Book Reviews


Our Perceptions of Mars

[Image of book cover]The Planet Mars: A History of Observations and Discovery
by William Sheehan
University of Arizona Press, 1996
softcover, 270pp., illus.
ISBN 0-8165-1641-3

No other planet in the solar system has created such interest and fascination in as Mars. Since earliest times, when it appeared as a red star wandering through the skies, symbolic of blood and war, to the present and near-future spacecraft missions to the planet, humanity has given Mars a special place it its collective mind. William Sheehan explores the history of our study of the Red Planet in The Planet Mars.
     While the first chapter of the book explores the "prehistory" of human study of Mars, up to Kepler's study of its orbit, the book's detailed history gets going in chapter 2 with the first telescopic observations of Mars in the 17th century. Sheehan writes a detailed (he includes over 25 pages of notes at the end of the text) but very readable history of observations from Mars. Special attention is given to the "discovery" of canals on the planet, of course, but they do not receive undo attention.
     Spacecraft studies of Mars are included in the book as well, but they do not get the same attention here as in other books. The spacecraft history provided here is almost entirely American; Soviet efforts receive scant attention, a disappointment considering the scope of the rest of the text. Otherwise, however, The Planet Mars is a good history of our study of the planet. Sheehan's text provides a good description of how we have looked at Mars in the past, and can help the reader put some of the news of the present and plans for the future in perspective.

The Resources of Outer Space

[Image of book cover]Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets
by John S. Lewis
Helix Books (Addison-Wesley), 1996
hardcover, 288pp., illus.
ISBN 0-201-47959-1

Earlier this year, John Lewis warned us of the threat asteroids and comets pose to the Earth in his book Rain of Iron and Ice. He noted the damage cosmic collisions had done to the Earth in the past and the hazards they pose for the future, as well as what needs to be done to prevent future catastrophes. In Mining the Sky Lewis picks up where he left off in his earlier book, noting that once we have the capability to deflect asteroids and comets off of collision courses with the Earth, we will also have the capability to use them to create a nearly endless stream of resources for the future expansion of the human race.
     After starting with some history (admittedly rather depressing history) about past and present space efforts, he dives into how the Moon and near-Earth asteroids can be used to provide everything from heavy metals to water and oxygen. From there we move out to Mars and the main belt asteroids, and then to the gas giants, whose inventories of helium-3 could power humanity for centuries or even millennia. From there the expansion of humanity to other stars becomes inevitable, according to Lewis.
     Lewis writes in a style easily understood by the general public, and illustrates his beliefs with vignettes from a hypothetical future history, where humans are utilizing the resources of the solar system, in each chapter. One fault of Lewis's book is his aerospace history early in the text. Here we find dubious statements (that the plans for the Saturn 5 have been lost), possible errors (he refers to the Soviet rocket to be used for manned moon missions as the G1; the usual designation for the rocket is N-1) and definite errors (he claims the Clementine spacecraft was launched from a Pegasus rocket; it was launched in 1994 from a refurbished Titan II). One hopes these errors can be corrected in a revised or paperback edition. Otherwise Mining the Sky is a good introduction to the potential riches to be found beyond the Earth.

Our Home from Space

[image of book cover]Orbit: NASA Astronauts Photograph the Earth
by Jay Apt, Michael Helfert, and Justin Wilkinson
National Geographic Society, 1996
hardcover, 224pp., illus.
ISBN 0-7922-3714-5

pictures of planets, moons, stars and distant galaxies and other cosmic phenomena. Yet, some of the best, and most well received, photos have been pictures of our own Earth taken from space. Whether its the ability to look at the planet without the usual reference marks of labels and borders, or the new perspective space provides on familiar features, images of the Earth have been among the most popular space images taken to date. A shuttle astronaut and two earth scientists have compiled nearly 200 of the best pictures into the beautiful book Orbit.
     The book is laid out like the flight plan of the shuttle. The first section is Africa, the first landmass encountered by shuttle astronauts after launch. Later chapters follow the progression of the shuttle in orbit: Europe and the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific, Middle and South America, and North America. A special section in the middle of the book provides some astounding views of the Earth's aurora as seen by the shuttle. The text of the book is kept to a minimum: some introductory comments in each chapter, explanatory captions for each picture, and some additional information at the beginning and end of the book.
     It is difficult to describe the quality of the pictures here. They are beautiful, amazing, educational, and more. Each picture is in rich color and many fill one or two of the books oversized (10.75" by 12") pages. At a price of $40, Orbit may seem like a bit much for what could be described as simply a fancy picture book, but it's really quite a bargain for the sheer beauty of the book.

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