Infinity Beckoned: Adventuring through the Inner Solar System, 1969-1989

  • Published
Infinity Beckoned: Adventuring through the Inner Solar System, 1969-1989 by Jay Gallentine. University of Nebraska Press, 2016, 496 pp.

At the end of Infinity Beckoned, an engaging and informative work of narrative space history, historian and filmmaker Jay Gallentine provides the following description:

But a select few--unconsciously responding to the soft patter of a rhythm they couldn't quite place--seemed more engaged, more responsive. They wrote nineteen paragraphs instead of four, troweling up deep layers of facts nobody else heard of. They got branded Teacher's Pet or kooky, or both. Really, they just had to know more. Even after the unit ended they got an extra book about planets from the library. They asked to look through a telescope. They wanted to go to a planetarium or to a geology exhibit and touch a meteorite. They sketched hypothetical spacecraft of their own. They asked how do we know, when did we learn, why is it like that? Maybe one of these people was you. (emphasis added, p. 454)

Such people are the intended audience of this lengthy but compelling story of the mostly unmanned exploration of the inner solar system, including missions to Mars (Viking), the Moon (Luna, Lunokhod), Venus (Venera), and Halley's Comet (Vega), among others.

The attention the author pays to details and to engaging stories makes this work a compelling narrative history. He tells of the stress and grind of working with the American and Russian space bureaucracies and of the marital strain that results from spending so much time away from home: trips to remote laboratories and secretive facilities where one is under the stress of international competition and the immense constraints of dealing with space exploration--high costs, intense scrutiny, wish lists of cosmic proportions, and extreme environmental demands for performance under heinous conditions. Gallentine does not mince words about the temperature swings of the moon and Mars, of gravitational anomalies, of the difficulties of demonstrating a case of life on Mars and differentiating it from chemical processes, and of the thrill of being the first to reach and to explore alien worlds, even remotely. The details of the stories--the difficulty of resigning from jobs one does not want, the stress and strain on families, the arguments between scientists--provide a grounded reality to dreams people often have about space and space exploration.

The author does not so much seek to prove a point as tell an interconnected series of stories about mostly Russians and Americans although he includes a French balloon enthusiast who still explores space into his nineties. He does so through 28 chapters buttressed by more than 50 photographs, some of which show aspects of the Soviet space program largely unknown to Western audiences. In telling a story, the author often lets others tell their own, in their own words as much as possible. Gallentine presents Gil Levin, eccentric scientist and passionate proponent of the existence of life on Mars of the kind that lives in Antarctica, and his driven, capable assistant Pat Straat, as enthusiastic about horses as about outer space. In other chapters, he sympathetically lets Roald Sagdeev express his own deep ambivalence about his job, reflect on the collapse of his first marriage, or rejoice in his second marriage and departure from post-Soviet Russia. There is Soviet obfuscation, the drama over how to get a privileged direct phone on one's desk, and the way the Soviets used openly accessible American data to help their own space missions. The skill of the writer and the passion of the people he discusses, based upon his interviews and archival research, blend to make this book a compelling history of unmanned spaceflight within the inner solar system, defined as the area between the asteroid belt and the sun.

Although Infinity Beckoned is a fine historical work, it is perhaps even better as the expression of hope shared by the author and most of the people he speaks about in the further expansion of knowledge and familiarity. Gallentine does not precisely seek the colonizing or terraforming of other realms, but one clearly senses frustration at the lack of progress over the past 25 years in missions of space exploration in our closest neighborhood of the solar system. By giving full voice to the hopes and efforts of past scientists and explorers, the author encourages the reader to dream of encouraging and cheering on--or even participating in--similar efforts in the future despite living in an age of budgetary austerity where a vision of answering deep, important questions about the existence of life on other worlds, or understanding conditions on those planets, has been sidetracked into the incremental hunt for water on Mars or other fairly small-scale tasks. This ambitious work encourages determination in people who hunger and thirst for the exploration of outer space. As a postmortem on a glorious age of solar system exploration that encourages the glory days ahead, it manages both to inform and excite us.

Nathan Albright
Portland, Oregon

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."