Story: Subtitled “An Insider’s View of the Mars Pathfinder Mission,” this book recounts the history of the original Mars rover mission that inspired millions in 1997, from its genesis as a retrofitting of long-outdated unused moon rover hardware to the little rover’s landing and exploration of the Martian landscape. Despite being written by Andrew Mishkin, the Senior Systems Engineer for the Sojourner rover for JPL, the book is culled from extensive interviews with his teammates and co-workers.
Review: An eye-opening book, “Sojourner” is an incredible tale of a little unmanned mission that could – despite obstacles on two planets. The forbidden environment of Mars is enough of a hazard to survive, to say nothing of the months of deep space journey before Soujourner and its Mars Pathfinder mothership arrived at the red planet. Just as many obstacles threatened to keep Sojourner’s wheels on Earth, from technical difficulties to petty bureaucracies.
It’s the latter that made “Sojourner” an eye-opening read. I’ve read many an astronaut biography (and met a few astronauts and cosmonauts to boot), so I’m accustomed to the Right Stuff coming with some baggage – namely an ego to match the steely courage. But I was stunned to read what amounted to tech geek rivalries that threatened to sideline Sojourner at what seemed like every step. Indeed, one mission manager was all for sending the Pathfinder lander to Mars without any kind of rover… unless it was one that came out of his personal “think tank.” And he spent the better part of a year trying to argue that his design should replace Sojourner, or Sojourner should stay on Earth.
It’s a given that we’re supposed to be rooting for Mishkin and his colleagues, since he wrote the book, but after reading the description of some of the internal politics involved, it’s much easier to consider the author and his team of Mars-rover-building hopefuls the good guys. Sojourner performed above and beyond expectations, lasting as many weeks as it was meant to last days; much of the team behind Sojourner went on to design, program and operate the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, which are still operating today, years after their design specs say they would’ve been shut down. It’s easy to figure out who the good guys are in this story.
Mishkin does a good job of explaining even the tech-iest parts of the story, so you know why one rover design was chosen over the others, what technical issues were holding up the entire mission, and what the big problems were that threatened the entire mission in mid-flight; I’m a tech geek, but I’m no aerospace engineer or robotics expert, and I never felt left in the (Martian) dust without an explanation. I’d say that Mishkin needs to get cracking on the follow-up book, except that with Spirit and Opportunity still roving Mars years after beginning their explorations, the story is still in progress.
Author: Andrew Mishkin