Ambassadors from Earth: Pioneering Explorations with Unmanned Spacecraft.

Author:Sturdevant, Rick W.
Position:Book review
 
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Ambassadors from Earth: Pioneering Explorations with Unmanned Spacecraft. By Jay Gallentine. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. Illustrations. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xviii, 501. $34.95 ISBN: 0-8032-2220-5

The "Outward Odyssey--A People's History of Spaceflight Series," edited by Colin Burgess and published by the University of Nebraska Press, began with Into that Silent Sea in 2007. It grew rapidly with distribution of Into the Shadow of the Moon, To a Distant Day, and Homesteading Space. The fifth volume in the series is Ambassadors from Earth by Jay Gallentine, a film and video engineer with a lifelong interest in space exploration. Like its companion volumes, Ambassadors from Earth aims to tell a portion of the space exploration story in a publicly engaging way, one replete with human passion and devoid of baffling technical terminology.

Gallentine focuses primarily on early U.S. and Soviet programs--Luna, Pioneer, Ranger, Surveyor, Venera, Mariner, and Voyager--to send robotic spacecraft beyond Earth orbit during the two decades after the launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957. He struggles, however, to extricate these stories from both a web of captivating details about the origins--Sputnik, Explorer, and Vanguard--of unpiloted spaceflight in Earth orbit and hypnotic tales of cosmonauts and astronauts competing to reach the Moon. Furthermore, he purposefully entangles the saga of early robotic spacecraft in a distracting, episodic account of brilliant mathematician Michael Minovitch's efforts to receive credit as "inventor" of the gravity-assist method to speed spacecraft deeper into space. As a consequence, readers of Ambassadors from Earth are treated to anecdotes within, behind, and on top of anecdotes.

A commendable variety of sources supplied Gallentine with information and insights. Beyond consulting appropriate books and articles, he interviewed or corresponded with more than 30 relevant individuals and examined transcripts from at least a half dozen other interviews conducted by historians from the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. Primary materials-reports, memoranda, letters, conference papers, press releases, and notebooks-came to his attention in private collections and at such institutional archives as the California Institute of Technology, Jet Propulsion Laboratory...

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