewson served as a model of clean living when the sport was known for its hard-living, hard-drinking players. He became a role model for young boys, and MLB exploited his lifestyle to remake its image. He enthusiastically aided this process, and even wrote a series of boy’s books advocating a moral, strenuous lifestyle.

Of course, Mathewson served as the perfect example of “clean living” for MLB because of his dominance on the mound. Accordingly, in 1936 he joined four other MLB legends–Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson, none of whom exemplified “clean living”–as the first class of baseball players to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It was a posthumous induction because Mathewson had died in 1925, at age 45, of tuberculosis.

Ray Robinson has written a solid, readable biography of Matty. I give it three stars because it fails to go beyond the basics of what we already know about him, and has no references or even a bibliography with other works to read on the subject.

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A Balance Sheet on All of the Landings on Mars


cropped-pathfinder-on-mars-300dpi.jpg

Mars Pathfinder panorama in 1997.

Since the beginning of the space age there have been 17 landings on the surface of Mars, some of which were not successful. Initially the Soviet Union carried out two attempted landings in 1971, Mars 2 and 3, but the first lander crashed and the second returned only 20 seconds of data before failing on the Martian surface. Regardless, these became the first human-built artifacts to reach the surface of Mars. Another landing attempt took place in 1973 when the Soviet Union dispatched Mars 7 to the red planet. It failed to rendezvous with Mars and went into a solar orbit without accomplishing its mission. A major contribution came in July 1976 with the successful landings of Viking 1 and 2 by the United States.

After the Vikings, despite other attempts, no other landers were successful in reaching the Martian surface until 1997 when Mars Pathfinder opened the modern age of Martian exploration. Thereafter, several additional landers have successfully made it to the surface of the red planet and have reshaped humanity’s understanding of this intriguing world.

The Phoenix lander on Mars.

The Phoenix lander on Mars.

Mars has proven a difficult place on which to land successfully. The box score for the record of landings is seven successes, ten failures. While it might be expected that landing failures would have been common early in the space age, greater success should come with time, experience, and more sophisticated technology. This is the case, certainly, but unfortunately in the last decade several Mars landing missions have also failed. Successfully reaching the surface of this planet has proven a task not without difficulties, yet the prize of scientific knowledge continues to spur significant efforts. There is no dearth of plans for continued exploration using landers, rovers, and flying machines that might operate in the thin Martian atmosphere. The following is a chronological list of all landing missions on Mars, along with their basic results.

