“The story begins two months before the launch of the Phoenix Mars Lander. One year before the landing. It takes ten months to fly at 74,000 mph to arrive on Mars. It’s far.
The subject of the story is a Martian photographer.
“Don’t call me that,” Peter Smith, the world’s greatest Martian Photographer says dryly. “It really diminishes the science.”
“This is a story about the world’s greatest Mars picture-taker and his robot, Phoenix.
“And don’t make me look like some wacko mad scientist,” Peter says.”
Okay, so Martian Summer isn’t a conventional book about space science. For one thing, its narrator has no idea what he’s talking about.
“It was 30 days into the mission, and I was so excited–I went a whole day knowing what was going on,” says Andrew Kessler, self-proclaimed Martian fanboy and author of the new book.
For 90 days Kessler, who has no space background, lived in Tuscon, Arizona, with Peter Smith and the rest of the team in charge of the Phoenix Mars Lander‘s science operations. His days involved learning why he had to arrive at Mission Control at 11:30 p.m. and why it’s so incredibly hard to control an 800-pound (363-kilogram) robot’s fragile arm from 200 million miles (322 million kilometers) away.
[For those who are playing along at home, operations started in the middle of the night for the Phoenix team because they were on Mars time. There was a “Mars watch” specially crafted to keep track of a 24-hour, 40-minute day, as well as numerous prescription alertness drugs.
As for why it’s hard to control the robot, well, you try playing that carnival crane game with equipment that’s been “strapped on the cone of a missile, irradiated for months on end, and then slammed onto the surface of a dusty, cold place.”]
By the end of the book, we’ve learned what a space mission looks like from an amateur perspective, and we’ve gotten some solid science along the way (not to mention all the behind-the-scenes drama that never makes it out via press release).
There’s also a current running through the book about how, as readers of this blog already know, space exploration is awesome, but the message doesn’t always reach the public.
In fact, space-noob Kessler was invited to hang with the scientists because principal investigator Peter Smith “thought we could do a better job of telling the story,” Kessler said.
For the record, Smith was the scientist who was responsible for bypassing official JPL channels to release images from the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997. Those 14,000 images “f*cking crashed the whole Internet,” Kessler said.
Public hunger for Martian goodness proves that space can be popular, he said.
And it’s what got Kessler into Phoenix HQ for a 90-day ride-along with the cowboy spacemen who found water on Mars.
In the following video, Kessler speaks to Breaking Orbit about why space is so freaking awesome.
Martian Summer is available for pre-order now and will be on shelves April 15. Rachel Kaufman is a freelance writer reporting live from the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, who’s wondering if she can play up the fangirl angle next time she wants to watch a space mission unfold.