Tag Archives: NASA

The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book written by an engineer for engineers. I’m not an engineer. But I can’t lie and say I didn’t enjoy reading this one. I needed a beach book for my week in Michigan, and when this book appeared on the shelf (as books are wont to do on my wife’s side of the bookcase), I grabbed it. I had seen one of my honors students (an engineer) reading it and had read this fantastic quip on XKCD. And then I saw the movie trailer (which looks AWESOME), so that helped me finally jump on the bandwagon. (And I know this is a departure from my resolution to read fiction by minority authors, but– BEACH.)

Be advised, this is a book by an engineer written for engineers. Did I already say that? It is compelling. The idea is simple and devastating: in the near and pretty believable future, manned missions to Mars are a reality and as gritty and physical and dangerous as an actual mission to Mars would be. On one of these missions, an astronaut gets left behind, assumed dead. It turns out he’s not, and he has to figure out how to survive on Mars, NASA has to figure out what happened and what they can do to fix it, and the crew of his ship have to figure out whether they follow NASA’s lead or mutiny and risk their own lives to save him.

Most of the story was told in the form of journal entries made by the marooned astronaut, Mark Watney, during his time on the surface. Here’s where the whole thing at times felt like a long, science fiction McGyver episode. Mark explains in detail how he’ll provide water and oxygen for himself, how he’ll grow food, and how he’ll get around on the surface. These are gripping details for a few chapters, but they can’t keep a reader’s interest– even one who appreciates the thought and detail the author put into keeping this grounded in reality– forever. Mark himself is a sort of Everyman, competent, foul-mouthed, and with a dry sense of humor. His ordinariness at times though, in spite his incredible technical competence, seems hollow. Not once, for instance, do we find Mark describing the view of Mars out his hab suite windows or reflecting on the nature of his dilemma with anything other than a superficial “do or die” mentality. But then again, what are the chances NASA would be sending a philosopher into space?

Luckily, Weir– himself a software engineer– realizes that stories don’t work without people and that it’s going to be difficult to build suspense about whether Mark lives or dies with him reporting in at the end of each day. So the narrative switches up a few times and we get a glimpse into the lives of the people back on Earth working to send supplies to keep Mark alive and ultimately his shipmates as they learn his fate and decide what they need to do to save him (as well as occasionally some God’s-eye-view narrative of the lives of inanimate equipment parts and geological features about to fail, which oddly enough functions quite well to build suspense).

This is where the actual drama comes in, and for me the most exciting parts of the novel were where the crew of the Hermes had to wrestle with what it might cost them to return to Mars to save Mark. And this– the dynamics between crew members on a months-long voyage and the cost of rescue– is what I hope the upcoming movie plays up. This was the pivot-point of the novel, and it was enough pull to get me as a reader over the hump and into the second part of the book, which chronicles Mark again and all the technical challenges of piloting a rover across a good portion of Mars to arrive at the appropriate rondevouz point and make an orbital-return component capable to escape velocity.

Lots of science here. In fact, Mark’s not really the hero of the story so much as science is. Science, Weir is saying, can pretty much solve anything if we’re plucky enough to keep trying and make the sacrifices required. (He also says something about it being the nature of humans to want to help each other, which is quoted pretty much verbatim in the movie trailer.) Besides the scientific triumphalism (which SPOILER dictates how the book will end– there’s never any real question of Mark’s survival), he deftly sidesteps any deeper questions, such as whether there’s an appropriate cost for saving a single human life or whether humans belong on places like Mars at all. No sir, this is a book about engineering. But I have to admit a book that raises philosophical questions without addressing can be fine in its own right. Sometimes it’s okay to simply present the problem in a clear-eyed fashion and leave it to the reader to puzzle through like Mark had to puzzle through the reality of Mars.

