Sometimes a book isn't quite what you expected. And you're disappointed.
Sometimes a book isn't quite what you expected and you're pleasantly surprised.
Chris Impey and Holly Henry's Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration definitely falls into the latter category. What was I expecting? From the subtitle I was hoping the book would be a fairly straightforward account of the history of unmanned space exploration -- all the missions, how they were planned, the engineering challenges involved in getting them off the ground, the logistical challenges of keeping the various vehicles and missions alive and productive in a variety of extreme circumstances. And most of all, some fairly specific details about what the missions were designed to discover and what they actually did discover.
And Impey and Henry's book is some of that, or more precisely those sorts of details are where it starts. And I have to admit I was initially a bit disappointed that they skimped a bit on those gory scientific and engineering details. After all, it is a science and engineering book. Right?
Yes, of course. But the surprising thing is that this book is just as much a kind of scientific (and sort of cultural) history of why these various missions were important -- the broader scientific context in which the decision was made to launch this particular mission and especially how the discoveries branched out beyond space science and into other realms.
Missions like Viking and MER and Voyager and Cassini and Stardust and SOHO and Hipparcos and Spitzer and Chandra and Hubble and WMAP. Some quite familiar and some quite new to me. Each chapter takes a mission and puts it in a context beyond astronomy, like how the Stardust mission on comets relates to DNA research or how Spitzer relates to fish migrations and so much more.
The great strength of this book is how it goes so much beyond what you would find just by looking the missions up in Wikipedia and takes the reader into new territory. Yes, it could have had a bit more "core" information and I probably did miss having some of that. On the other hand, it does a great job of putting all those missions into the context of how we see our lives on this planet too.
I recommend this book for any academic library that collects popular books on space science or engineering. It will find an audience beyond just the scientists and engineers who would normally be the target for a book like this. Larger public libraries would also find an eager audience for this book.
Impey, Chris and Holly Henry. Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. 472pp. ISBN-13: 978-0691147536
(Review copy supplied by publisher.)