Compelling New Book Captures Image-Rich Essence Of NASA’s Mars Exploration

If anything, the Martian landscape is a case study of a planet that somehow went awfully wrong. It’s a landscape that appears to have once been truly habitable but continues to haunt us precisely because it’s such a shell of its former self. Today, it’s more reminiscent of Death Valley than a planet that at one time harbored lakes, seas and river deltas —- perhaps with abundant ancient life.

But as a new coffee table-sized book —- “NASA Missions to Mars: A Visual History of Our Quest to Explore the Red Planet” reminds us, Earth is our proverbial pale blue dot. And despite the troubling images streaming out of Ukraine, Earth is a rare example of habitability in a solar system that seems to be rather unique.

Space historian Piers Bizony authored the book’s principal text which takes us back into the esoteric world of planetary science. It’s a massive hardback edition that invites us to peruse and reflect on something other than our own planet’s manmade horrors.

“NASA Missions to Mars” begins with an extended introductory essay by science journalist and author Andrew Chaikin which covers the nuts and bolts of Mars’ robotic exploration.

Bizony covers the early Soviet and American mars flyby missions, the Viking 1 and 2 missions from the mid-seventies, as well as NASA’s rover missions.

As Bizony notes, at Yellowknife Bay, inside Gale Crater, NASA’S Mars Curiosity rover detected trace amounts of carbon-chain molecules in a mudstone near the Martian “radiation-soaked surface,” suggesting that there might be far greater concentrations of organics deep beneath the Martian surfaces. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) subsequently found thick deposits of water ice over a third of the planet’s surface.

NASA’s Perseverance rover is exploring inside Jezero crater, located north of the Martian equator on the western edge of a plain known as Isidis Planitia. The 28-mile wide crater is breached, Bizony writes, “By the dried out remnants of a colossal river delta, whose rushing “outflow channel” waters probably filled the crater some three billion years ago.”

But the book’s true value remains in its images. And its most arresting images are arguably not the science fiction film posters at the book’s beginning —- though they are worth a few moments of study —- but rather what NASA does best. That is, produce beautiful real-life images of the Martian surface both from orbit and up close from the surface. That’s the beauty of high-quality photographs in book form; they can be studied unabated in one’s lap. The selfies taken by the curiosity and perseverance rovers are altogether haunting and inspiring.

A series of selfies taken by the Curiosity rover’s extendable robotic arm has allowed technicians on the ground to assemble a spectacular 2021 panorama of Mont Mercou, an outcrop that forms part of Mount Sharp, Gale Crater’s central peak.

If such Mars robotics are “extensions of ourselves” as the Curiosity rover’s Chief Engineer Rob Manning noted nearly two decades ago, just imagine what humans could improvise once on the Martian surface.

Yet as Chaikin points out in his introductory essay, “Back in 1954, famed rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun wrote in Collier’s magazine, “Will man ever go to Mars? I am sure he will—but it will be a century or more before he’s ready.” I’ve long suspected he was right, and yet I hope it turns out he was just a bit too conservative, because I want to live to see it.”

Sadly, I suspect von Braun will prove to be almost correct when humanity finally sets foot on the red planet. We could have done it much sooner, perhaps as early as 1990 if the US had had the political will and NASA had been given marching orders to make it happen. But that’s not the way it turned out. Our robotic explorers have revealed much, but hardly all.

That’s why Mars exploration still needs boots on the ground. One of the book’s most intriguing images is a 1988 painting by Pat Rawlings, depicting astronauts exploring Noctis Labyrinthus, a canyon region full of jagged terrain west of the deep vast canyons of Valles Marineris.

Although the rovers have been a spectacular success, it’s this type of exotic off world scenery that prompts us all to dream of Martian exploration as it could be —- rife with vistas that literally boggle the mind.

In this current war-torn era, “NASA missions to Mars” is a poignant reminder of our better selves. Here’s hoping that before this century is out, human in situ exploration of Mars’ Valles Marineris will be as commonplace as a trip to our own grand canyon.

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