Podcast/Book Review: The Mission: A True Story

Credit: NASA

A recent episode of the Astronomy Cast podcast recommended a number of books to read this summer, including David W. Brown’s book The Mission: A True Story. It highlights all the efforts to make the soon-to-be-launched Europa Clipper mission a reality. Below is the book blurb by Harper Collins:

In the spirit of Tom Wolfe and John McPhee, The Mission is an exuberant master class of creative nonfiction that reveals how a motley, determined few expanded the horizon of human achievement.

When scientists discovered the first ocean beyond Earth, they had two big questions: “Is it habitable?” and “How do we get there?” To answer the first, they had to solve the second, and so began a vivacious team’s twenty-year odyssey to mount a mission to Europa, the ocean moon of Jupiter.

Standing in their way: NASA, fanatically consumed with landing robots on Mars; the White House, which never saw a science budget it couldn’t cut; Congress, fixated on going to the moon or Mars—anywhere, really, to give astronauts something to do; rivals in academia, who wanted instead to go to Saturn; and even Jupiter itself, which guards Europa in a pulsing, rippling radi­ation belt—a halo of death whose conditions are like those that follow a detonated thermonuclear bomb.

The Mission is the Homeric, never-before-told story of modern space exploration, and a magnificent portrait of the inner lives of scientists who study the solar system’s mysterious outer planets. David W. Brown chronicles the remarkable saga of how Europa was won, and what it takes to get things done—both down here, and up there.

I think it is safe to say that every space mission goes through a gauntlet these days and is lucky to remain intact at the other end. The James Webb Space Telescope started in the 1990s and only saw the light of day (on a distant exoplanet) earlier this year. Not everyone may have the stomach for the sausage-making behind these missions, but you may want to read this tale if you are looking for modern-day drama in the halls of government and academia that can lead to something meaningful.

Credit: Harper Collins