Book reveals engineering travails and triumph

It’s very easy for hard-working engineers to be caught up in the day-to-day rush of project work and assignments, as well personal life, that we neglect a good, relaxing read, even one that connects closely to the engineering challenge. But I urge you to read “Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet” by Steve Squyres. Not only does this just-published book capture the eternal tradeoffs and constraints of all projects and teams balancing schedule, cost, performance, and risk. It also gives you an understanding for the big and small picture, the interplay of a grand scheme with the innumerable details of the mission, and the role of luck and the unpredictable.

Although the author is a geologist by training, as project principal scientist he conveys enough solid engineering details to satisfy. Further, he truly glows with excitement in the later parts of the book, where he talks about the data coming back from the two 2004 Mars rovers. He explained what geologists understand and why, how they can derive possible causes from what they know about here on Earth, and how every discipline needs the right mix of professionals with deep, specialized knowledge plus broader, big-picture understanding. The explanation of how hollowed-out mineral spheres are formed over millions of years was fascinating; I wouldn’t have believed it except for the credibility of the author. For those of us normally in the picosecond world, his million-year time frame is quite a change!

The book also highlighted a profession that you’d never believe existed: Mars weather forecaster! Yes, these are scientists who study the topography of Mars; its winds, surface situation, and atmosphere; its daily conditions using optical and radio telescopes, plus the continuous data coming in from existing Mars orbiters. They then predict the localized temperature, storms, and visibility on the planet. What do they say when someone asks them what they do for a living? Do they tell the truth, or not?

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