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Review: 50 Years of Solar System Exploration

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50 Years of Solar System Exploration: Historical Perspectives
by Linda Billings (ed.)
NASA, 2021
ebook, 352 pp., illus.
NASA SP-2021-4705

Some projects take a while: ask those involved with the James Webb Space Telescope, finally launching later this week (barring any last-minute issues) after many years of delays. Even books about space projects can take time to complete. NASA released earlier this month 50 Years of Solar System Exploration, a collection of essays on various topics of NASA’s planetary science program. The book stems from a conference to mark the 50th anniversary of NASA’s first mission to another planet, the Mariner 2 flyby of Venus in 1962. That conference took place in 2012, or nine years ago. Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of that mission.

The book may have had a long gestation period, but it’s worth the wait. The 12 papers examine various technical, political, and organizational issues about NASA’s robotic solar system exploration efforts, from the Moon to the outer solar system. This is not a book about the science of those missions, but how the science gets done—or sometimes doesn’t get done.

Missions rise and fall based on executive and legislative branch support and the ability to gain and retain international partners.

The chapters examine a range of topics in solar system exploration: not a comprehensive look at everything, but instead detailed studies of selected topics. One chapter, for example, looks at the long history of Mars sample return. The initial concepts for sending spacecraft to Mars to grab samples for return to Earth date back to the 1970s, but were deemed infeasible. (JPL tested whether it would be possible for a rover to autonomously move on Mars, using an engineering model of an Apollo-era lunar rover. It worked, but it moved only a few centimeters in a day and had to be hooked up to the center’s fastest mainframe.) But the idea came and went several times before it finally caught traction in recent years with the Mars 2020 rover Perseverance and the ongoing development of follow-on missions that will bring samples Perseverance caches back to Earth in the early 2030s.

There is not a broad, overarching theme to the papers, beyond the importance of policy and politics to planetary exploration. Missions rise and fall based on executive and legislative branch support and the ability to gain and retain international partners. While the papers come from conference presentations in 2012, many include updates that stretch closer to the present day, incorporating policy and technical developments such as advances on Mars sample return.

The papers do suggest some topics for future study. An example is the relationship between NASA and its closest international partner in space science, ESA. That long-running relationship has suffered a variety of problems, usually from NASA being an unreliable partner on programs ranging from the International Solar Polar Mission (later Ulysses) to ExoMars. It would be completely understandable if ESA simply walked away from partnering with NASA on future missions, but it has not, being closely tied on Mars Sample Return as one example. The relationship seems closer now than it has been in the past as well, but how it evolved and why is an interesting story and a reminder of the role that people, politics, and policies play in exploring the planets.

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