Morning on Mars.

A shrunken sun rose to cast feeble light across the dust of a billion years. Cold darkness became shadow. Shadow evaporated as quickly as the night’s tenuous frost. A thin, cold wind grew from the south, ghostly herald of spring storms rising up from the distant ice cap. Chill and bitter, the wind clutched and tossed the ancient sands. Talcum-fine grit ascended, gathered momentum, and flew onward to channel dunes, erode rock, and bite at the metal flanks of the ship from Earth…

from “The Long Road”

It’s October, and more than any month it seems like a time that is primed and ready for our distant, mysterious neighbor. Sure, March is named after the Roman god of war, and I’ve seen the planet stand ruddy in the sky even in the spring. It has also stood bright as any ornament at Yule and chased its fellow planets across the ecliptic during the shortest of those warm, dreamy summer nights.

But if you think of the fascination, mystery, and downright spookiness of the planet it seems a place of eternal autumn. The fall is that point in time when…on the terrestrial plane at least…life weakens, withers, or takes flight. We come to the Red Planet not in its spring or full summer, now epochs past, but in the lateness of its planetary fall. Our probes and rovers taste what once was, smell what might have been, behold the crumbling facades of rock walls and traceries of rivers that run like echoes into the ocher dust. In those carefully crafted mechanical hands our robotic explorers hold the faintest, barely tangible evidence of an ecosystem that might have once harbored life.

Giovanni Schiaparelli caught glimpses of reality through his telescope. In a poignant, honest attempt to quantify this mysterious world he described in dry publications what his eye beheld. When reporting surface features in 1877 he used the term for line which in Italian is canali. What was an honest description became misunderstood and when mistranslated into English the word canali became canal. Suddenly Mars, in its barrenness, became a place of wonder. Theories grew up around these canals and many came to believe that a vast Martian civilization was a certainty. Percival Lowell spent his fortune and his life in part pursuing this dream. By 1908 he had published several books of observation and speculation regarding life on Mars.

And he wasn’t alone. A young mid-western transplant growing up in Los Angeles felt his imagination catch fire one day while reading about Mars in his local public library. If any modern author’s name is synonymous with the Red Planet it would be Ray Bradbury. Alight from the stories of Burroughs, Conan-Doyle, and many a western dime novel the young Bradbury crafted a wealth of tales around missions to the arid plains of Mars. The fiction he created in the 1940s and 50s featured a vast Martian civilization where alabaster cities crumbled along the banks of shallow canals. The humans in these stories were as far from their home on Earth as the young Bradbury was from his native Illinois. The human settlers eked out a living amid mystery and caught the occasional glimpse of those from whom they had both wrested and inherited an entire world.

But whether in the sciences, writing, or the imagination Mars has always been there in the sky, beckoning. In 1964 the first Mariner probes were being readied for launch on flyby missions to the Red Planet. One map used for planning was provided by the Air Force and featured the Mars of many a careful observational campaign. It is the black and white map seen above. Drawn from existing data in 1962, the map features varied shades and surface markings and no few mysterious lines that seemingly depict canals.

Launched in November of 1964 Mariner 4 would be the first probe to fly past Mars and capture precious surface photographs. In July of 1965 the first bits of data were downloaded at JPL in Pasadena. It could be said that in the moment when Mariner 4 flew past Mars a chapter was turned. Barsoom was forever gone and a new era of planetology had arrived. Instantly, the Mars of Lowell, Burroughs, and Bradbury evaporated like so much tenuous frost before the distant sun.

Mariner 4 showed us that Mars was a cratered desert world, with miserly polar caps and giant mountains that bespoke a geologic history now frozen in time. It was a fascinating place, surely, and as broad and rich in its unique history as was the Earth. But there were no canals or lost cities. The search for life on Mars would continue, but those in the vanguard of that search would have to go deeper, look harder, and seek their answers in stubborn rock and volatile chemical signals.

Fast forward to last week and Elon Musk of the company SpaceX was at the IAU General Conference in Guadalajara. He spoke both humbly and optimistically of a bold concept to send humans to Mars with the goal of seeing a manned landing in 10 years. The program offered only a high level view of this concept, complete with PowerPoint slides and impressive CGI renderings of this vision. Mr. Musk described round-trip rockets that could carry a hundred people to Mars. He envisioned the growth of early outposts into cities that could eventually be home to thousands, possibly millions. He even showed some of the technology SpaceX is developing, including a rocket and a composite fuel tank. The rocket had been tested the day before and the fuel tank was as big as a house. The message was clear: SpaceX is bending tin.

Yet despite my skepticism there was enough of a grounding to it that, combined with SpaceX’s reputation, I felt a flutter of anticipation I have not known since reading Bradbury when I was a kid. Mars is an enormous challenge and I will apply Occam’s Razor to this plan. Yet even if SpaceX completes a small fraction of what it purports to do, that attempt, no matter how fledgling, offers great promise.

Imagination does not fuel rockets. However experience, common sense, hard work, money, and optimism do. I wish Mr. Musk and SpaceX only the best in their endeavor. Perhaps we are on our way to becoming the Martians of whom we once dreamed.



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