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.