The Best Books About Mars, By the Mars Explorers Themselves

Preview thumbnail for 'Journey into Space: The First Three Decades of Space Exploration

Journey into Space: The First Three Decades of Space Exploration

Most U.S. Mars missions have been run from a single place: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Bruce Murray was JPL’s director toward the end of the golden age of planetary exploration, taking over in 1976 just as Vikings 1 and 2 were about to make the first Mars landings. Years earlier, he had been on the team that built the first Mars TV cameras, for Mariner 4’s quick flyby. Through the rest of the 1960s and 1970s he had a front-row seat for the first wave of Mars spacecraft missions, when the planet evolved in our sight from a tiny disk in Earth-bound telescopes to a world of mountains, deserts, and salmon-colored skies.

Murray’s book, which covers more than Mars (he also was a key scientist on the Mariner 10 Mercury mission), is equal parts history and memoir. He was on hand in 1965 when Mariner 4’s “long-awaited first close-up pictures of Mars started trickling into JPL at a rate of slightly more than one tiny [pixel] each second.” At first the scientists “couldn’t recognize a thing,” but eventually the fuzzy images revealed what seemed to be a dead, cratered world. The pictures got sharper with each mission, though, until in 1971 Mariner 9’s views of dried-up river channels made the planet’s geologic past come alive. Murray thought the first landing mission was overly focused on finding life (“I was a critic, not a supporter of Viking”) and in fact, Viking’s ambiguous maybe regarding biology put a chill on Mars exploration for another two decades.

The second half of Journey Into Space sometimes gets bogged down in NASA budget politics, but along the way Murray introduces us to some of the pioneers of planetary exploration, from less well known figures like John Casani and Ed Danielson to famous ones like Carl Sagan, who, along with Murray, would later co-found The Planetary Society.

Also see: A Bunch of Plumbers by John Newcomb, a veteran engineer on several early planetary missions, including Viking; and this online exhibit about Viking, with many behind-the-scenes photos.

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