"The Mission: A True Story" By David W. Brown: A Review

©David W. Brown

The Mission: A True Story

To most people outside of NASA, a space mission that is making the news often appears out of nowhere. Sometimes there may be a little news when it is launched and maybe some tidbits along the way.

Otherwise, when it does something cool - like land on a planet or sends back pretty pictures, you hear about it albeit with no back story. For a moment NASA gets a sugar high and then ... nothing - unless the mission makes a big discovery down the road. 

Yes, NASA puts out newsy things with factoids and status reports, but for most people, these missions just seem to happen. But where did the mission come from, people may wonder. Whose idea was it? Who are those people jumping up and down in the control room? Were there other ways to do the mission? Did someone want to go somewhere else instead? Did everyone agree or were there arguments? And by the way, where did that mission's name come from anyway?

"The Mission" by David W. Brown takes a rather unorthodox look into the backstory of space missions by focusing on one in particular: the mission currently known as Europa Clipper. Brown documents how this mission came to be, the iterations and name changes it went through, the internal gyrations among program managers, budgeteers, scientists, and politicians, but most importantly, the people. Yes, while the spacecraft are usually the stars of the show, this expensive, shiny hardware is simply a reflection of a team of humans putting their mind toward a distant task -  while swatting off other humans who would seek to deter them from their task. 

Brown accomplishes his task of describing this traveling roadshow of people, science, politics, and nerdy rocket stuff in a somewhat unconventional fashion. In a very stream-of-consciousness way, he assembles a cast of characters in an ever-changing and expanding moveable feast. Imagine for a moment that Hunter Thompson and Luke Skywalker decided to drive cross country in an old school bus, picking up starry-eyed hitch hikers along the way to Europa. Each has the same destination. Each had a different starting point. Suddenly just as their bus is about to run out of gas they miraculously arrive at their destination - a destination which is actually the start of an even greater odyssey across the solar system. This book is about the journey required - to plan a journey.

And to add to the fun Brown has exhaustively footnoted this entire roadshow. Some of the footnotes are more entertaining than the main body of the book.

Everyone in this story has their eyes firmly focused beyond this world. But many did not start out that way. A few had inklings as children while others ended up in hourly jobs and careers with nothing interesting on the other side of the rainbow. One way or another the exploration of space grabbed hold of them and there they are on Brown's bus full of starry-eyed space misfits. Each of the people in this book is "tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote" in a Melville-esque fashion - as quoted by Carl Sagan. FWIW I know many of the people in this ever evolving story and was in the middle of a few of the events which just makes it all the more interesting for me.  

The Europa Clipper mission has been a political football - the last in an iteration of missions with the words "Jupiter" and/or "Europa" in their names - names often hidden in NASA acronyms that disappeared just as soon as people got used to using them.  The distilled essence of Europa Clipper is Astrobiology - the search for indications of life on Jupiter's moon Europa - a world roughly the size of our own moon with an ocean beneath its icy surface. 

As tantalizing as the possibilities are for this mission, scientists line up and form their factions and the people who want to explore worlds like Europa, or Titan, Enceladus, Pluto etc. have to wage a low key internecine war with the Mars faction - something Brown explores in great detail. I guess it is better to have a solar system with an embarrassment of riches to explore - riches worth fighting over - than to have a boring one that no one cares to bother with. 

That said, despite the supposedly formal strictures offered by the National Academy's Decadal Plans which are delivered as if from Mt. Olympus, all of the players inside and outside of NASA still fight with one another as to where precious monetary resources should be focused. And they are adept at dragging members of Congress into the fray as Brown aptly demonstrates. 

As such, when you see a mission launched into space, you should recall that as much as there was hefty science that drove its development, and skilled rocketry which makes it leave Earth there is more to making it go somewhere to do something. There is also a potent, almost vital force powering each mission - an emergent property that results from a group of somewhat obsessed people who have fought and actually expended blood, sweat and tears to make the mission happen in the first place. 

These space missions are often described as being our "robotic emissaries" or "avatars" "or "envoys" to the universe. Yes, they are - in all the ways that make us human - through both our strengths and weaknesses we alloy these traits all together with some physics and set forth from Earth to see what we can learn.

Brown's book manages to capture the seemingly ordered chaos, the procedural gauntlets, and the brownian motion, if you will, that every space mission needs to safely traverse before it gets its first whiff of hard vacuum, bombardment by cosmic rays, and the view ahead toward infinite vistas.

Highly recommended.

The Mission: A True Story, by David W. Brown

Astrobiology, Europa,

Please follow SpaceRef on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.