Blast Off! – “Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and my 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission” by Andrew Kessler
Maybe, deep down, I’m a space nerd. Who knows? For some reason, despite knowing very little about science, I’m drawn to books like Mary Roach’s “Packing for Mars,” and now Andrew Kessler’s “Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and my 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission.”
In the summer of 2008, Kessler got the gig of a lifetime – he was invited to take part in the Phoenix Mars Mission, documenting the entire summer the ground crew would spend working round-the-clock at Mission Control to operate a lander on Mars. From their office-like base in Tuscon, Arizona, a crew of brilliant scientists and engineers from around the world gathered to see what mysteries of Mars they could solve. In addition to returning amazing images of the red planet, the mission discovered such amazing things as what the soil of Mars contains (calcium and magnesium, for two) and the fact that it snows on Mars. (Did you know that? I didn’t!)
Kessler is the odd man out. Not only is he not a scientist, but his very being in the hub of all these discussions and experiments would probably be frowned upon by NASA. Phoenix’s principal investigator Peter Smith brings Kessler on board to document the project in a new way in the hopes that he can help make space inspiring again.
Spending his days as part of Mission Control, Kessler gets to know the crew and write them lovingly as hyper-smart individuals rather than the geek squad they could have become in lesser hands. From a PR lady who doesn’t care much for Kessler’s presence, to a young man who’s actually royalty back in Ghana, to the Danish members of the crew, to a Brazilian scientist who pushes everyone’s buttons with his insistence water has been found on Mars, everyone Kessler comes into contact comes off as a fascinating character who could probably be the focus of their own book.
Of course, they don’t feel that way.
“No, what are you really doing here?” Matt asks. I tell them I’m here to write about the people who work in Mission Control.
“That doesn’t sound very interesting,” Ashitey says. There’s no hint of irony in his voice; a purely professional assessment.
Kessler manages to walk the line between being honest about how incredibly un-glamorous working in Mission Control is, while at the same time keeping space exciting. By the end of the book, you’re holding out hope that the intrepid Phoenix, millions of miles away alone on Mars, can hold out and complete the tasks it needs to finish in order for the mission to be deemed a success. You’re rooting for a machine on another planet as much as you’re rooting for the gaggle of people who work tirelessly (and through huge amounts of sleep deprivation) to make it work.
Will the machine’s arm hold out? Will the batteries last? Will the memory be enough? (FYI – Did you know the Phoenix only had 100MB of memory. To put that in perspective, my ipod – an older model – has 80GB.)
Kessler’s book is an exciting read, and the kind of book that could awaken an interest in the other side of working in space. Not the Hollywood hero kind of working in space, but the actual day job of being a part of a crew making important discoveries on worlds far away.
Note: In what I happen to think is a clever move, Kessler launched his book with a great stunt – opening a bookstore that sold ONLY his book! Wacky, but I like it. My personal review copy of the book came courtesy of the folks at Open Road Media, an e-book publishing company. Nice to see at least a few people realizing that the audience for books is shifting a little, and it might be time to adapt. I mean, nothing will ever replace ink and paper, but I’m in love with the convenience and ease of my Kindle, and don’t see it coming to an end anytime soon.