THROWBACK THURSDAY: REVIEWING A REISSUE
What a fantastic concept! Convince NASA/JPL to allow an average joe to sit in on the Phoenix Mars Mission; hanging out with all the brilliant minds (it is, after all, rocket science) and living on ‘Mars time’ just to be able to go home and write a book about it. Kudos to NASA/JPL for agreeing to it and for letting the visitor in on as many meetings as he apparently did attend. Shame on NASA/JPL for apparently not vetting author Andrew Kessler and making sure he would be able to write coherently and appropriately on the subject.
Kessler tries to be ‘personable’ with his writing, assuming his lack of science and technical knowledge will make what he has to say more approachable to the average reader. Unfortunately, his style, or ‘voice,’ comes across as juvenile and forced and frankly, out of place.
“The RAC (Robotic Arm Camera) is attached to the RA just above the scoop. The instrument provides close-up, full-frontal color images of the Martian surface close to the ground, under the lander, or anywhere the RA can go. Its got all kinds of filters and scientific attachments to capture and makes sense of extreme close-ups of dirt or whatever else Phoenix can dig up. I for one am hoping for a secret decoder ring.”
A secret decoder ring. The author is sitting in a room with some of the brightest minds on the planet, who are about to reach out to a different planet, and all he can do is remind the reader how out of his league he is by ‘hoping for a secret decoder ring.’ I know he’s just trying to be cute, or funny, but he’s not. The information he’s sharing is great. His secret hopes and wishes? Not so much.
Kessler has an opportunity many of us would like to have … a backstage glimpse at NASA on a major project. When he relates the actual information as to what’s happening and how the scientists at NASA deal with obstacles, then this is a remarkable book. When a glitch on the lander stops the progress of taking soil samples, we get to see these scientists as people, problem-solving and arguing. How they come to the decisions that they do, is what many of us want to know. It is this that keeps the reader interested. But when Kessler’s ‘fan boy’ sensibilities kick in, he lacks a personal filter and he comes across as the teenage, excited fan.
Dara Sabahi, the chief engineer on the Phoenix project tells Kessler, “Documenting the mission will be very important for the future. … I’m counting on this documentation. … The more people can read about the mission process, the more we can learn about improving the process.” Yet as the mission moved on, Kessler began to be excluded from some of the important meetings. I took this as a sign that the powers-that-be at NASA/JPL began to recognize that they weren’t going to get the ‘documentation’ that they were hoping for.
I was hoping for an inside look at how NASA works. What I got was a long college essay on how someone spent their summer. I give this two and a half stars for the glimpses of the NASA machinations that we did get.
Looking for a good book? Martian Summer offers a behind-the-scenes look at the trials, successes, and struggles of a true NASA interplanetary mission but the book gets bogged down with the inexperienced writer’s ability to let go of his ‘fan boy’ obsession and just share the story.
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Martian Summer: My Ninety Days with Interplanetary Pioneers, Temperamental Robots, and NASA’s Phoenix Mars Mission
author: Andrew Kessler
publisher: Open Road Media
paperback, 356 pages