  1. Mars 2 – USSR Mars Orbiter/Soft Lander – 4,650 kg – (19 May 1971): The Mars 2 lander was released from the orbiter on 27 November 1971. It crashed-landed because its breaking rockets failed – no data was returned and the first human artifact was created on Mars. (Lander unsuccessful)
  2. Mars 3 – USSR Mars Orbiter/Soft Lander – 4,643 kg – (28 May 1971): Mars 3 arrived at Mars on 2 December 1971. The lander was released and became the first successful landing on Mars. It failed after relaying 20 seconds of video data to the orbiter. (Lander unsuccessful)
  3. Mars 7 – USSR Mars Orbiter/Soft Lander – 4,650 kg – (9 August 1973): On 6 March 1974, Mars 7 failed to go into orbit about Mars and the lander missed the planet. Carrier and lander are now in a solar orbit. (Unsuccessful)
  4. Viking 1 – USA Mars Orbiter/Lander – 3,399 kg – (20 August 1975 – 7 August 1980): Viking 1 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center, on 20 August 1975, the trip to Mars and went into orbit about the planet on 19 June 1976. The lander touched down on 20 July 1976 on the western slopes of Chryse Planitia (Golden Plains). The lander had experiments to search for Martian micro-organism. The results of these experiments are still being debated. The lander provided detailed color panoramic views of the Martian terrain. It also monitored the Martian weather. The orbiter mapped the planet’s surface. The orbiter weighed 900 kg and the lander 600 kg. The Viking project’s primary mission ended on 15 November 1976, eleven days before Mars’ superior conjunction (its passage behind the Sun), although the Viking spacecraft continued to operate for six years after first reaching Mars. Viking 1 lander was accidentally shut down on 13 November 1982, and communication was never regained. Its last transmission reached Earth on 11 November 1982.  Controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tried unsuccessfully for another six and one‑half months to regain contact with the lander, but finally closed down the overall mission on 21 May 1983. (Lander successful)
  5. Viking 2 – USA Mars Orbiter/Lander – 3,399 kg – (9 September 1975 – 25 July 1978): Viking 2 was launched for Mars on 9 November 1975, and landed on 3 September 1976.  The orbiter weighed 900 kg and the lander 600 kg. The lander had experiments to search for Martian micro-organism. The results of these experiments are still being debated. The lander provided detailed color panoramic views of the Martian terrain. It also monitored the Martian weather. The orbiter mapped the planet’s surface, and, with its Viking 1 orbiter, acquired over 52,000 images. The Viking project’s primary mission ended on 15 November 1976, eleven days before Mars’ superior conjunction (its passage behind the Sun), although the Viking spacecraft continued to operate for six years after first reaching Mars. (Lander successful)
  6. Phobos 1 – USSR Mars Orbiter/Lander – 5,000 kg – (7 July 1988): Phobos 1 was sent to investigate the Martian moon Phobos. It was lost en route to Mars through a command error on 2 September 1988. (Unsuccessful)
  7. Phobos 2 – USSR Phobos Flyby/Lander – 5,000 kg – (12 July 1988): Phobos 2 arrived at Mars and was inserted into orbit on 30 January 1989. The orbiter moved within 800 kilometers of Phobos and then failed. The lander never made it to Phobos. (Lander Unsuccessful)
  8. Mars 8 – Russia Orbiter & Lander – 6,200 kg – (16 November 1996): Mars ’96 consisted of an orbiter, two landers, and two soil penetrators that were to reach the planet in September 1997. The rocket carring Mars 96 lifted off successfully, but as it entered orbit the rocket’s fourth stage ignited prematurely and sent the probe into a wild tumble. It crashed into the ocean somewhere between the Chilean coast and Easter Island. The spacecraft sank, carrying with it 270 grams of plutonium-238. (Unsuccessful)
  9. Mars Pathfinder – USA Lander & Surface Rover – 870 kg –  (4 December 1996): The inexpensive Mars Pathfinder (costing only $267 million) landed on Mars on 4 July 1996, after its launch in December 1996. A small, 23-pound, six-wheeled robotic rover, named Sojourner, departed the main lander and began to record weather patterns, atmospheric opacity, and the chemical composition of rocks washed down into the Ares Vallis flood plain, an ancient outflow channel in Mars’ northern hemisphere. This vehicle completed its projected milestone 30-day mission on 3 August 1997, capturing far more data on the atmosphere, weather, and geology of Mars than scientists had expected. In all, the Pathfinder mission returned more than 1.2 gigabits (1.2 billion bits) of data and over 10,000 tantalizing pictures of the Martian landscape. The images from both craft were posted to the Internet, to which individuals turned for information about the mission more than 500 million times through the end of July. The mission’s primary objective is to demonstrate the feasibility of low-cost landings on the martian surface. This was the second mission in NASA’s low-cost Discovery series. (Successful)
  10. Mars Polar Lander – USA lander – 538 kg – (3 January 1999): and its attached Deep Space 2 probes were launched on a Delta II rocket which placed them into a low-Earth parking orbit. The third stage fired for 88 seconds to put the spacecraft into a Mars transfer trajectory. Trajectory correction maneuvers were performed on 21 January, 15 March, 1 September, 30 October, and 30 November 1999. After an 11-month hyperbolic transfer cruise, the Mars Polar Lander reached Mars on 3 December 1999. The lander was to make a direct entry into Mars’ atmosphere at 6.8 km/s but was lost during the landing sequence. JPL lost contact with the spacecraft and due to lack of communication, it is not known whether the probe followed the descent plan or was lost in some other manner. (Unsuccessful)
