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Book Review:  Postcards from Mars

Reviewed by: Marianne Dyson
Title: Postcards from Mars: The First Photographer on the Red Planet
Author: Jim Bell
Format: Hardbound
Pages: 208
Publisher: Dutton
Date: November, 2006
Retail Price: $50.00
ISBN: 0525949852

Postcards from Mars is a coffee-table book of fabulous photos that also includes the compelling human story behind the successful Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

The book is by Jim Bell who managed the panoramic camera system on both rovers. It is divided into three parts following an introduction by Bill Nye (‘the science guy’). Part 1 describes the long selection process the science team endured, and the many challenges faced during mission preparation. Part 2 focuses on the Spirit rover that landed in Gusev Crater in January 2004. Part 3 is the story of the Opportunity rover in Meridiani that landed a few weeks later.

I got the book for the photos, and was pleasantly surprised at the warm personal quality of the text that tells the background of the mission and includes the “inside story” of the challenges faced by the scientists. I enjoyed learning how a mundane photo calibration target evolved into an artistic sundial with a message for future visitors, and also about the pranks the teams played on each other to relieve the stress of round-the-clock shifts. For those who didn’t follow the mission very closely, the science is explained in laymen’s terms and, of course, illustrated with truly out-of-this-world images.

The book contains about 150 of what the author calls “approximate true-color renderings“ taken by the two rovers between 2004 and 2006. They are approximate because the cameras are different from the human eye, and they are renderings because the images are composites of photos taken over hours and days that were color-adjusted for changes in lighting. Each panorama required at least 6 hours of camera time because each color had to be shot separately. Some infrared false-color images are also included. My favorite of those was one showing gentle sand dunes in shades of blue.

Perhaps the most outstanding features, sure to intrigue guests who leaf through this book left lying on your coffee table at home or work, are the four fold-out panoramas of the Martian surface. These foldouts are double, meaning there are two pages that are twice the usual width so that the image “inside” the double fold covers the width of 4 pages. The “back” of each doubled page then makes for a 3-page-wide spread on either side of the 4-page “inside” spread. There are two foldouts in the Spirit section and two foldouts in the Opportunity section. The differences between the two landing sites on opposite sides of Mars are striking in both the color and texture of the terrain. The images are so sharp that it seemed I could almost reach into the book and touch one of the rocks.

According to the author, geologists always carry magnifying lenses with them, and you may need one to read the captions of the photos. The font size is 6 or 8 and the ink is light gray, providing little contrast and making it impossible to read in low light.

Postcards from Mars is a handsome gift book, and an excellent tool to jumpstart imaginative trips to Mars and discussions of space exploration and settlement with family, friends, and coworkers. Highly recommended.

© 2006 Marianne Dyson

NSS Featured Review for December 2006

Space Books    Non-Fiction Books    Fiction Books    Children's Books

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