Why Mars: NASA and the Politics of Space Exploration

why_mars_940x1462Author: W Henry Lambright
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
ISBN: 978-1-4214-1279-5
Price: £32 (Hb) 321pp

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Astronomy Now readers are generally not interested in politics or economics — otherwise you would be reading a different magazine. Author W Henry Lambright is a professor of public administration, international affairs and political science at Syracuse University in the USA, so as a result what we have here is a chronological account of how Mars exploration waxed and waned in tune with the political and economic priorities of the United States Government.

Eager as I was to review this book, I guessed after seeing ‘NASA’ on the cover that it was going to be a solely American perspective. The European Space Agency does get a mention in the latter stages, and Russia initially in the context of Cold War space competition and later more as a planetary exploration partner. There is much in the book about advocacy groups and high-profile individuals and their lobbying, both within NASA and more widely in US science politics. Names that readers may or may not be familiar with include The Mars Underground, The Mars Society and Carol Stoker.

Whilst the book is well referenced, there are surprising omissions. The author seems unaware of the influence of certain unique external influences on NASA’s scientific policy such as the Society for Planetary SETI Research’s 1997 meeting at NASA HQ (to ensure re-photography of Cydonia) and the impact and implications of billionaire Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars fly-by proposal.

This book will expand your views about Mars’ place on the priority list of planetary destinations, and the cost relative to other arguably just as worthy projects, for example space telescopes. The redistribution of the science budget is enlightening; it would be revealing to see a volume addressing British and European space exploration politics, for contrast. No doubt the Russian, Chinese, Japanese and now Indian Mars scientists had to fight similar battles in their own countries.

Reviewed by Malcolm Smith