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Review: Trailblazing Mars

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Trailblazing Mars: NASA’s Next Giant Leap
by Pat Duggins
University Press of Florida, 2010
hardcover, 224 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-8130-3518-5

One often-overlooked element of the NASA authorization legislation signed into law by President Obama three weeks ago is its formal endorsement of human exploration of Mars. “A long term objective for human exploration of space should be the eventual international exploration of Mars,” the bill states, making clear the destination while begin deliberately vague about the timeline. Obama, in his April 15th speech, spoke of a human mission to orbit Mars in the mid-2030s, followed at some point soon after by a Mars landing. Talk of human Mars exploration is nothing new, of course: the Vision for Space Exploration, for example, talked of going to “Moon, Mars, and beyond”, but its focus had been on the first of those three destinations. Now, at the very least, the emphasis on sending humans to Mars is more explicit. But is any more realistic?

Given the book’s subtitle and its timing, one might think that the book covers the recent shift in direction in space policy towards human Mars exploration. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

What technology, planning, and other preparation needed to be able to successfully mount human expeditions to the Red Planet is at the heart of Trailblazing Mars. Pat Duggins, a longtime National Public Radio reporter who covered the space program from Florida, digs through the history of space exploration as well as the various issues associated with the exploration of Mars. He takes on a broad range of issues in a relatively slender book, from the experience of building and working on the ISS to the biological and psychological lessons learned from the Biosphere 2 project in the early 1990s. He also examines some of the criticism for human Mars exploration from those who think such exploration is better done by robots and/or think NASA’s priorities should be focused elsewhere, such as (in the opinion of Gregg Easterbrook) protecting the Earth from asteroid impacts.

Given the book’s subtitle (“NASA’s Next Giant Leap”) and its timing, one might think that the book covers the shift in direction in space policy towards human Mars exploration that came earlier this year. Unfortunately, that’s not the case: there’s no mention of that change in policy, nor of the often vociferous reaction to it in Congress and the media, in the book. The Augustine Committee’s 2009 study of the future of human spaceflight is mentioned in the book, but only for several pages, and only briefly mentioning the options the committee published in its final report or the fact that it concluded that Mars “is the ultimate destination for human exploration of the inner solar system” if not necessarily the best next destination. That omission is understandable given the long lead times in book publishing, but still seems like a missed opportunity to examine this change in direction.

Another issue with Trailblazing Mars is that at times it appears to be a bit haphazard: a collection of anecdotes and profiles that are only tangentially related, at best, to human exploration of Mars. The chapter titled “The Shuttle’s Long Good-Bye”, for example, starts with the a discussion about the impending retirement of the Space Shuttle (including the book’s only detailed discussion of the Augustine Committee deliberations), but then veers off into a history of shuttle missions to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Another chapter is primarily a profile of veteran astronaut Jerry Ross, including his genealogical research that linked him to an ancestor that prospected for gold in Wyoming in the 1870s—something that Duggins tries to make relevant by comparing the hostile living environments of Wyoming in winter with Mars. That disjointed nature, however, is perhaps a reflection of the planning for such exploration in the first place: a distant goal with little near-term focus, at least before now. Whether the future will see more focused, deliberate progress towards that goal will be one of the key issues for NASA in the coming decade and beyond.