Review: Red Rover

Red Rover, Roger Wiens. New York: Basic Books, 2013.

Summary: An insider account of over two decades of space exploration culminating in the Mars Rover Curiosity mission.

Perhaps you have seen the pictures of the Mars landscape taken by the Mars Rovers or even the helicopter flown off of the Mars Rover Perseverance, which landed on Mars February 18, 2021. One of the Project Leaders of both Perseverance and the previous Rover, Curiosity, is research scientist Roger Wiens. Wiens’ work is based at the Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico, having previously worked at Cal Tech and the University of California.

Red Rover is an account of over two decades of Wiens’ involvement in space research using robotic devices. Most of the book is focused on two missions: Genesis, which collected particles from solar winds from the Sun and then returned to Earth, revealing new insights into the composition of the Sun, and Curiosity, the Mars Rover mission which landed nine years ago on August 5, 2012 at 10:32 pm Pacific Time (1:32 am ET, August 6, 2012).

The book opens with Wiens’ boyhood fascination with rocketry, space exploration, and astronomy, including the building of a telescope to observe Mars as it passed within 35 million miles of earth. Mars came up again in his graduate research, as he had a chance to study meteorites from Mars, analyzing gases trapped in the rock. After graduation, he put Mars in the rearview mirror, joining a team competing to be part of one of NASA’s new “Discovery” missions–nimble missions costing less than $150 million. His team worked on developing a proposal to collect solar wind to analyze aspects of the Sun and then return the collectors to earth. He describes the excitement of getting through early rounds only to be disappointed to learn they were not selected. He helped submit a new application for just before starting a new position at Los Alamos. This time they were selected.

Wiens takes us through all the challenges of building the collector, testing materials to see if they could endure the rigors of space, getting parts that didn’t work as deadlines approached. Then the launch, problems with overheating just short of the limits, and the return to earth. He recounts waiting in a Utah hangar only to hear the disastrous news that the chutes failed to deploy and it had plummeted like a rock into the Utah desert. Although the sample plates were broken, they were able to recover data that showed a dramatic difference in nitrogen isotopes between the Sun and the Earth due to photochemical shielding.

After this work, he began research on using lasers to analyze surfaces of airless objects, like on the Moon–or Mars. The remaining two-thirds of the book describes the development of what became ChemCam and the competition to get a laser sample analyzer onto the Rover Curiosity. He describes in detail the ins and outs of program reviews, cost-cutting directives, getting cut and then restored, collaboration with the French, the unique challenges of building instruments that will work after launch and landing and the conditions of Mars, and then working with the team of all Project Leads who had projects on the Rover and making it all work together.

Wiens gives an account of the odds of a project actually getting to the point of being able to collect data on Mars and all the barriers along the way from program cuts to equipment failures or catastrophic crashes (for example, the Rover was lowered to the surface by a hovering sky crane) to apparatus failure on the planet. What is so amazing is that nine years later, it continues to work, joined by the new, enhanced Perseverance. I’m struck, compared to our expenditures in so many other areas, how little this actually cost, and the amazing opportunities to push the boundaries of our knowledge of the cosmos we call home. I remember how our previous space explorations led to so many useful innovations, and wonder what fruit these explorations will bear.

This narrative gave me a sense of the rigorous and patient work over decades involved in moving from concept to data collection on the planet, and the unique kind of courage of researchers who invest all those years hoping to make ground-breaking findings, but also risking utter failure. Wiens offers an account of both competition and collaboration that results in the technological excellence required to achieve these results. Most of us have no idea what the life of a research scientist is like. He takes us through a two decade journey that offers an inside glimpse of that life and the passion for discovery that motivates it.

We see the amazing images from these Rovers of the surface of a planet that is only a bright red dot in the skies to most of us. Wiens offers an account that captures both the challenges to surmount and the incredible excitement and satisfaction that researchers experience when a project succeeds that returns pictures and a wealth of new data about the composition of that red planet. So much remains to be discovered. Was Mars ever habitable? Did any form of life arise on Mars? Could the planet be coaxed into habitability once again? These missions will give us crucial data toward answering these questions about our nearest neighbor.