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Exploration and Engineering

, 416 pages

11 halftones, 10 line drawings

January 2015



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Exploration and Engineering

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Quest for Mars


Although the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has become synonymous with the United States’ planetary exploration during the past half century, its most recent focus has been on Mars. Beginning in the 1990s and continuing through the Mars Phoenix mission of 2007, JPL led the way in engineering an impressive, rapidly evolving succession of Mars orbiters and landers, including roving robotic vehicles whose successful deployment onto the Martian surface posed some of the most complicated technical problems in space flight history.

In Exploration and Engineering, Erik M. Conway reveals how JPL engineers’ creative technological feats led to major breakthroughs in Mars exploration. He takes readers into the heart of the lab’s problem-solving approach and management structure, where talented scientists grappled with technical challenges while also coping, not always successfully, with funding shortfalls, unrealistic schedules, and managerial turmoil.

Conway, JPL’s historian, offers an insider’s perspective into the changing goals of Mars exploration, the ways in which sophisticated computer simulations drove the design process, and the remarkable evolution of landing technologies over a thirty-year period.

Erik M. Conway is a historian of science and technology at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. He is the author of Atmospheric Science at NASA: A History.

"A masterpiece of research and writing."

"A 'must' for any reader of modern astronomy who wants insights into how the lab conducts its research, solves problems, and handle[s] technological challenges."

"A great tale of ambition, mishap and recovery, building on extensive archival research and interviews with JPL managers, scientists and engineers, to deliver a detailed overview of each mission's feats and failures... Exploration and Engineering is a great book for everyone seriously interested in the struggles and achievements of JPL as NASA's centre for Mars exploration."

"According to Conway, there is a 'disconnect' between the desire to travel into space and the desire to understand it. This 'disconnect' is a more fundamental difficulty for NASA than decades’ worth of budget cuts. It’s a contradiction that’s built into the agency’s structure, which includes a human exploration program on the one hand and a scientific program on the other... Conway puts himself on the side of science, and, as far as he’s concerned, humans are the wrong stuff. They shouldn’t even be trying to get to another planet. Not only are they fragile, demanding, and expensive to ship; they’re a mess."

"Will be appreciated by space enthusiasts, especially those interested in the perennial NASA battle over whether to fund unmanned science probes or human spaceflight."

"This book is a must-read in the history of space exploration. Students of engineering, management, and history of technology will find much to enjoy in this virtual tour behind the scenes of some of NASA’s most famous and evocative missions."

"A detailed book, Exploration and Engineering is a necessary read for anyon ewho wants to know about how space exploration becomes possible, useful to those studying the evolution and transmission of engineering knowledge,"

"No subject in the history of planetary science has been more publicly enticing than the efforts to understand Mars. In Exploration and Engineering, historian Erik M. Conway presents a very detailed, mission-by-mission discussion of Mars exploration since Viking. This capably told narrative captures the fascinating details of the Mars program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory."

"... impressive array of exclusive sources."

"Readers unacquainted with how NASA centers operate, or with how humans build the robots that explore the planets, will benefit from this book. Even the initiated will find the depth of information impressively thorough and will likely find that they did not know JPL as well as they imagined."

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