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Geoscientist Online

Exploring the Planets


Fred Taylor, author of this entertaining but uneven memoir and erstwhile Professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Physics at Oxford, was at the cusp of space research for most of his career.  He designed and built a lightweight radiometer there and after tedious trials it was chosen to go up in a US Nimbus satellite to investigate Earth’s upper atmosphere.  That started things off nicely.

Soon after, Fred moved to the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena.  After initial disappointment, he grabbed his chance and become Principal Investigator of a team that put atmospheric measuring equipment into the Pioneer space probe to Jupiter and Saturn.  It launched successfully from Cape Canaveral in 1978 and brought back valuable data.  Backed by that success, Fred was also appointed Principal Investigator for the Pioneer Venus Orbiter in 1979.

Then, in a surprise move Fred, 35, returned to Oxford in 1980 to become a professor and help promote Britain’s space contribution.

The investment climate here was not as exuberant as that in the States.  Says Fred” ‘Britain seemed quite austere after California.  It wasn’t just the relative poverty and low salaries; there was a certain meanness of spirit that permeated everything.  The (funding) system for university research tended to be erratic and unreliable.’ Nevertheless, he battled on with some notable successes and eventually, through market integration, the European Space Agency helped fund larger projects.

This memoir tracks his career.  At heart, it is a testimonial to earnest endeavour.  For me, his experiences in three different work environments (the US; Britain and Europe) provide much of the interest; but at times the text is laden with acronyms and unfamiliar names so it reads a little heavy.  Those looking for further insights into the missions won’t get much joy.  That information is in previous books.  There are lighter moments.  His sections about his Aston Martins (and other fast cars), some clashes with the law, and a couple of unfortunate accidents, read much more easily. 

The book somewhat disjointed and the poor reproduction of his personal photos did not help.  Overall, Fred’s experiences during 50 years of trials and tribulations provides a useful historical record of all that is good (and bad) in space science.

EXPLORING THE PLANETS by FRED TAYLOR.  Oxford University Press 2016 ISBN: 9780199671595 (hbk) List price: £25.00 W: