Book Review: Haynes ‘Mars Owners’ Workshop Manual’

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The latest addition to Haynes’ range of space-related manuals scores highly for both entertainment and technical detail.

Interest in the planet Mars has waxed and waned across the years, from Percival Lowell’s misconstrued observations of ‘canals’ at the turn of the 20th century to Orson Welles’ equally misconstrued airing of ‘The War of the Worlds’ in 1938.

Now, as semi-autonomous rovers trundle through its dusty craters and Elon Musk prepares to colonise its uninviting deserts, the Red Planet is once again in the ascendant.

This rise in Martian stock makes Haynes’ publication of ‘Mars Owners’ Workshop Manual: From 4.5 Billion Years Ago to the Present’, authored by David M Harland (Haynes Publishing, £22.99, ISBN 9781785211386) timely, not least because the latest Nasa probe, InSight (a contrived acronym for INterior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), is expected to land there in November.

Following similar guides for ‘Planet Earth’ and ‘Moon’, this book is the latest in a series of space-related workshop manuals that has expanded beyond mere spacecraft and their launch vehicles to whole planets (with more to follow, one assumes).

So much for the justification; even a self-confessed space geek with more Mars books on his shelves than he’d like to admit is obliged to ask why he needs another one. The answer lies in the coalescence of a publisher with a proven commitment to this technical sub-genre and an author with the experience and talent to deliver the detail. The workshop manual series is an unusual form in being both populist and authoritative: readers want to be entertained and impressed by the presentation, but also assured by the level of technical detail. This book scores highly in both camps.

While the early sections settle the reader with the comfort of historical illustrations and arcane theories, they also provide a summary of celestial mechanics that grounds Mars as a real planet, as opposed to a conceptual framework for science fiction authors. That said, a later chapter provides a nice summary of ‘Mars in fiction’.

In between, Harland reviews some of the spacecraft missions to Mars from the 1960s to the present day. It’s a bit of a whirlwind tour, but it shows how our knowledge of Mars has improved in just one person’s lifetime. The early photos of Mars, from Mariner 4 in 1965, were disappointing – a grey, cratered world much like the Moon – but some of the colour images produced by the Curiosity rover 50 years later have the stunning immediacy of tourist snaps from Death Valley (reds, browns and yellows with a light blue sky).

Millennials will be gobsmacked at the ‘technology’ used to assemble the first colour images from Mariner 4, which involved “manually colouring in the pixels onto a grid pattern”. The resulting, subtly-shaded ‘abstract’ was mounted in a wooden frame and is on display at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Of course, the visual spectrum is but part of the story, as the book depicts with coloured charts and graphs. Production values are high throughout the volume, but a big omission for any serious reader is the lack of an index.

Whether or not humans will ever colonise and terraform Mars is open to debate, but as the author concludes, it seems likely that the person who will make the first boot print is already alive today.

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