Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer

Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer

‘MARS ROVER CURIOSITY: AN INSIDE ACCOUNT FROM CURIOSITY’S CHIEF ENGINEER’


JUMP TO SECTION:

OPENING LINE:

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to read about being a rocket scientist.


PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY:

In the course of our enduring quest for knowledge about ourselves and our universe, we haven’t found answers to one of our most fundamental questions: Does life exist anywhere else in the universe? Ten years and billions of dollars in the making, the Mars rover Curiosity is poised to answer this all-important question.
Here, Rob Manning, the project’s chief engineer, tells of bringing the groundbreaking spacecraft to life. Manning and his team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tasked with designing a lander many times larger and more complex than any before, faced technical setbacks, fights over inadequate resources, and the challenges of leading an army of brilliant, passionate, and often frustrated experts.
Manning’s fascinating personal account – which includes information from his exclusive interviews with leading Curiosity scientists – is packed with tales of revolutionary feats of science, technology, and engineering. Listeners experience firsthand the disappointment at encountering persistent technical problems, the agony of near defeat, the sense of victory at finding innovative solutions to these problems, the sheer terror of staking careers and reputations on a lander that couldn’t be tested on Earth, and the rush of triumph at its successful touchdown on Mars on August 5, 2012. This is the story of persistence, dedication, and unrelenting curiosity.
©2014 Rob Manning, William L. Simon (P)2014 Blackstone Audio


THE PLOT:

Many people are interested in the types of things that we can learn from projects such as the Mars Curiosity Rover. However, the truth is that most people don’t think about what it takes to actually get something like Curiosity from a concept to an actual machine that is able to navigate on Mars. Enter ‘Mars Curiosity Rover’ by Rob Manning and William L. Simon. In a way, this is a biography of the rover written by the man who oversaw the entire project.
Getting a project like Curiosity off the ground is no small feat. Indeed, it doesn’t take long for a reader of the book to understand just what a monumental task it can be.
At one point, Manning explains that very often the solution to one problem ends up creating a different problem entirely. A lot of the book is about problems encountered on the project, how they were resolved, other problems that were then created by the resolution, and trying to make the reader understand how even the most minor of errors could result in the whole thing turning into a very expensive failure and embarrassment for NASA.
The reality is that a lot of what the scientists needed the rover to do could not be tested on earth. The reason is pretty obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of science. Earth and Mars are not the same place, so what works on one planet will often be a disaster on the other.
When you read ‘Mars Rover Curiosity’, you will gain a better understanding of just how difficult a project like this can be. There are long hours away from family; there is uncertainty over whether or not something will work; there is a lot of troubleshooting of problems, and you’re not free from the political maneuverings of government.
Tom Petty said that “the waiting is the hardest part,” but it is safe to say that when he did so, he didn’t have Curiosity in mind. Yet, it still turns out to be appropriate. Imagine trying to troubleshoot a problem by sending a command to the rover on Mars. It takes between 13 and 20 minutes for that command to arrive, and then takes a bit of time for the command to be carried out. Another 13 to 20 minutes is required for the answer to then to arrive back on earth. This is not a job for people who struggle with the unknown.
In the end, a majority of the book is about a series of struggles. Yet the team believed in what they were working on, and were excited about the things that Curiosity might tell them about Earth’s planetary neighbor. So even though the story does not end with Curiosity’s landing on Mars, as a reader, you end up being thrilled for everyone involved when it happens.


THE AUTHOR:

Rob Manning is the chief engineer who worked on the Curiosity project. William L. Simon is a prolific author of several books related to science and technology, including a few with famed hacker turned security expert Kevin Mitnick.
This is really Manning’s story and the story of all of the people with whom he worked to get the Curiosity Rover off the ground of Earth and onto the ground of Mars. He is honest about the entire process, from engineering mistakes that were made to the frustrations over funding.


THE NARRATION:

I have several books narrated by Bronson Pinchot in my library, but as it happens, this is the first that I’ve actually listened to. The first thing I thought was, “Oh man, I’m going to hear Balki Bartokomous narrate an audiobook!” Yes, I’m old enough to remember Pinchot’s turn as Balki on ‘Perfect Strangers’. However, it doesn’t take long for logic and reason to take over and inform you that it wouldn’t make sense for him to read the book in the Balki voice. Nor is it likely that the book will declare that it’s time to do the dance of joy.
The truth is that when reality sets in, it does so in a beautiful way. Bronson Pinchot is a terrific narrator, and does a great job on this book. If you’ve read a few of my book reviews, you may have seen me describe a performance as “straightforward”. And honestly, “straightforward” is really a code for “bare bones” or “without much emotion.” Pinchot’s performance is anything but “straightforward” here.
It is the little things that he does so well, the little things that most people might not even notice. Knowing the right inflection for a particular word to convey the tone of what the author is trying to get you to feel is one example. Knowing when to stress a word like “million” or “billion” just to emphasize the enormity of it all.
The author doesn’t always talk about feeling a specific way at a specific point in time, but Pinchot seems to have a good grip on the emotions that the author is trying to convey, even if they’re not directly stated. The fact that he is able to put that into the performance with the perfect inflection of a few important words is impressive.
This is one of those performances that you won’t really understand how great it is unless you give it your undivided attention. If you’re multitasking while listening to the book, a lot of the way Pinchot stresses certain words will probably drift right past you. But even then it will still be something quite enjoyable.


THE PRODUCTION:

No music, no sound effects, and the audio chapter stops match up to the actual chapters found in the book. The track sounds pretty good, though I believe I detected a slight echo for awhile in the earliest part of Chapter 12.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

‘Mars Rover Curiosity’ is an interesting read if you’re interested in outer space exploration. This is especially true if you don’t really understand what it takes to get something like Curiosity from the drawing board to conducting experiments on the red planet.
It is an honest and entertaining look at everything that went into the project from development to testing, funding issues to close calls. You really start to feel nervous for the people involved when things are going on, even if you know that the rover eventually makes it to Mars. Add to that a fine performance by Bronson Pinchot, and ‘Mars Rover Curiosity’ is a real winner in my book.


QUICK FACTS:

Title Author Narrator Publisher Genre Release Date Running Time Score
Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account From Curiosity’s Chief Engineer Rob Manning, William L. Simon Bronson Pinchot Blackstone Audio, Inc. Science & Technology 10/21/2014 7 hours, 43 minutes 8.25/10

DISCLAIMER:

A copy of ‘MARS ROVER CURIOSITY: AN INSIDE ACCOUNT FROM CURIOSITY’S CHIEF ENGINEER’ was purchased from Audible for review.

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