It is a fun, compelling, riveting book, but it ultimately felt unfulfilling for me because the pieces that made it tick– the people, and particularly the crew of the Hermes— never got closure. That is, we learn Mark’s fate but we don’t any view of his reunions with the people who saved his life. That would all be a compelling follow-up novel: call it The Earthling. It could show Mark’s life returned as the most famous human on the planet and him interacting with the people who contributed to his rescue as well as his return voyage to Earth with his crew (as well as the implied hook-up with Mindy, the NASA worker who contributed to his recovery and about whom I can only assume there’s an in-joke here regarding “Mork and Mindy” with Weir’s proclivity for 70s television). But the book is still tight and cogent leaving all that up in the air, especially as messy inter-personal stuff like that would take the focus off the science.

New Horizons

108417main_image_feature_267_ajhfullImage courtesy NASA.gov.

Fast, small, cheap, and putting us in touch with the outer reaches of the solar system, the New Horizons spacecraft, which will reach its closest approach to Pluto this month on July 14th, is billed by NASA as the “smart phone” of interplanetary robotic explorers. The fastest spacecraft ever launched from Earth, New Horizons is an example compact, efficient engineering opening the door to new discoveries. This month the probe, launched nearly a decade ago in January of 2006, completes its three billion mile journey, the longest journey ever to a particular object in space.

Besides the technological achievements this plucky probe represents, New Horizons is a step into a new solar system frontier, a glimpse of a region of our own planetary system where we have not yet ventured. The close look at Pluto afforded by this mission is an opportunity for the first time to study the place where the solar system gets weird. Since tiny Pluto was serendipitously discovered in 1930 by Illinois native Clyde Tombaugh, we’ve known that it didn’t quite fit with the rest of the planets. We have small, rocky planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) in the interior of the solar system and large, gaseous planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) on the periphery. Pluto—usually beyond Neptune and much smaller than any other planet—is the odd man out.

Yet it’s only recently that we’ve realized Pluto isn’t alone in its strangeness. Rather, it’s the first known object from a whole new region of the solar system. This region—which is turning out to be filled with small icy objects like Pluto—is known as the Kuiper Belt, and we still don’t know much about it. We do know that Pluto was only the first dwarf planet discovered in this region. Recently Pluto has been joined by the discovery of other dwarf planets beyond Neptune like Eris, Makemake, and Huamea. New Horizons affords the first close look at this strange region of space. Once it passes Pluto, the spacecraft may be redirected to pass another Kuiper Belt object.

Besides the Kuiper Belt, Pluto is itself still an oddity. It will be the first icy planet studied closely, for instance, and may help answer the question of whether certain types of comets are simply objects like Pluto that fall into the inner solar system. Pluto also offers an example of a gravitational oddity: along with its largest moon, Charon, Pluto is technically a double planet. Pluto and Charon orbit a common center of mass between the two objects, making them unique in the solar system by forming a double planet instead of simply a planet and moon.

And then there’s Pluto’s complicated system of newly discovered moons besides Charon. Tiny Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberus have recently been shown to tumble about Pluto in a chaotic system. These miniscule objects have been studied using the Hubble Space Telescope, but New Horizons will provide the first opportunity to study them up close. Indeed, the presence of Pluto’s unexpectedly complex satellite system represents one of the large unknowns of the mission: is the space around Pluto empty or filled with debris that could pose a danger to the speeding spacecraft? The weeks leading up to New Horizon’s encounter with Pluto have been a time of suspense.

New Horizons is a fly-by mission, meaning that it’s not landing on Pluto’s surface (like the Mars rovers) nor is it entering orbit around the dwarf planet (like Cassini around Saturn or Messenger around Mercury). New Horizons will study Pluto from its closest distance of about six thousand miles on July 14th while barreling past the planet at nearly forty thousand mph. It has to be moving fast—it’s had over three billion miles to cover since leaving Earth almost ten years ago.

What sort of things do scientists hope to learn from this mission? For one thing, scientists want to better understand how Pluto “fits in” with the other planets of the solar system. What do its unique properties tell us about the origins and evolution of the solar system? For the first time this month, we’ll get a close look at the strange boundary region of the solar system that we’ve only ever been able to study from afar. As far as the solar system goes, it really is “the final frontier,” and we’ll get our first close views of it this month.

This article first appeared on Friday, July 10th, 2015 in the Kankakee Daily Journal.