Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is an uncommon organization, a place that doubles as a part of Caltech and as an active NASA center. Over the years, some of the space program's most imaginative and cost-effective work has emerged from JPL, all involving unmanned exploration. JPL has brought us the planets--sun-seared Mercury, the swirling clouds of Venus, the deserts of Mars, the gaseous giant Jupiter, ringed Saturn, and obscure Uranus--and next month, after an incredible 12-year odyssey, a Voyager spacecraft will give us our first close-up look at Neptune. No one else on Earth--certainly not the Soviets--could do this. Today, 20 years after the first lunar landing, JPL remains a national treasure.
Bruce Murray was the director of JPL from 1976 to 1982. He is also co-founder, with Carl Sagan, of the 125,000-member Planetary Society. A geologist by education and an explorer by nature, Murray packs 30 years of planetary science into this readable but somewhat unbalanced account. His prose swings from that of seasoned bureaucrat to that of enthralled scientist, depending on how close he is to one of his beloved planets. Pondering the sorry state of NASA in the aftermath of the Challenger explosion, for example, he explains somewhat pompously that "the time had come for me to put into literary form that view from within."
He is awe-struck, in contrast, when writing about the signals coming from Voyager: "(Its) faint, wailing voice as it whispers back the secrets of Neptune. For one marvelous moment, just as the last decade of this careening century begins, an invisible resonance of precisely tuned radio waves will vibrate across three billion miles. This sound box of the Solar System should provide the greatest live video of our century."
This last quote encapsulates the book's major strength and weakness. Murray loves his planets and assumes everyone else does too. He explains them very well, and the lay reader certainly will be caught up in the beauty of these remote places, but he goes overboard. Neptune most definitely will not "provide the greatest live video of our century." I don't know what will, but Jupiter won't come close to Armstrong's first step on the moon.
Given that this book's subtitle is "The First Three Decades of Space Exploration," it is strange that Murray skips over some big chunks of history and almost totally ignores manned space flight. The Gemini program is not mentioned, for instance; a chart of significant events jumps from John Glenn's Mercury to the Apollo fire that killed Grissom, White and Chaffee. Gemini was essential in building the foundation that allowed Apollo to reach the moon before John F. Kennedy's deadline of the end of the 1960s.
A more accurate subtitle would be "How I Hate the Shuttle." It is certainly true that putting all of NASA's launch eggs in the shuttle basket was a fundamental mistake. The decision was made in the early 1970s, and it siphoned off money from the planetary program later in that decade and into the 1980s. Even worse, it made sure that no expendable launch vehicles would be available to compete with the shuttle. Then came the Challenger accident and the shuttle was grounded. Hence there was a long dry spell during which JPL's wonderful machines could not get off the launch pad.
Murray certainly needed to explain in this book how the shuttle crimped his operation, but hardly a page goes by without a new diatribe, and it can get tiresome. He writes of "NASA's obsession with the Shuttle . . . " " . . . NASA's fixation on the Shuttle was such that it overrode any sense of responsibility for future American space science and exploration." "The Shuttle had always catered to the need for fantasy in us all. Now it served no other purpose." "Once again NASA mortgaged America's future in space in a desperate bid to retain the Shuttle as its means and the ill-conceived space station as it ends." And so on.
For as long as I have known NASA, there has been a certain tension between its manned and unmanned components. Some scientists, such as James Van Allen, are just flat against manned exploration because a robot can generally get the job done a lot cheaper. One counter argument (as a former astronaut, my prejudices lie in this direction) is that the public's consistent support for the manned program helps not only NASA, but components of it, such as JPL. Murray does not refute this in the case of Apollo, pointing out that ". . . Viking, Voyager, and the Mariners . . . became a reality decades earlier than they would have if Apollo had not happened." But the shuttle is different, he says.
He may be right that the shuttle has blocked a lot of brilliant planetary science, but what neither he nor anyone else can say is what would have happened to NASA without a shuttle. Extra money might have gone to JPL, but I doubt it. In my view Murray overestimates the public's fascination with planetary science. For example, he writes that when Voyager flew by Jupiter in 1979 and photographed its gaudy atmosphere, "The swirling Red Spot became a cultural symbol overnight." I don't remember that.
To the Soviets and their space program, Murray is generally kind. General Secretary Gorbachev is depicted as listening attentively for hours and asking intelligent questions of his space experts, while, over lunch, President Reagan tells a few jokes and then startles his guests by remarking that "one can't help but think about creationism" because no one has yet found life anywhere in the universe. To me a strange omission was not mentioning the Soviet shuttle. If our shuttle is such a mistake, and the Russian program as well thought out as he says, how do you explain their shuttle? Perhaps the Buran had not yet flown before Murray finished this book, but surely he knew it was coming.
In general, Murray is more adept at criticizing than offering solutions (other than to give JPL more money), but he does have a strong suggestion to make about NASA's future: "The first human landings on Mars beckon as the next great milestone in human exploration, now that Earth orbit and the moon have been visited." The author explains the exciting science he expects to be performed on Mars, and why he chooses it rather than any other of the planets. Instead of competing Apollo-style with the Soviets, "we can go to Mars together in a resounding victory of human intelligence and spirit over runaway technology and political change." Murray believes that there is ". . . a longing for the two nations to do something together for a change, something on behalf of the human species. Our powers are so great and our accomplishments so feeble."
In my view, Apollo was not a feeble accomplishment, but I won't quibble with the sentiment behind Murray's words. I agree wholeheartedly that Mars should be our next destination and NASA's focal point. No other space goal can revitalize our space agency, or contribute so mightily to the political and economic health of this country. The United Sates can go it alone or the two superpowers can form a joint venture, but it seems preferable to mount an international campaign and invite any country with the cash and the technology to join in.
Murray comes through as a prickly character who says what he thinks. Apparently he didn't get along very well with the NASA administrators for whom he worked, nor did he approve of our country's leadership, at least as far as space was concerned. ("Jimmy Carter was too honest to mislead but too narrow to lead.") But Murray understands why he was considered a maverick; and when one of his NASA bosses tells him "I don't trust you, Bruce" he cheerfully explains to the reader why not. Most writers would not include such a passage.
So it is an honest book and a very good one if you are fascinated by far-off places with strange geology and wonderful names (Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto). Or if you are interested in the sophisticated robotic machines that visited these planets and moons, and the brilliant people at JPL who milked the last drop of scientific information from them.