front cover of The Last of the Great Observatories
The Last of the Great Observatories
Spitzer and the Era of Faster, Better, Cheaper at NASA
George H. Rieke
University of Arizona Press, 2006
The Spitzer Space Observatory, originally known as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF), is the last of the four “Great Observatories”, which also include the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. Developed over twenty years and dubbed the “Infrared Hubble", Spitzer was launched in the summer of 2003 and has since contributed significantly to our understanding of the universe.

George Rieke played a key role in Spitzer and now relates the story of how that observatory was built and launched into space. Telling the story of this single mission within the context of NASA space science over two turbulent decades, he describes how, after a tortuous political trail to approval, Spitzer was started at the peak of NASA’s experiment with streamlining and downsizing its mission development process, termed “faster better cheaper.” Up to its official start and even afterward, Spitzer was significant not merely in terms of its scientific value but because it stood at the center of major changes in space science policy and politics. Through interviews with many of the project participants, Rieke reconstructs the political and managerial process by which space missions are conceived, approved, and developed. He reveals that by the time Spitzer had been completed, a number of mission failures had undermined faith in “faster-better-cheaper” and a more conservative approach was imposed. Rieke examines in detail the premises behind “faster better cheaper,” their strengths and weaknesses, and their ultimate impact within the context of NASA’s continuing search for the best way to build future missions.

Rieke’s participant’s perspective takes readers inside Congress and NASA to trace the progress of missions prior to the excitement of the launch, revealing the enormously complex and often disheartening political process that needs to be negotiated. He also shares some of the new observations and discoveries made by Spitzer in just its first year of operation. As the only book devoted to the Spitzer mission, The Last of the Great Observatories is a story at the nexus of politics and science, shedding new light on both spheres as it contemplates the future of mankind’s exploration of the universe.

front cover of Life in Space
Life in Space
Astrobiology for Everyone
Lucas John Mix
Harvard University Press, 2009

Life is a property of the universe. We may not know how it began or where else it exists, but we have come to know a great deal about how it relates to stars, planets, and the larger cosmos. In clear and compelling terms, this book shows how the emerging field of astrobiology investigates the nature of life in space. How did life begin? How common is it? Where do we fit in? These are the important questions that astrobiology seeks to answer.

A truly interdisciplinary endeavor, astrobiology looks at the evidence of astronomy, biology, physics, chemistry, and a host of other fields. A grand narrative emerges, beginning from the smallest, most common particles yet producing amazing complexity and order. Lucas Mix is a congenial guide through the depths of astrobiology, exploring how the presence of planets around other stars affects our knowledge of our own; how water, carbon, and electrons interact to form life as we know it; and how the processes of evolution and entropy act upon every living thing.

This book also reveals that our understanding and our context are deeply intertwined. It shows how much astrobiology can tell us about who we are—as a planet, as a species, and as individuals.


front cover of Life in the Cosmos
Life in the Cosmos
From Biosignatures to Technosignatures
Manasvi Lingam and Avi Loeb
Harvard University Press, 2021

A rigorous and scientific analysis of the myriad possibilities of life beyond our planet.

“Are we alone in the universe?” This tantalizing question has captivated humanity over millennia, but seldom has it been approached rigorously. Today the search for signatures of extraterrestrial life and intelligence has become a rapidly advancing scientific endeavor. Missions to Mars, Europa, and Titan seek evidence of life. Laboratory experiments have made great strides in creating synthetic life, deepening our understanding of conditions that give rise to living entities. And on the horizon are sophisticated telescopes to detect and characterize exoplanets most likely to harbor life.

Life in the Cosmos offers a thorough overview of the burgeoning field of astrobiology, including the salient methods and paradigms involved in the search for extraterrestrial life and intelligence. Manasvi Lingam and Avi Loeb tackle three areas of interest in hunting for life “out there”: first, the pathways by which life originates and evolves; second, planetary and stellar factors that affect the habitability of worlds, with an eye on the biomarkers that may reveal the presence of microbial life; and finally, the detection of technological signals that could be indicative of intelligence. Drawing on empirical data from observations and experiments, as well as the latest theoretical and computational developments, the authors make a compelling scientific case for the search for life beyond what we can currently see.

