Soviet Robots in the Solar System: Mission Technologies and Discoveries, Wesley Huntress & Mikhail Marov, Springer, 2011, 453pp, £40.99/$44.95/E44.95, ISBN 978-1-4419-7897-4 [softback]
“First on the Moon, First on Venus, First on Mars”; the banner on this book’s rear cover sums up the success of early Soviet space exploration in ten words. Now that the mists of time have closed over those early space firsts – apart, of course, from Sputnik and Gagarin – those not embedded in space history or technology could be forgiven for forgetting that America was far from ‘top dog’ in those early days. This book aims to remind us.
According to its blurb, it “chronicles the scientific and engineering accomplishments of this enterprise from its infancy to its demise. Each flight campaign is set into context of national politics and international competition with the United States”. As the authors explain, they have confined their account to “deep space missions [designed] to explore the Moon or planets”, not those studying the Sun or Earth-Moon space environment.
This is not the first book to do this. However, it is organised in a semi-encyclopaedic manner, which at least allows readers to dip into it by subject area, if they so wish. Part I covers the space race (of course), the key players (including a CV section), key institutions, rockets and spacecraft. The far larger Part II is organised as a chronological history, but is divided clearly into chapters reflecting the key goals of a particular era (e.g. “Launching to Mars and Venus” and “Robotic achievements in the shadow of Apollo”). The book concludes with a spacecraft list, mission timeline, bibliography and index.
Readers interested in Soviet space history will probably like this book, but they might, like me, be disappointed with the standard of illustration. The poor reproduction of some of the photographs and diagrams included here might have been considered state-of-the-art when the missions were launched, but not today. Even some of the tables look as if the publisher’s printer cartridge was due for renewal! We live in an age in which the printed book is said to be living on borrowed time; if established print publishers allow quality control measures to slip, they are shooting themselves in the foot.