Mars is constantly in the science news these days with the flurry of spacecraft from Europe and the US studying the Red Planet. In this book, Kevin Nolan, a physics lecturer in the Institute of Technology Tallaght, sets out the case for the exploration of Mars, the reasons for going there, what we have learned from the missions to date and how we should prepare for the inevitable human journey to explore the fourth planet from the Sun.
The book commences by discussing the possibilities for life across the universe, how it may have formed on earth and how our understanding of life is continually evolving. The relevance of this section in the book becomes quite clear in the later chapters when Kevin discusses the search for life on Mars and how our exploration of the red planet can further increase our understanding of life across the universe.
From this point on we start to look at Mars specifically with the usual discussion about canals etc which no book on Mars goes without. Kevin then fast-forwards into the space age and discusses in some detail the Viking missions. What’s interesting here is how the experiments for life on these missions were cutting-edge for their day but which we now realise were perhaps a bit premature due to the lack of overall knowledge of the planet as a whole. The lessons learned from Viking and the (sometimes failed) missions thereafter have forced us into a much more structured approach to Mars exploration which attempts to take it in a step-by-step approach – hence the reference to stepping stones in the title.
In the middle section of the book Kevin discusses in some detail the approach required to search for life on Mars and why a mission like the Viking reached conflicting results about life on the red planet. Here we learn the complexity of the planet and how it has changed significantly in time from one awash with water to the dry, and perhaps sterile, landscape we have become familiar with now.
To support this, Kevin explains in detail the phenomenal level of science we have learned in a few short years from the Pathfinder, Mars Reconnaissance and the amazing Spirit & Opportunity rovers which just never seem to give up. Here we can learn in great detail the science gathered from these missions. Personally, I think we sometimes take for granted the basic press releases from NASA on these missions and perhaps miss out on the “big picture” of what the missions in their entirety have learned. I’m glad to say that Kevin covers the science elements in quite some detail but keeps it in a very readable fashion which acts as a great reference guide which one can read time and time again.
Finally the book finishes on the practical problems which we face in attempting a human mission to Mars. Apart from the financial and political implications, issues such as the complex nature of the mission stages, fuel requirements, health issues etc are all covered. What is refreshing to see is that the author doesn’t push the case for us to go there straight away and actually cautions us against rushing such a move. Rather, Kevin explains how we need to explore Mars with unmanned probes much more thoroughly first to develop a greater understanding of the formation of the planet, structure a human mission based on this knowledge and develop the necessary technology to make such a mission as safe as possible.
Overall, the book is a very enjoyable read and is highly recommended. In particular I noted just how well thought-out and how well structured the book is, which must have taken quite a considerable level of effort to produce, and how it naturally flows together to gives us a excellent guide to the past, present and future of mankind's exploration of Mars.