I had received a summer reading list from the National Academies Press, and this weekend checked off, Mark Wolverton's The Depths of Space.
Although written in 2004, I found this book interesting and informative. It narrates the story of how NASA - Ames, just outside of San Francisco, was tapped by NASA to manage the unmanned Pioneer planetary probes instead of JPL. (Basically NASA wanted another center to give JPL some competition, since JPL is really a Caltech organization instead of a government facility.) So the book begins with a late 1960s NASA intrigue.
There are two main threads of the book - the coming of age of Charlie Hall as an outstanding project manager, and the history of the Pioneer spacecraft. Wolverton does not fixate on the engineering. He provides a good description of the technology and then explains how the personalities of the engineers and historical events shaped both the creation of the Pioneer probes and their mission.
The author almost describes Charlie Hall in revere. In 1959, Charlie Hall had completed his assignment as wind tunnel manager and needed a new challenge. He and fate discovered each other. The role of a top-flight project manager cannot be over-emphasized. There are always different engineering opinions and differing perspectives. What is needed is the ability to qualitatively choose a path and maintain an espirit des corps with those that didn't win. Charlie always picked a winning solution and he always kept his team together.
When Pioneer 10 was launched, no space vehicle had ever passed through the asteroid belt, much less experienced the fierce radiation and magnetic belt of Jupiter. Yet, Pioneer 10 made it through the Jupiter rendezvous with losing only one instrument due to radiation. Meanwhile on Earth, events like a trawler cutting the undersea communications cable with the Deep Space Network (DSN) add to the richness of the Pioneer story.
Today the 560 pound spacecraft is still traveling to the next galaxy, with an estimated time of arrival (ETA) 26,000 years in the future. It is still transmitting, but so far away that it can no longer be received. Its transmitter oscillator is off frequency because of the cold, and its thermo-nuclear power supplies are losing efficiency, but the spacecraft is probably still alive. NASA could still communicate with it 35 years after it was launched. Of course, it has the plaque depicting where Pioneer was launched and the species that created it. Carl Sagan's wife, Linda, volunteered the artwork and with considerable public debate, it was attached to the underside of the satellite so it would not become too splattered with all the space bugs and other particles it encounters on its lonely journey.