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December 04, 2011

Sunday Book Thread

I have a confession to make: when it comes to reading, I have the attention-span of a five year old. Not so much with the reading itself; no, I can sit and read for hours on end. No, where my problem comes in is subject matter -- some other book or writer will catch my eye, and I'll leave the book I'm currently reading to chase some other rabbit down a hole. The end result is that I often have five or sometimes eight or ten books going at the same time.

As I work my way through the enormous expanse of Paul Rahe's Republics Ancient and Modern, I found my attention captured by the launch of NASA/JPL's new Mars probe, the Mars Science Laboratory. I am an inveterate space geek, and stuff like this really excites me. And as so often happens, I found my attention wandering back to previous robotic missions that NASA has launched.

I have done a fair bit of technical writing in my life, and perhaps it's as a result of that I have become fond of well-written technical histories. Too often these works are written by engineers for other engineers (or their bosses), and are dry as dust. But there are several excellent technical histories of certain NASA missions if you know where to look (though I still wouldn't call them "light reading" for people who aren't fairly technically inclined).

The first book I went back to was a history of Ames' Pioneer probes: The Depths of Space by Mark Wolverton. Pioneers 10 and 11* broke the path for the Voyager probes in the 1970's, and became the first human-made instruments to visit the outer planets of the solar system.

This of course led me to a technical history of the Voyager program. Now, the historical popularity of this mission means that there are hundreds of books full of pretty pictures and lofty philosophical pronouncements of What It All Means, but precious little on the technical development and launch of the probes. Luckily, a good technical history was finally published: Voyager's Grand Tour by Henry Dethloff and Ronald Schorn.

A favorite of mine that I've mentioned in the past is Eric Chaisson's The Hubble Wars, which is as good a history of Big Science as it is of the Space Telescope itself.

If you like these, and want to get really in-depth into not just our space missions but also those of Russia/USSR, you can try the following books:

Histories like this are important, and not just to pasty bespectacled nerds who once dreamed of being steely-eyed rocket men. The scientists and engineers who designed those machines and sent them into the void deserve to be remembered as the explorers of our day, just as Coronado, Cortes, de Gama, de Soto, Columbus, and Sir Francis Drake are remembered from times past. Many centuries hence, when much else about our time will be forgotten, it may well be that we are remembered mainly for what we did Out There: sending complicated robots far out into the void just because we were curious about what they'd find.

We may remember this age as the Golden Age of discovery, and that the catastrophes and calamities that fill our daily lives really don't matter all that much over the long term.

*EDIT: MarkS in the comments reminds me that it was Pioneers 10 and 11 that went to Jupiter. Pioneers 6 and 7 went into orbit around the sun. That's what I get for not having the book nearby when I write these things....

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posted by Monty at 10:02 AM

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