Imagine that you were able to interview Christopher Columbus about his four voyages to the Americas. Then envisage further that you had access to all the documents about Columbus’s negotiations with the monarchs of Portugal and Spain, to all the sailing maps, the wind patterns across the Atlantic, and the technical data about the construction of his ships. Even with such a wealth of information at your disposal, you would still have needed literary talent to transform the dry facts into the compelling story of a dramatic expedition.
Marc Kaufman has such a talent. In “Mars Up Close,” he has equaled the imaginary Columbus feat with an intriguing exploration of less-familiar territory: the planet Mars. Kaufman’s vivid description of the Curiosity rover mission to Mars, its history and its scientific results brings you as close as possible (without being a member of the science team) to the excitement, the frustration and the exhilaration of space science.
The Red Planet has fascinated humans since antiquity. Having been first observed by Egyptian and Babylonian astronomers, this intriguing orb was eventually named after the Roman god of war. Consequently, to this day it remains in the collective imagination and culture as a symbol of masculinity (“Men Are From Mars”) and youth. The interest in, and even fear of, a potential Martian civilization culminated with the airing of “The War of the Worlds” episode on the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network on Oct. 30, 1938. The simulated news bulletins narrated by Orson Welles convinced many listeners that an actual Martian invasion of Earth was in progress.
Kaufman nicely weaves the rich history and myths into a fast-paced narrative of all the intricate steps leading to the famous “seven minutes of terror” in 2012 — the unimaginably convoluted robotic landing on Mars. Never had such a complex sequence of maneuvers been tried, nor had such an elaborate entry, descent and landing attracted so much attention. Kaufman makes his account particularly engaging by interweaving minute-by-minute technical details with an evocation of the emotions felt by key players in the drama back on Earth.
Kaufman provides an accurate and accessible account of the searches for life on Mars. Sticking to the facts, he summarizes what we know in a chapter subtitled “Summoning up the evidence for a watery past on the planet Mars” and calls one section “Rumors of life greatly exaggerated.” He explores the many and varied ways that scientists have searched for signs of life on Mars. “For long periods during the early history of Mars,” he writes, “the planet was enough like early Earth that both could have supported an origin of life.” To further drive this point home, he includes an excellent graphic comparing and contrasting the geological and biological histories of Mars and Earth.
One thing that greatly enriches “Mars Up Close” — something that even an imaginary interview with Christopher Columbus could not have achieved — is its breathtaking visuals. The spectacular images from the Martian surface, captured by Curiosity’s 17 cameras, will leave you in awe. When someone writes a tour guide to a foreign land, you naturally expect the writer to have visited the country. While no human has been to Mars yet, Kaufman provides the reader with the next best thing — the most up-to-date maps and descriptions of the planet to accompany the exquisite photographs. All this leaves you hungry for more.
Humans have always been eager to understand the cosmos and its origins. The exploration of the other planets in the solar system and of their satellites, just like the moon landing during the Apollo program, can inspire the next generation of explorers. As Kaufman confesses: “For me, at least, the scientific rationale for exploring and eventually sending astronauts to Mars was getting ever stronger. . . . For me, Curiosity has forever increased that gravitational pull of interest about our cousin planet.” I imagine that every person reading this book will also feel that irresistible pull of curiosity.
MARS UP CLOSE
Inside the Curiosity Mission
By Marc Kaufman
National Geographic. 302 pp. $40