by Jeffrey Kluger

Simon & Schuster


314pp/$26.00/August 1999

kluger.jpg (32313 bytes)

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Jeffrey Kluger's non-fiction book Journey Beyond Selene purports to be the story of "remarkable expeditions past our Moon and the the ends of the solar system."  In many ways, this is exactly what the book is.  However, it comes across almost as if Kluger did not have a specific goal in mind when writing the book.

Kluger opens with a lengthy chapter describing the US attempts to crash a Ranger spacecraft into the Moon in the early 1960s in preparation for the Apollo landings.  Although he mentions the Russian Lunik probes and the later American Surveyor landers, the chapter comes across more as a history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, an attitude which will remain with the book throughout its 300 page length.  In fact, when Kluger shifts gears to the Apollo XV landing in chapter two, the reader finds himself wondering why Kluger is making the digression away from the JPL missions.

In fact, for all that Kluger writes an interesting and engaging description of the sixty-three moons in the solar system, he has a weakness for digressions.  Many of his digressions take the form of background information.   He'll describe events as they happen and then suddenly backtrack and describe earlier events.  Perhaps the worst case is when he discusses William Pickering on the eve of the Ranger 6 crashlanding and manages to digress until he picks up the story again nearly fifty pages later.  While this does an excellent job of building tension, even when the reader knows the outcome of events, it also heavily disrupts the flow of Kulger's story.

Kluger has many strengths as a science popularizer.  He is able to build tension as he tells a story which wll be familiar, at least in broad outline, to anyone who lived through the events.  Not only can he build tension, but he can express the emotions which accompany each of the successes and failures the Jet Propulsion Lab had as it strove to reach the Moon and the outer planets.

When the Voyager spacecrafts reach Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus or Neptune, Kluger steps back from discussing the events in Pasadena and gives a brief run-down of the various moons they visited in each system.  While he does a good job, it is hindered by the lack of photos in the book.  The book contains only eight photographs, five of the Galilean moons, one of Titan, one of Miranda and one of Triton.  It would have been nice if Kluger could have included more pictures to illustrate his descriptions.   Especially egregious is the decision to include a photograph of Titan, which Kluger notes "was photographically blacked out by the very gaseous shroud that" made it interesting.  instead, the reader would have been better served by a photo of Enceladus, which Kluger discusses at length (a photo of which can be seen in the title graphic on this page).  Pictures are readily available and can easily be found on the web.

Kluger's discussion of the future of JPL, and therefore the future of lunar exploration, is presented as a listing of things which JPL would like to accomplish.   Unfortunately, it gives the feeling that JPL is currently in a blank period until the Cassini-Huygens spaceship arrives at Saturn with few launches scheduled and only a slim chance that such ambitious projects as the Pluto-Kuiper Express or the Europa Lander will actually make it past the planning stages.

Journey Beyond Selene is a good introduction to the moons in our solar system and JPL which has managed to arrange visits to all planets with one exception (Pluto).  While the book is not as complete as one might wish, that is one of the drawbacks with any sort of popularization.  The very thing which makes Journey Beyond Selene most readable, its chatty asides, also is what breaks the narrative of the book.

Purchase this book from Amazon Books 

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