Mission to Mars

Sojourner: An Insider’s View of the Mars Pathfinder Mission, Andrew Mishkin

This is a book for nerds. I know this because when I told a close friend (you know who you are) I had “just finished a great book about the Mars Rover” I got an eye-roll that I am pretty sure translated to mean “apparently your dictionary defines ‘great’ differently than mine”.

But I did love it! I remember clearly so many details about those days. When Pathfinder (the ship) and Sojouner (the payload) were launched on their way to Mars. Drawing a scale-model sketch of the rover on my whiteboard at work to show people how compact it was. The exiting day that Pathfinder landed on Mars encased in an “air-bags-gone-wild” balloon cocoon, bouncing around until it finally settled down in a beautiful and perfect plain. Being glued to the news for 3 days while the Rover carefully stood up, snapped a few pictures, and took its first tentative steps down a custom-built ramp to the surface of Mars. Sojourner was actually ON MARS!!!

It was glorious! The adorable little Rover then carried out a mission of exploration for 83 sols, 76 sols longer than planned, and even then, Sojourner ended its mission only because its base station, Pathfinder, had stopped communicating. In fact, in the event of a communications failure, Sojourner was equipped with back-up instructions which were to navigate back to Pathfinder, stop several feet shy of the lander and then just drive around it in circles. I have a very sad/adorable picture in my head of Sojourner slowly circumnavigating pathfinder day after day, signalling ‘hello’ until it’s solar panels slowly gave up.

Adrew Mishkin is not a bad writer, and not a great one either. This book is simply a very factual account of the efforts to design and build the Sojourner rover with very little time and even less money, written by one of the key engineers on the team. What it lacks in emotion it makes up for in fascinating scientific challenges and how the team overcame them (of course, this might not be your thing like it is mine, in which case what the book lacks in emotion it simply … lacks.)

Rating: Buy it, if you have the soul of an engineer or inventor. You will love it just as I did.

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