Director of Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1976 to 1982, Bruce Murray is uniquely qualified to tell the story of America's unmanned space program. Mixing an insider's knowledge of the politics of space with a scientist's command of technical intricacy, he chronicles our rise and decline in space and calls for a return to greatness.
Former Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Murray (Navigating the Future, 1975) details the sad decline of America's unmanned planetary exploration program during the years following the Apollo moon landings. The JPL's robots were first on Mars, first to bring us close-up photographs of Saturn's rings and Jupiter's moons, and in August of this year will deliver the first clear images of distant Neptune to our planet. But during NASA's post-Apollo funding letdown, JPL's robots became, practically speaking, extinct. It was Murray's burden, as director of the JPL from 1976-1982, to fight NASA for a fair piece of America's space-budget pie. In large part he failed - unable to compete with NASA's hard-ball politicking in support of its deeply troubled Shuttle program (which was protected from funding cuts by Congress' belief in its military indispensability). For over a decade, the JPL was forced to witness its Jupiter Probe project, its Halley's Comet Intercept Mission, and other daring scientific endeavors postponed year after year due to repeated Shuttle malfunctions, while NASA forbade the use of perfectly capable than rockets lest they threaten the Shuttle's credibility. In the end, Murray was forced to seek military contracts for the previously civilian JPL in order to prevent the laboratory's complete demise. Demoralized and dispirited, he resigned soon after. Murray concludes this cautionary tale by urging the US to aggressively pursue the obvious next step in space exploration: international, cooperative missions to Mars and beyond. Perhaps with the added wisdom of experience, this bleak era, he believes, can come to represent not the beginning of the end of space exploration for America, but merely the end of the beginning. To be published on the 20th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's moon walk - a passionate history, and a call to return to the spirit - and funding - that made that extraordinary event possible. (Kirkus Reviews)