Interplanetary Robots: True Stories of Space Exploration

Interplanetary Robots: True Stories of Space Exploration

by Rod Pyle

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A NASA insider tells the exciting story of robotic space missions to explore the solar system.Exploring the planets has been a goal of America's space program since the dawn of the space race. This insider's perspective examines incredible missions of robotic spacecraft to every corner of our solar system and beyond. Some were flown into glory, while others were planned and relegated to dusty filing cabinets. All were remarkable in their aspirations.Award-winning science writer Rod Pyle profiles both the remarkable spacecraft and the amazing scientists and engineers who made them possible. From the earliest sprints past Venus and Mars to Voyager1's current explorations of the space between the stars, this exciting book sheds new light on ever-more ambitious journeys designed to increase the human reach into the solar system. Drawing on his perspective as a writer for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, ground zero for NASA's planetary exploration, the author further details plans now in development to look for signs of life on Jupiter's moon Europa, submarines that will dive into the hazy hydrocarbon lakes of Saturn's moon Titan, and intelligent spacecraft that will operate for months without human intervention on Mars and in the outer solar system well into the 2030s. Equally compelling are programs of exploration that were considered but never left the drawing board, such as automobile-sized biology laboratories designed for a Mars landing in the 1960s and plans to detonate atomic bombs on the moon.Complemented by many rarely-seen photos and illustrations, these stories of incredible engineering achievements, daring imaginations, and technological genius will fascinate and inspire.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633885035
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 01/29/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 376
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

Rod Pyle is the author of the widely acclaimed Curiosity: An Inside Look at the Mars Rover Mission and the People Who Made It Happen and Destination Mars--called "the best recent overview of Mars missions" by the Washington Post--and also Destination Moon, Missions to the Moon, and a popular audiobook called The Space Race. He has produced numerous documentaries for the History Channel and Discovery Communications, including the widely praised Modern Marvels: Apollo 11. He has been an assistant professor at the University of La Verne and a lecturer with NASA's Johnson Space Center.

Read an Excerpt


The historic Soviet Sputnik mission in 1957 began a spectacular era of space exploration. We found out right away, with many early failures, that space exploration is a hazardous adventure, and even today we aren’t able to perfectly accomplish each mission. Before Sputnik, everything we knew about our solar system came from ground-based telescope observations and from analysis of meteorites. The space program changed that forever, since it provided us the opportunity to study our solar system more thoroughly, to travel to distant objects within it and to study those objects up close to discover how the solar system was created and how it has evolved. With the ever-increasing ability to reach and navigate to more distant objects, we began a series of missions with always new and better instruments. Each new mission built on what we had learned from its predecessor. In order to thoroughly explore an object of interest, we developed a mission sequence—flyby, orbit, land, rove, and return samples—with each step creating new technologies and tackling new challenges in order to accomplish the next mission. At times we would be so bold as to skip some steps, like landing the Huygens probe on Titan without having the benefit of a precursor orbiter providing us with detailed surface maps and allowing the selection of a safe landing site beforehand.

What a historic time we have just completed and yet, in many ways, it is just the beginning. With the tremendously successful flyby of the Pluto system by the New Horizons spacecraft in July 2015, humankind completed its initial survey of the solar system within sixty years. Solar system exploration has always been, and continues to be, a grand human adventure that seeks to discover the nature and origin of our celestial neighborhood and to explore whether life exists or could have existed beyond Earth. Rod’s book captures this excitement, reliving missions that NASA and the Soviets launched, and some that never left the drawing board, while also looking into the immediate future for our next steps. I, too, am fascinated by space history. We all know that history will repeat itself if we let it, and we just have to avoid our past mistakes. As Rod so aptly put it, this is “a magnificent tale of exploration and discovery . . .” It is fully worthy to be examined and enjoyed.

James Green 
NASA Chief Scientist


"You maniacs! You blew it up! Oh, damn you . . . God damn you all to hell!” and so on, rants Charlton Heston at the end of The Planet of the Apes. That’s at the end of the 1968 classic film, in the scene where he’s discovered that he is stranded not on some strange planet enlivened by parallel evolution, but has in fact returned home to a post-nuclear-holocaust Earth.

I thought much the same, however, on July 15, 1965, when the first images of Mars were returned to Earth.

This book got its start on that day, when Mariner 4 destroyed the Mars of the Victorians and the romantics. In mid-July of that year, the first American probe to reach the planet flew by, sending back twenty-two black-and-white images over the next few days. While grainy and low-resolution, those few images—showing less than one percent of the surface—changed everything. That was the day that the Mars of Giovanni Schiaparelli, Percival Lowell, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, to name just a few of the many who had dreamed about Mars for decades, vanished. In place of those dreams was a dry, cratered, and frigid desert of a planet. The atmosphere was much thinner than we thought, the temperatures lower than we thought, and the presence of standing liquid water impossible. Bye-bye, friendly neighbors on another world. Farewell vast oceans and sprawling forests. See you later, little green men. Tata, advanced alien civilization and your planet-girdling canals.

I was just eight years old at the time—too young to fully understand the more complex ramifications of those first images of Mars, but surely old enough to know that the red world imprinted on my brain by the likes of Ray Bradbury and Wernher von Braun—visionaries at the extremes of our Martian visions—had vanished forever.

What did we get instead of Martian canals, neighbors in space, and a second home? We got the truth—at least a part of it. Over the next few decades, in remarkably short order, more planetary explorers—robots sent mostly by NASA, but also by the Soviet Union—reconnoitered the red planet and slowly revealed more of its secrets. Mars is indeed dry, desolate, and windswept, but it holds far more water than could have been expected, locked up in the poles and in subsurface glaciers, and it has a much more complex geological history than was first hinted at by Mariner 4. That first look took something away from us, but the many orbiters and rovers to visit the planet since have given much back. Mars is a compelling, if forbidding, place.

