He is a good guide through the process of building a space probe, however. Wiens talks about jerry-rigging part of Genesis with a cooking pot bought at a hardware store. When he had to test Genesis’s ability to withstand micrometeoroid impacts, an expensive NASA test facility in Houston was booked, so he took his detector to a local shooting range and shot it up with a rifle. The detector he used in ChemCam was designed “for use in grocery-store bar-code scanners.”
Without vitriol, Wiens contrasts his team’s willingness to improvise with the hidebound mentality of NASA’s bureaucracy. There was often, he writes, a “catch-22 that prevents many new concepts from coming to fruition: Without having flown before, new instruments are too risky to be selected for flight.” NASA’s response to budget crunches was frequently to eliminate contingency funds or backup plans. The result was that when something did go wrong, it ended up being even more costly to fix. At times, Wiens found ways around these limitations, as when he glued together parts that should have been “fastened properly with screws or nuts and bolts.”
‘Red Rover: Inside Story of Robotic Space Exploration, from Genesis to the Mars Rover Curiosity’ by Roger Wiens
The scientific instruments on Curiosity account for only a small part of the mission cost — $75 million (though this number later rose somewhat). Wiens tells several stories about the agency’s reaction to budget squeezes: “Most of the large missions I had known ended up in financial trouble immediately. NASA’s usual response was to remove instruments from the payload. These removals, or descopes, could sometimes cripple the mission’s scientific return while yielding only a very small cost savings.”
Wiens talks about how the agency frequently partners with foreign governments, not because this makes technical sense, but because NASA bureaucrats can exploit the entanglement with foreigners to protect their own funding from political meddling. Such joint efforts are made still more complicated by a byzantine system of export controls that in principle are meant to prevent sensitive technologies from spreading outside the United States but in practice are just a frustrating barrier to getting work done.
His inside narration of how things go wrong at NASA is the great strength of this book. It is rich with details of how both the ChemCam team in particular and the Curiosity rover in general overcame engineering challenges such as faulty lenses and awkward temperature distributions.
But the narrow focus on Wiens’s personal experience makes the book less useful than Rod Pyle’s “Destination Mars,” which is the best recent overview of Mars missions, or Oliver Morton’s “Mapping Mars,” which, because it gets away from particular missions as a framing device and talks about the planet itself, remains (though it is a decade old) perhaps the best single volume about the Red Planet.
Wiens ends his book shortly after Curiosity lands on Mars. This is a problem because, although he has taken us through ChemCam’s design and told us what it can do, by the close of the book, it has yet to do anything. It is able to analyze Martian rocks to find out if they were part of a riverbed or formed by a volcano, and to tell us something about the planet’s history. But these missions are unaccomplished when the book ends.
The premature end of Wiens’s story is unfortunate because he is such a sympathetic narrator. But it may be symptomatic of how he somewhat buys into the NASA mentality in which missions are justified as ends in themselves, rather than on the basis of the scientific discoveries made. To persuade the public and Congress that a costly sample-return mission is worthwhile, Wiens and his colleagues will have to do a better job of tying together their engineering marvels — the precision navigation and elaborate sky cranes — with the science that results.
is a Bernard Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of a forthoming e-book, “The Pioneer Detectives: Did a Faraway Space Probe Prove Einstein and Newton Wrong?”