  11. Mars Express – European Space Agency (ESA) Mars orbiter and lander – 1123 kg – (2 June 2003): This Mars probe consisted of an orbiter, the Mars Express Orbiter, and a lander, Beagle 2. The scientific objectives of the Mars Express Orbiter were to obtain global high-resolution photo-geology (10 m resolution), mineralogical mapping (100 m resolution) and mapping of the atmospheric composition, study the subsurface structure, the global atmospheric circulation, and the interaction between the atmosphere and the subsurface, and the atmosphere and the interplanetary medium. The Beagle 2 lander objectives were to characterize the landing site geology, mineralogy, and geochemistry, the physical properties of the atmosphere and surface layers, collect data on Martian meteorology and climatology, and search for possible signatures of life. After launch on a Soyuz/Fregat rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome, the orbiter released Beagle 2 on 19 December 2003. It coasted for five days after release and entered the Martian atmosphere on the morning of 25 December. Landing was expected to occur at about 02:54 UT on 25 December (9:54 p.m. EST 24 December). No signals have been received and the lander was declared lost. (Lander unsuccessful)
  12. Mars Exploration Rover A – USA Mars Rover – 827 kg – (10 June 2003): Named “Spirit” upon landing on the Martian surface on 4 January 2004 this rover was one of a pair launched to Mars in mid-2003. Equipped with a battery of scientific instruments it was intended to operate for 90 days, until April 2004, and to traverse about 100 meters a day. The scientific goals of the rover missions are to gather data to help determine if life ever arose on Mars, characterize the climate of Mars, characterize the geology of Mars, and prepare for human exploration of Mars. It has performed exceptionally well and is still operating in November 2007. A primary mission objective was to search for geological clues to the environmental conditions that existed when liquid water was present and assess whether those environments were conducive to life. It landed in Gusev Crater because it had the appearance of a crater lakebed. The rover’s scientific data suggests that Gusev may have at one time been filled with water. (Successful)
  13. Mars Exploration Rover B – USA Mars Rover – 827 kg – (7 July 2003): Named “Opportunity” upon landing on the Martian surface on 25 January 2004 this rover was the second of a pair launched to Mars in mid-2003. It carried identical instruments to “Spirit” and landed at Terra Meridiani, also known as the “Hematite Site” because it displays evidence of coarse-grained hematite, an iron-rich mineral which typically forms in water. This mission has also continued into November 2007. (Successful)
  14. Phoenix Mars Lander – USA Mars Lander – 350 kg – (4 August 2007): The Phoenix Mars Lander was designed to study the surface and near-surface environment of a landing site in the high northern area of Mars. The primary science objectives for Phoenix are to: determine polar climate and weather, interaction with the surface, and composition of the lower atmosphere around 70 degrees north for at least 90 sols; determine the atmospheric characteristics during descent through the atmosphere; characterize the geomorphology and active processes shaping the northern plains and the physical properties of the near-surface regolith focusing on the role of water; determine the aqueous mineralogy and chemistry as well as the adsorbed gases and organic content of the regolith; characterize the history of water, ice, and the polar climate and determine the past and present biological potential of the surface and subsurface environments. Phoenix was launched on 4 August 2007 on a Delta II 7925 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The 681 million km heliocentric cruise to Mars took approximately 10 months, with landing on Mars on 25 May 2008. (Successful)
  15. Yinghuo-1 – Chinese Mars Orbiter – 115 kg – (8 November 2011): The primary scientific aims of the Orbiter were to study Martian environmental structure including plasma distribution, the solar-wind atmosphere coupling and energy distribution, the regional gravity field of Mars, and Martian surface imaging. In addition, the mission was to test deep space navigation and communication. It was to work with the Russian Phobos-Grunt, and be stacked on one of its common boosters. The Orbiter did not perform its scheduled burn to begin its trajectory to Mars. It will stay in orbit around the earth. Roscosmos is investigating what went wrong. (Unsuccessful).
  16. Phobos-Grunt (alternatively Fobos-Grunt) – Russian Spacecraft – 730 kg – (8 November 2011): This spacecraft was designed to land on Mar’s moon Phobos and return a sample to earth to be able to study its history and origin. This would focus on analyzing the material gathered and comparing it to Martian and other Solar System matter for similarities. It was supposed to carry the Chinese Mars Orbiter Yinghuo-1. Once launched into Earth’s orbit, the spacecraft was supposed to fire once again to begin an eleven month trajectory to Mars. These firings never happened, however, and the spacecraft reentered the atmosphere on January 15, 2012. (Unsuccessful).
  17. Mars Science Laboratory, “Curiosity,” (MSL) – USA Mars Rover – 750 kg – (26 November 2011). Launched at 10:02 EST, the objective of Curiosity was to explore the Martian Habitat as a former or current habitat for life, and as such, it would operate for a full Martian year, or 687 earth days. MSL has eight scientific objectives: determine the nature and inventory of organic compounds, inventory the chemical building blocks needed for life, identify features that reflect biological processes, investigate the Martian surface and near surface geological features, interpret the processes that have formed rocks and soils, assess long-timescale atmospheric evolution processes, determine the present state and distribution of water and carbon dioxide, and characterize the spectrum of surface radiation. After leaving Earth’s orbit, the Rover traveled eight months to reach Mars, landing on August 6, 2012. It has been incredibly successful in its science program. (Successful).
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The George Brett “Pine Tar” Incident