And so it has been with the rest of the solar system. It is at the same time far less friendly and hospitable than we had hoped, but more fascinating than we could have imagined. It took over fifty years to reach the rest of the planets. Pluto (once a planet, now classified as a dwarf planet) was imaged by the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015, using a flyby trajectory hauntingly like Mariner 4’s. That was the last of them—every planet from Mercury, nestled next to the sun, to Neptune and even (dwarf planet) Pluto had been imaged and investigated. We had done the easy part. Now it is time to go back to the most compelling places we’ve seen—the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, with their warm, subsurface oceans; the subterranean glaciers of Mars; the hydrocarbon oceans of Titan—and explore these places in detail. Answers about the very origins of life in our solar system may await us there, and the most primary questions concerning our existence and place in the universe may be answered.

This book is the story of the exploration of the solar system, told in historical detail with occasional “flash forwards” to missions planned for the near future. Like its companion book about the human spaceflight programs of the last sixty years, Amazing Stories of the Space Age, the book is a mixture of programs that were flown in the past, some that were planned but never flown, and others that will be flown in the near future. Interplanetary Robots covers primarily the efforts of the US and Soviet space programs, as those two superpowers have done most of the heavy lifting in planetary exploration to date. It has been impossible to write about every mission and program—there are simply too many to document in a single book—but the major ones are discussed.

Interplanetary Robots has been a guilty pleasure to research and write, but as with all such efforts there will be errors within. I take responsibility for most of them. It’s traditional for authors to say “any errors are mine,” but, in truth, go to any five primary sources while researching the space age—go ahead, I dare you—and you will invariably find disagreement on dates, spacecraft mass, and a lot of variability in who-said-what and when. Add to this the occasionally inaccurate, fading memories of people who were there, working on the programs, who have been interviewed, and you can understand how errors will sometimes creep in. It is inevitable, and all that space authors can do is consult multiple sources, ask knowledgeable friends to proofread the book, and hope. After all, the men and women who were building and flying these amazing machines were not, for the most part, thinking about perfect recordkeeping for the historians who would come later—they were thinking about getting the job done, flying the mission, and gaining the maximum science return from the heavy investment of tax dollars. Records can be incomplete at times, and some disagree with each other, but that’s not really the point.

At the end of the day, space exploration is not about dates and times, weights and measures, or facts and figures. It is a magnificent tale of exploration and discovery, and of the many thousands of incredible people who are behind these endeavors. It is about a compelling story well told, and that is what I’ve attempted to do. Other than that, any errors are . . . all mine (except for the ones all those other people made).

Please read and enjoy. If you like what you see—or in the unlikely event that you don’t—feel free to reach out and let me know on Facebook or via my website, And don’t forget to leave a few reviews at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the other online book outlets—authors live and die by reviews. I do read them and respond in time.

And now, let’s take a trip through the solar system with the people and machines who have explored it with ingenuity, drive, and passion, as we join with the interplanetary robots on their incredible journeys into the great void beyond earth orbit. It’s a voyage well worth taking, and I assure you that your time spent with the remarkable people and machines who have journeyed to its vast reaches will be well spent.

Table of Contents

Foreword 9

Introduction 11

Chapter 1 Alone in the Dark 15

Chapter 2 The Center of the Universe: Part 1 19

Chapter 3 Early Plans 31

Chapter 4 Frau im Mond 39

Chapter 5 Suicide on the Moon 51

Chapter 6 Flash Forward: The Lunar Flashlight 61

Chapter 7 Mars in the Crosshairs 65

Chapter 8 Flash Forward: MarCO 79

Chapter 9 Landing on Luna Incognita 83

Chapter 10 Russian Rovers 89

Chapter 11 Flash Forward; Prospecting the Moon 93

Chapter 12 The Center of the Universe: Part 2 97

Chapter 13 Voyagers on Mars? 105

Chapter 14 … And Then Came Viking 119

Chapter 15 Flash Forward: Mars Has MOXIE! 143

Chapter 16 Barnstorming Venus: Part 1 147

Chapter 17 Barnstorming Venus: Part 2 157

Chapter 18 Flash Forward: The Tick-Tock Rover 165

Chapter 19 The Center of the Universe: Part 3 169

Chapter 20 A Grand-Ish Tour 171

Chapter 21 Pioneering Jupiter and Saturn 177

Chapter 22 JPL's Finest Hour: The Voyagers, Part 1 183

Chapter 23 Brief Encounters: The Voyagers, Part 2 199

Chapter 24 Into the Void: The Voyagers, Part 3 209

Chapter 25 Flash Forward: Going Interstellar 217

Chapter 26 Not by a Longshot 221

Chapter 27 Ruddy Chunks of a Red Planet: Mars 5M 225

Chapter 28 Flash Forward: Robotic Rendezvous at Mars 235

Chapter 29 Jupiter's Revenge 239

Chapter 30 Flash Forward: Inflatable Antennas 267

Chapter 31 The Center of the Universe: Part 4 269

Chapter 32 Saturn Ahoy 275

Chapter 33 Flash Forward: Diving on Titan 299

Chapter 34 A Return to Mars 303

Chapter 35 Flash Forward: Grabbing Those Samples 315

Chapter 36 Other Missions of Exploration and Discovery 317

Chapter 37 The Center of the Universe: Part 5 327

Notes 329

Index 345

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