01 January 2020 Reviews

To Mars with Love

The past few years have seen an increase in the number of books on the careers of women involved in various space programmes, and not before time; this is an account of one young woman’s involvement in the Viking ‘Labeled Release’ experiment on the Viking Mars lander. The Viking story is, in the words of the book’s publicity, “intertwined with her parallel life experiences in the beachside communities of Los Angeles”.

Rather than present a scientific treatise or review of the experiment’s results (which have been published elsewhere), the author offers a “behind the scenes” look at the events and problems encountered in the development of the hardware, “but also the lighter moments prior to launch and during the mission”.

She begins with the launch, which she says was delayed by a faulty control valve and was “not a big surprise” to the biology team, who were “all too familiar with the fact that most things just didn’t work right the first time on Viking”. Sometimes “they didn’t even work right the second time”, she reports ruefully.

Once the images arrived from Mars, the early issues were forgotten and the team’s humour began to emerge. Most readers will be familiar with the “Face on Mars” (a coincidence of topography and lighting conditions), but may not have heard of the Greek letters and numerals apparently imaged on surface rocks – with which the press had a field day. When an image of a short trench dug by the lander, which “looked amazingly like a footprint”, was downloaded, it was duplicated and displayed by the team as a set of footprints dubbed “The Martian Spook”. So perhaps they created their own disinformation!

Written in the first person, the book has a personality and immediacy that draws the reader in – to the science and engineering as much as the personal stories. From tales of a previous apartment tenant (whose water bed was punctured by two naked women in high heels) to a neighbour’s piloting antics in a private aircraft (“just before crashing, Don lifted the plane and started a rapid loop”), it’s an entertaining read.

The book is well illustrated with colour and monochrome images and concludes with a short list of acronyms and a reference list. Sadly, however, there is no index.

The book can be purchased at https://www.tomarswithlove.com

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