Review: Exploring the Planets
by Jeff Foust
|A lot of the book goes into the management of both science missions and university departments, including battles with government and university bureaucracies. That can seem like boring details, but it reflects the reality of doing space missions.|
Taylor, in the preface of his memoir Exploring the Planets, acknowledges he is not necessarily as famous as “people like Einstein and various Nobel Prize winners” who have been the subjects of biographies and autobiographies. Prompted by the need to clear his office—he was moving to a smaller office upon retirement—he started going through his notes and decided that a memoir about his career working on space missions might help inspire young people. At the very least, it makes for an interesting story about both the scientific and programmatic aspects of working on space missions.
Taylor writes that he was fascinated about space since the launch of Sputnik, when he was a teenager growing up in England. While Britain did not have much of a space program, he found a way to pursue his interest in college, getting a doctorate at Oxford by developing an atmospheric sounding instrument for a future spacecraft mission. He then came to America to work at JPL, spending a decade working on instruments such as one flown on the Pioneer Venus mission, then returned to take up a position at Oxford, where he remained through retirement working on a variety of missions.
Some of those missions turned out quite well, including Pioneer Venus and the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS). Others proved more challenging, such as instruments lost on both the Mars Observer and Mars Climate Orbiter missions before finally finding success with Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. He sought for decades to get a follow-up mission to Pioneer Venus to further study its atmosphere, finally succeeding with ESA’s Venus Express.
Taylor, in the preface, calls the book a “memoir” and not an autobiography since he intended to focus on primarily his professional career exploring the solar system. However, much of the first half of the book has plenty of autobiographical elements, including his childhood, experiences in college, marriage, and adjusting to life in California (and readjusting to England after a decade away.) Later on, though, the book is far more focused on his professional work.
|The book may not be inspiring for future generations of scientists, but it can be enlightening for them, and others, to better understand how missions and other aspects of research careers actually work.|
A lot of the book goes into the management of both science missions and university departments, including battles with government and university bureaucracies. That can seem like boring details—and, indeed, it can seem a little too inside baseball at times—but it reflects the reality of doing space missions or simply trying to be an academic today: much of your time is spent not on the science but on the paperwork, funding, and other things required to be able to do that science. It may not be inspirational to would-be space scientists, but it is realistic.
Exploring the Planets is a book probably best for people already in the Earth and planetary sciences, giving them an insider’s view of the development of the field, particularly in building instruments for space missions, over several decades. It may not be inspiring for future generations of scientists, but it can be enlightening for them, and others, to better understand how missions and other aspects of research careers actually work.