Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration
By Chris Impey and Holly Henry
Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2012
This book is a thoroughly researched chronicle of ten robotic missions, with an overview of the entire field of non-piloted exploration. If it meanders a bit, it succeeds at the most important task: showing readers just how remarkable our robotic missions are. Impey is a professor of astronomy, Henry a professor of English, and the combination of their expertise works very well.)
The Introduction sets the stage with the theorists, from the Greek Anaxagoras to Copernicus to the modern day. For a long time, people have had the notion there were other worlds to explore, but that was science fiction until 1957, when it suddenly appeared practical to send machines (and eventually people) sailing away from Earth.
The authors do, however, do a good job of featuring all types of missions: planetary observer, rover, deep space, and astronomical. They present two Martian missions (Viking and Mars Exploration Rovers) first, followed by the probes Voyager and Cassini, the comet-sampling Stardust, and SOHO, a mission to study our home star. They break away from voyages to specific destinations to cover Hipparcos, the Spitzer telescope, Chandra, the Hubble, and the Big Bang explorer WMAP. It’s odd there are no Soviet/Russian missions included, and Venus is left off the destination list. There are two European Space Agency missions: Hipparcos, a 1989 mission dedicated to astrometry (distances, locations, and movements of the stars) and Planck, along with the joint Cassini-Huygens mission.
All the chapters on individual missions are good, and the authors seem to know all about them. Who knew 1,500 papers were published so far on the Cassini results? One aside here contains an error: the authors say NASA’s “Faster, Better, Cheaper” initiative “launched 150 payloads at an average cost of $100 million per mission, with a failure rate of less than 10 percent.” There were were 16, of which 10 accomplished their missions: even if they are counting individual experiments vs. whole spacecraft, the numbers are much too high.
The explanations of spacecraft design, function, and results are succinct and well-done: clearly the authors understand the technical side and have the ability to condense it in terms understandable to the interested public.
There’s a tendency in this book to stray from the main narratives in each chapter to explore topics as varied as extremophiles and the history of X-rays. I enjoy this kind of digression as long as there’s a connection: not all readers may agree.
Finally, the authors look ahead. They describe the hoped-for advances from the James Webb Space Telescope and future Mars probes, although only NASA missions are addressed for some reason.
There’s a good color plate selection of 24 images and some well-selected images in the text. The references will make even the most detail-minded reader happy, and the index is good as well.
This is, in short, a very valuable book, well written and well documented. The selection of missions can be debated, but not the quality of the coverage of those that did make it in. This is a must-have for anyone interested in the robotic exploration of space, both closeup and from astronomical distances. It will be valuable for a long time to come.