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Review: Incredible Stories from Space

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Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos
By Nancy Atkinson
Page Street Publishing, 2016
paperback, 224 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-62414-317-5

Last week, NASA made awards for three new science missions. On January 3, it announced the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE), part of the agency’s Explorer program of small astrophysics missions. A day later, it unveiled two Discovery-class planetary science missions: Lucy, a mission to the Trojan asteroids found in the Jupiter-Sun L4 and L5 Lagrange points; and Psyche, a mission to the metal asteroid of the same name in the main belt. IXPE is slated for launch in 2020, while Lucy and Psyche will launch in 2021 and 2023, respectively.

IXPE, Lucy, and Psyche join dozens of other science missions in development or operation by NASA today. Some of those missions, and the personnel behind them, are profiled in Incredible Stories from Space, a book by science writer Nancy Atkinson that offers whirlwind review of those programs, and the people who make them possible.

“We haven’t bonded emotionally with it. Sociologists have actually been studying this,” Vasavada said, suggesting Curiosity’s large size may be the reason.

Atkinson profiles nine ongoing space science missions, ranging from well-known spacecraft like the Hubble Space Telescope to those who aren’t often making headlines, like the Solar Dynamics Observatory. (A tenth chapter in the book examines some upcoming missions, including ones that have already launched like OSIRIS-REx or even, in the case of Juno, have arrived at their destinations.) Each chapter provides an overview of the mission and its science accomplishments but also, as the title suggests, goes “behind the scenes” to talk with the people leading or otherwise deeply involved in those missions.

For many space enthusiasts, the accounts of the missions will be familiar: the challenges Pluto mission advocates like Alan Stern faced getting New Horizons funded, the mirror problems of Hubble, and the excitement at JPL the night Curiosity successfully landed on Mars. The interviews add an additional dimension, though, that go beyond the missions’ science and technology to provide personal insights into why they’re involved in these missions, and what they mean to them.

Those discussions also provide some interesting insights. Ashwin Vasavada, the project scientist for Curiosity notes that this rover has not really been anthropomorphized, unlike the earlier rovers Spirit and Opportunity. “We haven’t bonded emotionally with it. Sociologists have actually been studying this,” he said, suggesting the rover’s large size may be the reason. “I think of it as a giant beast,” he said. “But not in a mean way at all.”

Those insights are the key part of Incredible Stories from Space, particularly for those who already know the backgrounds of those missions (and can skim past some of those details in the book.) Soon, missions like IXPE, Lucy, and Psyche will have their own stories to tell about their challenges and rewards of exploring the solar system and the universe.