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Book Review

The Trials of NASA and the Mars Mission

VOYAGE TO MARS Mankind's Search for Life Beyond Earth by Laurence Bergreen; Riverhead Books $27.95, 384 pages


As the American presidential campaign 2000 moves bumpily toward its finish, "Voyage to Mars" is a sobering reminder that the process of governing is not a matter of merely asking the voters to answer yes or no to a list of greatly oversimplified questions.

Rather, it involves lifting the hearts of a country to set goals that may be as difficult to achieve as they are lofty. Improving education is hard. Ensuring full civil rights for everyone may be harder. Balancing the needs of the young and the old is a never-finished job of constant tinkering.

And, enticingly, there is beyond this globe the challenge to explore the solar system and outer space. To observe the presidential campaign, you would not know that this goal is on the national agenda.

But as Laurence Bergreen makes clear in "Voyage to Mars," it is there, inescapably, even if neither political leaders nor the people want to acknowledge it.

The lure to venture into the unknown, together with the technical means to achieve, say, a manned landing on Mars, is pulling this nation and, by extension, the world with it, toward a fuller satisfaction of the ever-present human need to know more and go farther. "Voyage to Mars" makes a compelling case for the inevitability of a mission to Mars that will carry men and, Bergreen believes, women on a journey out and back that will last a few years.

Bergreen, author of biographies of Louis Armstrong, Al Capone and Irving Berlin, has in "Voyage to Mars" attempted a portrait of another American institution--NASA. This time there is no single dominant personality to give his book a focus.

Instead, Bergreen must deal with a huge bureaucracy, with the vagaries of presidential and congressional politics, with several thousand scientists and engineers, and with the principal centers of NASA's activities: its headquarters in Washington, the Goddard Space Center outside Washington, the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and, of course, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech in Pasadena.

On the whole, Bergreen does a good and serious job. The book is at times densely written--abbreviations that are commonplace within NASA can be bewildering to one encountering them for the first time--but by focusing on selected individual men and women, he brings to life the rather abstract scientific and bureaucratic processes that drive NASA's Mars program.

The principal figures on Bergreen's stage are NASA scientists James B. Garvin and Claire Parkinson. Through their intense devotion to their science and their craft--like most of the scientists in Bergreen's book they could make much more money in private business--the reader gets a sense of the drama, the intense joys and disappointments, of science at the outer edge of knowledge.

Of disappointments there have been many. The failure of the 1999 missions of the Mars Climate Orbiter and, more spectacularly and dishearteningly, of the Mars Polar Lander, dashed the spirits of many in the program and undoubtedly many others.

Bergreen was at JPL with a thousand other journalists, and having reviewed two intense years of space exploration, he knew how the scientists felt when the craft, about to land, vanished without a trace. "I have learned," he writes, "perhaps belatedly, how humiliating space can be."

Battered by its recent failures, pushed by the bureaucrats to do its missions "better, faster, cheaper," comparatively starved for funds, NASA is not now at the peak of its popularity.

Yet within the agency there are still true believers in the Mars mission. There are even those who think we could get people on Mars by 2014. Bergreen's "Voyage to Mars" is a moving account of human aspirations that warns us not to set our sights too low.

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