July 17, 2019

Review: Interplanetary Robots by Rod Pyle

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What’s up in space exploration? We just passed to 60 year mark for the Space Age late last year, with the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union in October 1957. In 60 years, humanity has gone from having a tough time hitting the Moon, to sending spacecraft out of the solar system and in to intergalactic space.

We recently had a chance to read a fascinating new book that chronicles those heady early years of space exploration, along with a look at where we’re at now, and where we might be headed. We’re talking about Interplanetary Robots: True Stories of Space Exploration by Rod Pyle, out from Prometheus Books on January 15th, 2019.

A long-time journalist covering the spaceflight scene, Rod Pyle brings you-are-there tales from the robotic exploration of the planets, straight out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory press room to the printed page.

Even though I’ve read and reported lots on space exploration and the history of the Space Age, I learned a thing or two reading Interplanetary Robots. For example: The book goes deep into the Soviet Union’s early successes at Venus, as well as its long string of failures at Mars. Considering the technology of the day and how they were expected to function in largely unknown interplanetary environments running off of primitive clockwork computer programs, it’s amazing that they (occasionally) worked at all.

The book also intersperses looks back with looks ahead… from interstellar missions to clockwork rovers exploring the hell-scape of Venus, you’ll find these exotic and interesting future proposals in the book. Missions that never were also crop up, as NASA’s planetary program walks the continual tightrope of what it would like to do, versus what it can afford. For every mission that makes it to the launch pad, there are three more that die in the proposal stage.

I really like how Interplanetary Robots tells the tales of just how missions and mission planners overcame technical challenges to return in triumph. The story of how both Voyagers and the Grand Tour missions to the outer planets is retold, missions that are now with us for four decades and counting as they exit the solar system. I find it amusing that there’s nearly a point in every robotic mission where the question of “do we really need a camera?” is raised… but the legacy of nearly every mission is the photos that are returned afterwards, whether or not they had much to offer for scientific merit.

The book also tells the tale of the Galileo mission to Jupiter,with its stuck main antenna, which forced engineers to return data via the low gain antenna at an extremely slow data rate, something that would make ye ole dial-up modem look lightning fast.

Our one minor nitpick; the book is very JPL-centric, and gives other Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) scout class missions such as New Horizons and Mercury Messenger very light mention. Little mention is made of key European and Japanese Space Agency missions, beyond Huygens’ historic landing on Titan, leaving loopholes in the narrative. The author also seems to have a very optimistic view of the future of planetary space exploration, though lots of our eyes in the outer solar system are going dark in this and the coming decade, and plans for replacements such as Europa Clipper, a Titan Helicopter and a Uranus and/or Neptune Orbiter are all far off.

Still, a nuclear-powered helicopter plying the alien skies of Titan is still something we’d love to see. Overall, we enjoyed and would recommend Interplanetary Robots, for telling some great unknown tales of planetary exploration.

Editor’s note: After 11 plus years, we’re sun-setting Astroguyz as a blog. It has been a fun ride, but it’s time to move on. We’ve seen the platform grow from an occasional blog into a freelance writing career. Hey, we’re still surprised that folks actually pay us money for the words coming out of our head! Anyhow, we’ll still be reviewing books on Amazon, writing for Universe Today and Sky and Telescope, and anyone else who will have us. It’s been real!

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