Meticulous and comprehensive, Life in the Cosmos is a master class from top researchers in astrobiology, suggesting that the answer to our age-old question is closer than ever before.


front cover of Life through Time and Space
Life through Time and Space
Wallace Arthur
Harvard University Press, 2017

All humans share three origins: the beginning of our individual lives, the appearance of life on Earth, and the formation of our planetary home. Life through Time and Space brings together the latest discoveries in both biology and astronomy to examine our deepest questions about where we came from, where we are going, and whether we are alone in the cosmos.

A distinctive voice in the growing field of astrobiology, Wallace Arthur combines embryological, evolutionary, and cosmological perspectives to tell the story of life on Earth and its potential to exist elsewhere in the universe. He guides us on a journey through the myriad events that started with the big bang and led to the universe we inhabit today. Along the way, readers learn about the evolution of life from a primordial soup of organic molecules to complex plants and animals, about Earth’s geological transformation from barren rock to diverse ecosystems, and about human development from embryo to infant to adult. Arthur looks closely at the history of mass extinctions and the prospects for humanity’s future on our precious planet.

Do intelligent aliens exist on a distant planet in the Milky Way, sharing the three origins that characterize all life on Earth? In addressing this question, Life through Time and Space tackles the many riddles of our place and fate in the universe that have intrigued human beings since they first gazed in wonder at the nighttime sky.


front cover of The Lost Art of Finding Our Way
The Lost Art of Finding Our Way
John Edward Huth
Harvard University Press, 2013

Long before GPS, Google Earth, and global transit, humans traveled vast distances using only environmental clues and simple instruments. John Huth asks what is lost when modern technology substitutes for our innate capacity to find our way. Encyclopedic in breadth, weaving together astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, and ethnography, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way puts us in the shoes, ships, and sleds of early navigators for whom paying close attention to the environment around them was, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Haunted by the fate of two young kayakers lost in a fog bank off Nantucket, Huth shows us how to navigate using natural phenomena—the way the Vikings used the sunstone to detect polarization of sunlight, and Arab traders learned to sail into the wind, and Pacific Islanders used underwater lightning and “read” waves to guide their explorations. Huth reminds us that we are all navigators capable of learning techniques ranging from the simplest to the most sophisticated skills of direction-finding. Even today, careful observation of the sun and moon, tides and ocean currents, weather and atmospheric effects can be all we need to find our way.

Lavishly illustrated with nearly 200 specially prepared drawings, Huth’s compelling account of the cultures of navigation will engross readers in a narrative that is part scientific treatise, part personal travelogue, and part vivid re-creation of navigational history. Seeing through the eyes of past voyagers, we bring our own world into sharper view.


front cover of Lunar
A History of the Moon in Myths, Maps, and Matter
Edited by Matthew Shindell
University of Chicago Press, 2024
The first book to combine exquisite cartographical charts of the Moon with a thorough exploration of the Moon’s role in popular culture, science, and myth.
President John F. Kennedy’s rousing “We will go to the Moon” speech in 1961 before the US Congress catalyzed the celebrated Apollo program, spurring the US Geological Survey’s scientists to map the Moon. Over the next eleven years a team of twenty-two, including a dozen illustrator-cartographers, created forty-four charts that forever changed the path of space exploration.
For the first time, each of those beautifully hand-drawn, colorful charts is presented together in one stunning book. In Lunar, National Air and Space Museum curator Matthew Shindell’s expert commentary accompanies each chart, along with the key geological characteristics and interpretations that were set out in the original Geologic Atlas of the Moon. Interwoven throughout the book are contributions from scholars devoted to studying the multifaceted significance of the Moon to humankind around the world. Traveling from the Stone Age to the present day, they explore a wide range of topics: the prehistoric lunar calendar; the role of the Moon in creation myths of Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome; the role of the Moon in astrology; the importance of the Moon in establishing an Earth-centered solar system; the association of the Moon with madness and the menstrual cycle; how the Moon governs the tides; and the use of the Moon in surrealist art.
Combining a thoughtful retelling of the Moon’s cultural associations throughout history with the beautifully illustrated and scientifically accurate charting of its surface, Lunar is a stunning celebration of the Moon in all its guises.

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