Category: Nonfiction
Title: NASA Missions to Mars: A Visual History of Our Quest to Explore the Red Planet
Reviewed by: Ted Spitzmiller
Author: Piers Bizony
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Format: Hardcover
Pages: 198
Publisher: Motor Books
Date: April 2022
Retail Price: $50.00
ISBN: 978-0760373149

In his preface, author Piers Bizony notes that the book is a “family-friendly non-academic and almost purely visual celebration” of what we have achieved in exploring the planet Mars—and in this, he has succeeded.

A special essay by Andrew Chaikin follows the preface. It is a wonderful description of Chaikin’s childhood years following the early Martian spacecraft from Mariner 4 to Mariner 9 that enthused him to pursue a career as a space journalist. Chaikin recalls how the images returned by the Viking landers in the 1970s and Sojourner in 1997 changed the perspective of a lifeless planet conveyed by the early Mariners of the 1960s to one that possessed very dynamic qualities shaped by the apparent presence of liquid water.

He notes the observations of the first rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) exploring sedimentary features that held the prospect of possible microbial life. The findings of Curiosity in 2018 further supported this possibility. Chaikin completes his essay with a brief discussion of the trials and tribulations that await the first human explorers.

In Chapter One, Bizony reviews the early observations of the planet—particularly those of Giovanni Schiaparelli and the elusive “channels” that he observed. Science fiction writer H.G. Well’s literary interpretation of the canals and the inferred life on Mars that followed led much of the civilized world to believe there was indeed life on that planet, which perhaps had plans for invading the Earth.

The idea of life on another world is a concept that Bizony conveys effectively with various illustrations from the mid-20th century comics, movies, and even bubble gum trading cards. The author melds the rocket visionaries such as Wernher von Braun and his 1952 Colliers magazine articles into the futuristic predictions of the era. He nicely recreates that period I recall from my childhood with few words and emotional graphics.

In Chapter Two, the author brings us back to reality with the first close-up images of the Martian surface by the Mariner 4 spacecraft in 1964, and subsequently by Mariners 6 and 7. He also notes the disheartening space missions of the Soviets, which failed to achieve any success.

While Mariner 4’s crude pictures revealed a moon-like cratered landscape, the higher resolution of Mariners 6 and 7 began to portray a more dynamic environment. Mariner 9 went into orbit around Mars in 1971 and brought us pictures of large volcanoes—one almost twice the size of Mount Everest. A 2,500-mile canyon and numerous smaller features that appeared to be made by flowing water gave credence to the possibility of microbial life if not hostile creatures.

The first landers, Vikings 1 and 2 in 1976, carried experiments to detect the presence of any carbon-based molecular activity indicative of possible microbial life. While the results were intriguing and the planet’s crust and the atmosphere were studied, the fact of life could not be established. The novice reader will be pleased with the ability of the author to describe the analysis of the data effectively. Failure of the very costly Mars Observer in 1993 resulted in NASA re-evaluating its approach to examining the planet.

A meteorite found in Antarctica in 1984 was declared to be of Mars origin. The author nicely reviews the examination of that piece of rock referred to as ALH 84001.

The pictures of Mars presented in succeeding pages are effectively selected and appropriately captioned. The reader will find many are breathtaking. In addition, the physical characteristics of the Martian spacecraft are nicely conveyed with photos and artists’ conceptions of their landing sequence.

Chapter Three begins with the first Martian rover named Pathfinder, delivered by the Sojourner spacecraft. The author navigates the reader through a surface journey of three months. Subsequent rovers, Spirit in 2004 and its twin, Opportunity, used high-tech images over a period of 14 years to evaluate the possible effects of flowing water. Bisony does an excellent job of extolling the virtues and discoveries of these rovers.

The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity landed in 2012, and its slightly larger cousin Perseverance in 2021, using a unique sky crane delivery method. Two other spacecraft, the Mars Odyssey Phoenix Lander and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, continue to probe the red planet’s enigmatic past.

Another spread of detailed photos expands the reader’s knowledge and perceptions of the geography. The expressiveness of these photos is impressive. The helicopter-like drone called Ingenuity is also depicted. While there are several pictures of the various spacecraft, any images of the launch vehicles are mysteriously missing. Nor is there any hint about the path flown to achieve the typical 8-month journey to the red planet.

Chapter Four briefly presents two possible strategies for sending humans to Mars. The logistics of these methods will educate the reader to the difficulties of such a mission and why it has not achieved higher planning/funding priorities.

As for the human factors, the author describes the remote community on Devon Island in northern Canada. It is being used as a training and planning backdrop for the day-to-day activities of Martian explorers. Called the Houghton-Mars Project, it is partially funded by NASA and exposes teams of scientists and other visitors to the rigors of what life would be like in such a hostile environment. While a time delay of 10 minutes is used to simulate the distance for communications between Earth and Mars, it does not yet attempt to demonstrate a closed life support system.

I would recommend this book to those interested in the prospects of future flights to the red planet and especially to teens who may have a bent in that direction.

© 2022 Ted Spitzmiller

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