By David W. Brown

Custom House


468pp/$35.0/January 2021

The Mission
Cover by Alex Janson

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

On February 18, 2021, the world watched as Perseverance, a four-ton rover, landed in Jezero crater on Mars. The landing was just the most recent of a long line of missions to the red planet, not all of which had been successful, but the response to the landing and the subsequent flight of Ingenuity, the first extraterrestrial helicopter, demonstrated that the public is still interested in the exploration of the other worlds in our solar system. However, while interest spikes when a successful mission first achieves its goal and to a lesser extent when a major launch takes place, the public generally doesn't follow actual scientific discoveries made by the missions. Even fewer people follow the bureaucratic processes by which missions are approved, financed, and move towards realization. David W. Brown tackles that byzantine process in The Mission, using a proposed mission to the Galilean moon Europa.

Brown introduces a massive cast of characters, providing each with their own introductory (and sometimes lengthy) chapters. Brown attempts to use a chatty and informal style of writing to introduce these players, however he has a tendency to ramble provided almost stream-of-consciousness asides and often using odd phrasing in a possbly misguided attempt to be folksy. These stylistic quirks, are unfortunate because the adversely impact the readability of the text and significantly delay the theoretical focus of the book: getting a mission to Europa.

Reading between all of Brown's superfluous information and prose, The Mission tells the story of the men and women who can envision the path through our solar system, to learn more about Mars and Pluto, Venus and Europa. The architect Daniel Burnham said, "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men`s blood and probably themselves will not be realized." Brown demonstrates that even making big plans and aiming high those plans may not be realized, but, as the second half of Burnham's quote notes, "once recorded [they] will never die." Plans for a Europa mission, early identified as desirable in the Decadal Survey that determines the next stages of spaceflight, continued to resurface every time they were shot down.

Brown's depiction of the process involved for the individuals he describes to make a mission happen is such that the reader questions how NASA is ever able to launch any mission that doesn't go to Mars. There are so many potential points of failure before a mission is approved ranging from the competition it faces to the political winds to not having the right champion at the right time. In point of fact, any individual mission has a low chance of occuring, despite having the best of cheerleaders, but some mission will happen and whichever mission it is will have its own story of triumph and adversity (see, for instance Alan Stern's Chasing New Horizons which describes both successful and unsuccessful proposals for Pluto missions).

The story that Brown tells is complex and gripping, although hindered by his style of writing, which never really calms down and often feels like he is offering unnecessary details and asides. Nevertheless, the inner bureaucratic workings of NASA, which coudl be dry-as-dust, come across as intriguing obstacles that must be summitted or circumnavigated in the quest to gain approval for any particular mission (to Europa, in this case). The breadth of information Brown provides on the various people who have worked to bring a Europa mission to fruition helps build the stakes since the success or failure of the project is tied to real individuals who have hobbies, families, and histories apart from their devotion to pursuing a mission against all odds.

Shortly after The Mission was published, Bob Pappalardo, the first individual outlined in The Mission, announced that the Europa Clipper would launch in October 2024 and arrive in the Jovian system in April of 2030 for the mission which is described in Brown's book. The mission will not be carried into space by NASA's Space Launch System, but rather by a commercial launch vehicle, the identity and nature of which is still to be determined. The story that Brown wasn't able to finish, therefore, does have a provisional happy ending, although we won't know for sure until the Europa Clipper reaches its destination in nearly a decade.

Purchase this book

Amazon BooksOrder from Amazon UK




Return to