May 24, 2012
(++++) IN THE WORLD AND OUT OF IT
The Mighty Mars Rovers: The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity. By Elizabeth Rusch. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.
Falling for Eli: How I Lost Heart, Then Gained Hope Through the Love of a Singular Horse. By Nancy Shulins. Da Capo. $15.99.
Trials and triumphs come in many forms – and, it turns out, on many planets. The Mighty Mars Rovers is a book about science and scientists, about interplanetary exploration, about plenty of cold, hard facts – but, even more interestingly, about tremendous human warmth as it enwraps not only the team members handling the mission but also the so-far-off mechanical-and-electronic “beings” performing the mission’s work at a distance of some 48,000,000 miles. Elizabeth Rusch humanizes the science by making the book in large part a focus on Steve Squyres, who spent eight years making unsuccessful Mars-rover proposals to NASA before the agency decided that it wanted not one, but two – and so quickly that, said Squyres, “our schedule was almost impossible.” But like so many events in space exploration (including the first Moon landing in 1969, fulfilling President Kennedy’s pledge to land men on the moon before the end of that decade), this one was accomplished – thanks to Squyres and a team of 170 scientists. To say that the project was difficult is a vast understatement: “It was so complicated that not a single one of us fully understood what was going on,” Squyres remembers. The team as a whole did understand, though, and that was what mattered. All this design-and-manufacturing drama occurred before Spirit and Opportunity took off for Mars – and is covered by Rusch in a mere 20 pages. Then comes the narrative of the Martian landing and start of exploration, complete with marvelous photos of Squyres and others jubilantly celebrating achievement after achievement. They had many reasons to be delighted: the rovers performed beautifully and started making important discoveries about Mars very quickly. Rusch is careful to include explanations about how scientist-to-rover communication really works. This is not science fiction: “‘You can’t watch the rover; you can’t listen to it. You really have no idea what is happening,’” explains Matt Golombek, manager of rover planning. Genuine communication by beeps and blips alternates in Rusch’s narrative with imaginative interpretations of the mission, such as what it could have felt like to be a rover landing on Mars. The rovers’ work was above all a search for water, an indicator that Mars could contain life or could once have harbored it. The excitement mounts as earthbound scientists investigate and solve operating problems from tens of millions of miles away, while the rovers (with Opportunity referred to as “he” and Spirit as “she”) diligently follow commands and turn up, as Rusch writes at one point, “Not much. Nothing but basalt, a common form of lava.” But the search continues, the challenges mount, discoveries are made, and photos of the scientists are interspersed with ones of some of those discoveries – for example, “the first [meteorite] ever found on a planet other than Earth.” The humans’ admiration for the machines is palpable and ever-increasing, especially as the rovers last much, much longer than anyone ever thought they would. By the book’s end, readers – and that will likely include fascinated adults, even though The Mighty Mars Rovers is intended primarily for children – will be not only amazed but also emotionally engrossed in the story, and the pictures of scientists showing their intense emotions during the mission will come to make perfect sense. The rovers were never alive, but they take on a distinct life and distinctive personalities throughout this story of hard work, trouble and triumph – which ends with a discussion of Curiosity, a new rover that is currently on its way to Mars for a planned summer landing and the start of a new journey of adventure and wonder.
Back on Earth, the intense emotions that humans so often attach to nonhumans well up and spill over in Falling for Eli, Nancy Shulins’ story of her difficult, sometimes heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting relationship with a horse named Eli. Anyone who accepts the way scientists can become emotionally entangled with mechanisms will have no trouble at all relating to Shulins’ intense connection with Eli, who comes into her life at a point when she is accepting, unwillingly and with deep sorrow, her inability to have children. The arc of the story here is a wholly unexceptional one that has been written many times about everything from adopting a child to rescuing and caring for dogs, cats and other animals. The heart-tugging is entirely to be expected as well. But although the book gets a (+++) rating because of its conventional and unsurprising elements, it will nevertheless be a multiple-handkerchief read for horse lovers and many who have filled emptinesses in their lives through animal substitutions for connections that they lack. There is some science here, but Shulins tends to gloss it over, for example saying that she will “never succeed in memorizing the names of all 205 bones” in a horse without mentioning the interesting fact that the human body contains 206. Shulins is not the only one working through human issues in horse terms. For instance, barn owner Mike “tends to lose it with some regularity. …The guy can yell. He isn’t the type to suffer fools gladly. At the same time, though, his patience with Randy, his twenty-something mentally disabled helper, is limitless.” Readers get to know Shulins partly through her interactions with others in the equine world, but even more through her relationship with Eli. The book’s timeline runs from 1995 to 2008, with a “coda” in 2010, and there is a great deal of human drama in it as Shulins gradually comes to understand Eli, learn his wants and needs and foibles and difficulties, and help nurse him through a series of health crises. One of those: “What began with a terrifying loss of control of his hind limbs ends two months later with a spinal tap, an invasive and expensive procedure that’s almost as frightening as the disease that it tests for.” The test comes back negative – Eli’s body shows no sign of the parasite that almost killed him – but this is just one intense scene among many. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if Shulins’ years with Eli are ones in which she lurches from one health crisis to the next. But a parent writing a book about a child might structure it much as Shulins arranges Falling for Eli, with the joys of the relationship being worth far more than its trials. “Eli and I are connected as if by some subtle, invisible string,” writes Shulins at one point, and the totality of the book gives exactly that impression: of a profound, tremendously meaningful connection between human and horse, in which there is genuine two-way communication and through which Shulins finds, if not exactly a substitute for a human child, a thinking and feeling being – on which she can lavish unending amounts of patience, concern and genuine love.