Monday, August 8, 2011

Review: Kessler's Martian Summer

A portion of the cover of Andrew Kessler's Book describing his experiences as an embedded author on the 2008 Mars Phoenix Mission.

What can I say about Andrew Kessler's Book "Martian Summer?" First off, it's a very different read from a very different perspective compared to many of the previous write-ups about space missions. Instead of detailing technical details and relying exclusively on the views of a member of the science team or the P.I. (Principal Investigator), the story provides Kessler himself as a bridge between the reader and the mission. In addition, the conversational tone makes it seem almost as if the story is a novelization of events. This is really where the text succeeds, for even though it is marred here and there with minor inaccuracies, it does one exceptional thing right: the text captures the feel of working in mission control better than any other. The result is an engrossing read that really brought the experience of my own Martian Summer back to me.

For good or ill, "Martian Summer" will be compared to Steve Squyres' "Roving Mars" so it's worth taking a minute to describe that book's approach. Roving Mars was written by the P.I. himself to chronicle the development and first 90 sols of the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER), better known to the public as Spirit & Opportunity. It's an interesting contrast. Let's start with the organization. The first half of Squyres' book is a polished story about the events leading up to launch in 2003. The second half contains his diary entries for the first few months of operations on the martian surface. Conversely, Martian Summer focuses almost exclusively on the Mission Operations themselves with flashbacks providing contexton the human characters, such as Peter Smith, rather than on the specific technical details of the Phoenix Lander. In this sense, Martian Summer is perhaps most similar to the second half of Roving Mars.

Unfortunately, while I was looking forward to that second half, the diary entries seemed a bit disjointed and difficult to follow for me at the time. This isn't surprising as that style of writing is missing a lot of the greater context, almost by definition. Instead, I much preferred the first part of "Roving Mars" which set out technical and harware development details in a clear and concise way. This section is written in the masterful prose that Squres is known for and was a pleasure to read.  I'm sure that it was hoped that this first part would provide the context for the second, but without discussing in fine detail how mission control works it feels like there was a piece missing*.

This is what Martian Summer gets right. While I'm not quite ready to compare the book to "The Catcher in the Rye" (as Peter Smith did), Kessler really gets the controlled chaos and general insanity balanced with heavy responsibility of mission control right. Through his eyes, we get to see how all the different teams interact with one another and feel their camaraderie. Their successes and frustrations become ours. We even get caught up in the conflicts. How do you balance the public's desire to know with a scientist's desire to be sure before committing to an answer? How can opposing viewpoints on Science within the team be reconciled? When should we, at mission control with hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer-funded equipment, take risks and when should we be cautious? Since developing and operating a mission is all about balancing these kinds of tradeoffs it is gratifying to see much of this provided in its gory glory.

Another element I was interested to see was how the various major conflicts of the mission would be handled. There are two that stand out. The first was the "takeover" of the mission by HQ about 30 sols in. Secondly, there was the scientific conflict between the University of Michigan's Nilton Renno** and JPL's Mike Hecht over whether nodules on the lander legs were growing. While Kessler doesn't take sides, exactly, he doesn't bend over backwards to provide a balanced viewpoint. Instead, he chooses not to hide where his sympathies lie in either situation.

Kessler also gets Mars Time right. Without having lived through it, it's hard to really understand the degree to which living on a schedule that averages out to 24 hours and 40 minutes a day really disconnects you from the rest of the world. It's a strange thing for a human to do and some deal better than others. I am lucky in that managing Mars time wasn't too harsh on my system, but I witnessed the struggle of others with sleep and caffeine and don't doubt that Kessler was not the only one lost in a provigil-induced haze at times. As for the folks monitoring us, that really did happen! It's good to see that detail made it into print.

I have to wonder if questions will arise in the future as to whether this is a work of fiction. But I can assure you that all the events at which I was also present did occur. However, at the same time I cannot recommend the book as a referable record when it comes to technical details. There are a number of minor mistakes littered throughout, including the Cassini CCDs, some acronyms and the spelling of a fellow Science Planner/Integrator's name (Cameron Dixon) which do grate a little for an insider like myself. But since this is not the focus of the work and that the author was intentionally from outside a technical sphere, I consider these only minor imperfections.

Aside from those small things, there was only one other item about which I can raise the slightest complaint. First, the personification of the Phoenix Lander struck me as being a bit over the top. Yes, I do understand the reasons for that and no, I am not underestimating the so-called "cuteness factor." However, I do want to be careful that we don't over-distil why we do these missions and how difficult they are just to appeal to the public. Whenever a reporter asks questions about what the astronauts on the phoenix mission will be doing (as mentioned by Kessler) or I meet people who ask me what happened to that cat on Mars, I can't help but feel like I've been remiss in my job, just a little bit.

Aside from this point, I have to say that Kessler's book really does an excellent job of communicating what we do on space missions in an interesting and engaging way. I wish that all missions had someone like him to tell their stories for them. It is through work like this that we can truly engage the public and build interest and excitement beyond the enthusiastic amateur.

I'm left with three thoughts as I wrap this post up. First, as a participant in the Phoenix Mission, I have to wonder if the book is effective because it describes mission control in an unprecedentedly detailed and accessible way. Or, is it effective simply because I was there and this book is dredging up all of my own fond memories? (By way of disclosure, I do have a bit part in the book*** - go ahead, you can look me up in the index.) Either way, I hope to learn more in the coming months. I've already bought three copies of the book to give to friends and family, and I've listed it as a suggested text for a course I'm contributing to in the fall.

Second, is Kessler's style appropriate for the upcomming Mars Science Laboratory Mission? The way in which the book is written works particularly well for a story that covers a few months. Kessler does a great job of playing the intrepid outsider who dives into a foreign world. He works hard and makes a few missteps, but learns quickly and by the end is accepted as one of our own. In many ways it works so well because it is the story of all our lives, in microcosm. But MSL is a different beast. It will last for at least two years and possibly much, much longer. Such a "coming-of-age"-like concept might not work for that kind of an epic. But would "The Lord of the Rings of Mars" be as accessible to the public at large? I throw that one out as a challenge to all the authors of the world interested in space exploration.

Lastly, as human beings we cannot be at all places at all times. Similarly, we are restricted to only our own viewpoint. One of the most touching aspects of Kessler's work, for me, was that I was able to get to know many people with whom I have worked from a different perspective. This is especially true of my own PhD adviser of five years, Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith. The knee-jerk reaction to discovering this differing perspective, held by another, is that you didn't actually know the subject at all. But upon reflection, it becomes possible to see where those attributes come from. In this way, the exercise deepens your understanding of that person's motivations and feelings. And for that addition, I am grateful.

* A contributing factor to this could be the astonishing rapidity with which "Roving Mars" was published. The text came out in early 2005, a little over a year after landing. By contrast, "Martian Summer" gestated for almost three years. Will "Martian Summer" also become an IMAX? We'll have to wait and see.
** The reverse of the hardcover edition contains quotes from Peter Smith and Nilton Renno. While I understand the reason for choosing participants likely to view the text as positive, it does make one wonder what someone like Hecht would have said. As such, the quotes seem slightly contrived.
*** There is something very strange about seeing your name in print. It's also interesting to see what makes it into a book. I can remember several conversations I had with Andrew during the mission, and my name appears (essentially) as part of meeting minutes. Also, its interesting to see what distortions occur through the oddities of random sampling. For instance, Kessler seems to have been present mostly on days when the CSA's Vicky Hipkin was the Tactical Science Lead, whereas I can only remember a few instances of that happening. Just another quirk of perspective.

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