George Brett rushing the umpire after having his home run called an out because of the amount of pine tar he had on his bat.

It seems like it took place yesterday, but on July 25, 1983, one of the most bizarre incidents in the history of Major League Baseball. It involved future Hall of Famer George Brett, to this day one of my all time favorite ball players, during a game between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Yankees, and it has gone down in the annals of baseball history as the “Pine Tar Incident.”

This incident provides classic footage to this day, showing an enraged Brett charging out of the dugout toward rookie umpire Tim McClelland after he disallowed a two-run homer off Yankee closer Rich “Goose” Gossage that would have given the Royals a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth inning. The reason, Yankee manager Billy Martin protested to McClelland, was the amount of pine tar Brett had applied to his bat. “You gotta call him out, pal,” Martin told McClelland, “you gotta call him out.”

McClelland consulted with the other umpires before measuring the bat. According to the rules, pine tar could not exceed seventeen inches on the grip end of the bat. “When we measured it, the pine tar was a good seven or eight inches farther,” McClelland recalled, “and I knew then we had a problem.” He called Brett out, and the Royals great went from euphoria to rage in an instant. Brett admitted that never before had he been so mad. “I’d been frustrated before,” Brett said. “You’re frustrated that you…made an error that let in two or three runs and we ended up losing the game by one or two runs. That’s frustration. That’s not mad.” This incident first made him incredulous that the umpires would enforce such a rule, and then his incredulity turned to stark red-eyed anger. Brett commented, “when they put the bat on the ground, to measure it against home plate, someone said, ‘They’re measuring the bat against the plate to see how much pine tar you have on it.’…And I said, ‘If they call me out for that, they’re in trouble’.”

Brett had to be tackled and held down from attacking McClelland. He blistered McClelland with every epithet he knew, and every player knows many. The video of the fight became the standard on television for the rest of the season and periodically thereafter. Lip readers enjoyed picking out Brett’s phrases from the video and manager Dick Howser had to protect his greatest player from emptying benches on both sides. All the while, the paranoid and brilliant Billy Martin stood off to the side and let the Royals self-destruct.

That night, McClelland stumbled across the entire Royals team in the airport. Acting the gentleman, he walked up to Brett and tried to make amends, “You’re not really that mad at me, are you?” Brett responded, “you’re [darn] right I am.” To this day, Brett believes that McClelland should not have enforced that rule.

Dick Howser protested the call and the game, and American League President Lee McPhail, “in the spirit of the rules,” finally allowed the home run on appeal. Out of the whole mess, one irony was not lost on McClelland. “George Brett was probably, and I think most umpires would tell you this, one of the best players to umpires that there’s been in the game,” he said. “George was always joking, always having fun.” He was a gentleman every other time they met, but he was truly angry at this petty ruling. McClelland was ever after “The Pine Tar Umpire.” Martin also lost the Yankee advantage they had once enjoyed over the Royals. It made them all the more competitive every time they met.

There is no question that Billy Martin was playing psychological games in calling our Brett with this obscure and truly arcane rule. Even so, in part through the crucible of the Pine Tar Incident, Brett emerged in 1984 to lead the Royals to their first division title since 1980. They did not advance in that post-season but they did the next year. This set the stage for the 1985 world championship season in which the Royals defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in what has come to be known as the “I-70 Series.”

A great video of the incident, along with interviews with Brett and others involved, may be found here.

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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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