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Review: The Depths of Space

The Depths of Space: The Pioneer Planetary Probes
by Mark Wolverton
Joseph Henry Press, 2004
Hardcover, 249 pages, illus.
ISBN 0-309-09050-4

Pity the poor Pioneers. In the annals of exploration of the solar system, many people remember a number of milestone missions: Viking, Voyager, Mars Pathfinder, Galileo, and, more recently, Cassini, Spirit, and Opportunity. More likely to be forgotten, though, are the Pioneer missions. This is an unfortunate oversight: Pioneer 10 was the first mission to Jupiter, Pioneer 11 was the first to make it to Saturn, while Pioneer 13 is the only American Venus lander mission to date. Those missions, and others in the Pioneer program, have been overshadowed by later missions or otherwise simply forgotten. Mark Wolverton reminds us of these missions’ significance in The Depths of Space.

In the early years of the Space Age, the Ames Research Center was essentially a backwater outpost in the new NASA empire. Inherited from NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), Ames was well regarded in aviation research but was relegated to a supporting role in the new space program. In a bid to give the center a bigger role in the program, Ames officials proposed a series of spacecraft that would fly in solar orbit near the Earth, collecting information about the solar environment. NASA Headquarters was convinced, and in 1962 gave its approval for Ames to begin work on the project, and supplied it with its official name: Pioneer. (Pioneer had previously been used for an unrelated series of lunar flyby missions built by the Air Force and Army in the late 1950s, including an initial failure ignominiously named Pioneer 0; hence, the first Pioneer mission by Ames was Pioneer 6.)

Ames built five Pioneer spacecraft for this original mission: one was lost in a launch failure but the other four, Pioneers 6-9, were unqualified successes. The spacecraft were designed to operate for six months each, but lasted far longer; Pioneer 6 was still operating when contacted by controllers in late 2000, 35 years after its launch. The success of those missions convinced NASA to give the project follow-up missions, notably the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions to the outer solar system and the Pioneer 12 and 13 Venus missions. Those missions, too, accomplished far more than anyone reasonably expected. Tom Gehrels, a planetary scientist involved with Pioneers 10 and 11, considered those missions such an “ultimate experience” he decided there was no need to participate in another spacecraft mission.

Tom Gehrels, a planetary scientist involved with Pioneers 10 and 11, considered those missions such an “ultimate experience” he decided there was no need to participate in another spacecraft mission.

The central figure of The Depths of Space is Charles Hall, the late program manager of the Pioneer program at NASA Ames. Decades before former NASA administrator Dan Goldin brought the philosophy of “faster, better, cheaper” to the space agency in general, Hall was exercising a similar management method for the Pioneer missions. An aeronautical engineer with little management experience before being picked to lead the Pioneer program at Ames, Hall quickly developed a no-nonsense management style. When the young project was in need of office space, he effectively commandeered the center’s cafeteria. Hall became famous within the Pioneer program for his daily “stand up” meetings, where all the participants were required to remain standing for the duration of the meeting: a technique designed to make the meetings as short as possible. Without his leadership, many people involved in the project claimed, Pioneer would not have been nearly as successful.

The Depths of Space does an excellent job describing the history of the Pioneer program in a manner that is accessible to the casual reader. However, given its modest length—only about 225 pages, excluding notes and index—the book is bound to leave some readers’ questions unanswered. While Hall is the central person of the book, his transformation from mild-mannered engineer to super program manager is very rapid: the text offers few insights regarding how Hall quickly became such an effective manager. Another topic the book barely covers is why the Pioneers got overshadowed, in the long run, by other missions, particularly those by rival center JPL. If the purpose of the Pioneer project was to give Ames a bigger role in NASA outside of aviation, in some respects it failed in the long-term: since the Pioneers, Ames has led the development of only a handful of spacecraft, such as Galileo’s atmospheric probe and the Lunar Prospector mission.

Towards the end of the book, Wolverton attempts to use Pioneer, as well as other robotic missions, to demonstrate that space exploration can be better accomplished with robots rather than by humans. This is a oft-repeated argument, made again just recently by a Pioneer project veteran, James Van Allen. (See “Human spaceflight is inevitable”, The Space Review, August 2, 2004.) This is a conclusion that others involved in Pioneer don’t necessarily accept. As Pioneer principal investigator Robert Soberman put it, “Man has a much greater acceptance ratio for the unforeseen. As much as it costs, there’s probably justification to have people out there.” While it may be many decades—even centuries—before humans venture to the outer solar system or the surface of Venus, they will be following a trail blazed by a series of spacecraft appropriately named Pioneer.