Journey into Space

This book is both the memoir of an administrator/scientist and a plea for future American support for space exploration. Bruce Murray was the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) from 1976 to 1982. Before and after his stint as director, he served on the Caltech faculty as a space scientist, having first become interested in planetary science while a postdoctoral research fellow at Caltech in 1960. His service with Caltech and JPL corresponded to the period when these institutions served as the hub of American efforts in the unmanned exploration of the planets. In Journey into Space he presents an opinionated, insider’s view of the successes and failures of America’s robotic planetary exploration program, bringing a unique perspective to a pivotal period in the history of American science. Murray wrote this memoir as a response to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and his fear that Americans had lost the drive to explore the solar system.

The 1960’s and 1970’s and, to a much lesser extent, the 1980’s were exciting decades for American planetary scientists. The Soviet Union launched many more space vehicles to the planets, but the United States had a much higher success rate. The Mariners, Vikings, and Pioneers all sent back new and important information about Mercury, Venus, Mars, and the outer planets in the form of pictures and data. Previous theories were proved wrong and scientists’ view of the solar system changed radically. Murray eschews a strictly chronological account of the planetary missions for one which focuses either on a planet or group of planets in turn or on a major theme.

He begins by tracing the story of Mars exploration during the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the pattern that he will follow in later sections is established here. Within each section, he follows a generally chronological path. Although the contributions of the Soviets (and later, other nations) are noted, the emphasis is upon American missions. He describes both the scientific discoveries made by scientists and the technology that served the scientists. Murray sums up, succinctly and with little jargon, the scientific knowledge gained through robot exploration. The reader does not need a scientific background to understand Murray. He conveys both the excitement that the discoveries engendered and the content, context, and significance of those discoveries. Even though he is a scientist, he recognizes the absolutely necessary technological breakthroughs which enabled scientists to examine and analyze the other planets using unmanned remote sensors, cameras, and other apparatus. Technology often performed far beyond expectation, and engineers became the heroes of these expeditions. Murray acknowledges their work. He concludes each section with a look toward possible future missions—in the case of Mars, he includes an appeal to renew the search for life on that planet.

A negative note is introduced in this section which is carried through the book. Murray is chagrined to realize that the technological capabilities of the United States have outstripped the national will to explore space. He views the great successes of the 1960’s and early 1970’s—the Apollo flights to the Moon and the missions to the inner planets—as anomalies resulting from inspired political leadership. During the succeeding fifteen years, that leadership disappeared, and Americans ceased to be interested in exploration. Strong,...

(The entire section is 1444 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Booklist. LXXXV, June 15, 1989, p. 1775.

Business Week. July 17, 1989, p. 12.

The Economist. CCCXII, September 2, 1989, p. 85.

Kirkus Reviews. LVII, May 15, 1989, p. 754.

Library Journal. CXIV, July, 1989, p. 104.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 16, 1989, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, June 9, 1989, p. 47.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, July 9, 1989, p. 1.