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'Roving Mars': An inspiring story from a 'Space Explorer Dude'

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``Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet'' by Steve Squyres; Hyperion ($25.95)


The robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity have been exploring the Martian surface steadily for more than a year and a half, so it's easy to forget just how much their arrival at the planet was packed with novelty and drama.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was reeling after the loss of the shuttle Columbia, not to mention the humiliating failure in 1998 of not one but two unmanned Mars probes. The golf-cart-size rovers carried the whole agency's sagging weight.

To a casual observer the probes looked suited to the task. They were the biggest, most capable rovers ever sent to another world, able to seek out and study interesting landforms in a way no other Mars mission had. Principal investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University promised "a shared adventure . . . unprecedented in human history." He didn't mention at the time that just six months before, NASA's head of space science had threatened to pull the glitch-prone rovers off the launch pad and entomb them for good in the Air and Space Museum.

As it turned out, Squyres' team largely delivered on his lofty goals. Their probes beamed back reams of crystal-clear images of the rolling hills in Gusev Crater and the gravelly plains of Meridiani Planum, changing forever the planet's image in the public imagination. Most significant, Opportunity found the first hard evidence that water once flowed on parts of the Martian surface-a discovery that meant life could have taken hold there. The journal Science named the finding Breakthrough of the Year for 2004.

Before the probes pass into space-program legend, Squyres has tried to document their achievement in "Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet." Squyres pointedly notes that he keeps a photo in his office of Roald Amundsen, leader of the first expedition to reach the South Pole, and his record of Martian exploits reads a bit like an updated, robot-driven version of that dusty genre, the explorer's travelogue. Some of the book is fashioned as Squyres' travel diary, which offers immediacy but also shortcomings, such as a hurried style and frequent descents into tedious detail.

The book's engine is the sense of curiosity and adventure that made Squyres devote his life to the ridiculously difficult enterprise of flinging delicate instruments and circuit boards to far-off worlds. He offers a striking image at the opening of the book of his first visit as an undergraduate to Cornell's Mars Room, filled with rolls of new pictures from the Viking orbiters. His planned 20-minute visit stretched to four awestruck hours. For a kid who'd always been drawn to the unknown, blank sections of maps, the raw photos of uncharted Martian terrain were a revelation. "I walked out of that room knowing exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life," Squyres writes.

From that lovely epiphany, Squyres leaps jarringly into a drawn-out, detailed description of what it takes to get a planetary mission off the ground. In fact, the bulk of the book recounts the 14-year epic of proposing, planning and building what became Spirit and Opportunity. More than 200 pages go by before the rovers even leave the launch pad; near Page 300 we finally get to the wonder of Opportunity's formerly water-drenched landing site.

Some of the delay is unavoidable. Following the old exploration-book model, such tales must tell of barriers overcome, hopes dashed and renewed, and vistas made more wondrous by being hard-won. But the nuts and bolts of exploration have changed since Amundsen, and not all of it makes for an engaging read. For example, Squyres describes what his administrative response was each time NASA put out an AO - Announcement of Opportunity - for a Mars mission in the 1990s. Replete with acronyms and bureaucratic insider stuff, it's a tale only a lover of academic-grant proposals could enjoy.

Squyres injects lively details when he can, such as the former stoned-out, new-wave bassist from Sausalito, Calif., who discovered a passion for astronomy and physics, went to the California Institute of Technology and wound up designing the rovers' parachutes. We learn of a cigarette-smoking German physicist named Ralf whose brain contains the only blueprints that exist for a crucial chemical-analysis instrument. And anyone hoping to mount an interplanetary expedition soon might be interested in Squyres' improbable story of "how to build two spacecraft in less time than it would take to build one."

The real payoff, though, comes late in the book when the team sees the first photos from Opportunity and Squyres wonders, "What in God's name are we looking at?" His mouth hangs open as the photos stream in and he realizes they're seeing an outcrop of layered bedrock directly in front of the rover, something no Mars probe had ever glimpsed. Squyres writes, "I can't get any words out as I stare at the picture; it feels hard even to breathe." Squyres and his team would later conclude that the rock contained the first hard evidence that there had once been surface water on Mars.

This is where the sense of shared adventure can reach stirring heights. One of Squyres' mentors was the late Carl Sagan, and it's hard to imagine him writing a book like this. There would be more allusions to the history of astronomy and space exploration, far less obsession with the minutiae of gadgetry and gamesmanship required for such an ambitious mission.

But Squyres isn't Sagan. He is, in his words, a "steely-eyed space explorer dude" who finally landed smack in the blankest spot on the map. His message may not make great literature, but it's the inspiring plea of all great explorers: Here's how I did it. Follow me.


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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