Destination: Mars

How we imagined the Red Planet

Destination: Mars
Image: NASA/JPL/UArizona

In recent years, Mars has been back in the news. The wildly successful and dramatic landing of the MINI Cooper-sized rover Curiosity in 2012 has brought a renewed interest in the red planet. In his 2015 State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama reaffirmed NASA’s goal to put an astronaut on Mars at some point in the future and organizations such as the Mars One Foundation and SpaceX have set their sights firmly on Martian mission programs.

Mars has always been a likely destination for humanity, and in particular, it has captivated science fiction audiences as a new home, port of call, or simply just a new place to explore. Science fiction’s own history of the place has largely evolved alongside that of our own understanding of the planet. As much as we’ve learned from pictures, probes, and rovers on Mars, the world still has a particular fascination for science fiction authors who have told stories about it up to the present day.

From early in Mars’ history, a dichotomy has existed between the urge to study and observe the planet, but also to create and tell stories about it. The Romans named the blood-red point in the sky after their god of war. At the same time, numerous ancient astronomers located in Egypt, Babylon, Greece and others, observed the motion of Mars, and recognized early on that it was different from the other points in the sky: it was a planet, not a star.

Fast forward to the industrial revolution. New scientific principles defined the movements of objects in the solar system, which helped scientists to focus extensively on study of the planets with the aid of new telescopes. Accordingly, authors who had begun to write scientific tales also begun to turn their attention to our nearest neighbors in the solar system. Brave New Worlds: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction identifies the first use of the word Martian in 1874, in an American magazine called The Galaxy: “The Martians would therefore be in a better position to understand our attempts at opening up a communication than the Venerians.”

First Contact

In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli created the first detailed map of Mars using a telescope. From his observations, he detailed channels, continents, and seas, terminology rooted in Earth’s own geology. In particular, his description of canali (channels) was widely mistranslated as canals in English, sparking a wide-spread belief that Mars was home to someone who built them. The description planted the seeds to an idea: Mars was another world like ours, one that could potentially harbor intelligent life.

Percival Lowell followed Schiaparelli’s lead in 1894 by constructing an observatory in Arizona, and later publishing a book titled Mars in 1895. The book covered his observations of the planet, all the while he speculated on the nature of how beings might live on the planet, drawing from the belief that canals were indeed present on the planet’s surface.

In 1897, H.G. Wells published what is possibly the best-known work of science fiction involving Mars: The War of the Worlds. From the very beginning of his book, Wells mixes the scientific knowledge of the day into his story: “The planet Mars, I scarcely need remind the reader, revolves about the sun at a mean distance of one hundred forty million miles, and the light and heat it receives from the sun is barely half of that received by this world,” all the while constructing a relevant, political story of the day.

The following year, a pair of Edisonade novels: The Fighters from Mars (a re-written version of The War of the Worlds), and Garrett P. Serviss’, Edison’s Conquest of Mars, was a direct sequel which followed a counterattack on Mars led by Thomas Edison. By basing his aliens on Mars, Wells’ The War of the Worlds and the various inspired books helped to instill a renewed sense of the historical association of the planet with that of war and destruction.

Romantic Mars

This only continued into the new century, most notably with Edgar Rice Burroughs and some of his best-known works: the Barsoom series featuring Civil War veteran John Carter. Beginning in 1912 with A Princess of Mars, Burroughs transports Carter to an inhabited and wild Mars, populating the planet with a rich and complicated civilization for his pulp adventures. His stories inspired numerous others in a burgeoning planetary romance genre: authors ranging from C.S. Lewis with his Space Trilogy, C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith adventures, and Stanley G. Weinbaum with “A Martian Odyssey.”

In pulp magazines throughout the early twentieth century, science fiction emerged as its own world and authors began to look beyond Earth for inspiration. Certainly, the idea of a red world would have appealed to the likes of Burroughs, who had spent some time as a cavalry scout in the United States Army before turning to writing. Astronomers had already discerned features from Mars’ surface and several authors latched on to the image of the wild west when looking to our nearer planetary neighbors. In “Shambleau,” C.L. Moore transported the reader to a dusty and lawless locale that served her stories and characters well.

As late as the 1930s, scientists and astronomers had speculated about the possibility of vegetation on the planet: “The [American Interplanetary Society] Bulletin carried an article in January 1932 suggesting the possibility of ‘luxuriant vegetation’ on Mars along what may or may not have been Lowell’s canals.”

By the end of the 1940s, Ray Bradbury had taken up the mantle of the planetary romances, with what would later become his own collective work, The Martian Chronicles (1950), heavily influenced by the works of Burroughs and other pulp authors. Bradbury’s work stood as the last vanguard of a romantic Mars: Bradbury’s vividly imagined Mars has helped place it as one of the best works of his generation.

The romantic Mars was a place where we knew people could walk, if not live. While the moon was closer (and certainly had its own share of science fiction stories), Mars held possibility, shrouded in mysteries. Did it have an atmosphere? Was there life? It was a place that sparked our collective imaginations and called to us as a place to go.

And, go we did. In November of 1964, the United States launched a pair of rockets towards Mars. They were the culmination in a larger battle for the planets between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Following the end of the Second World War, each began to develop greater long-ranged weapons to deploy their respective nuclear arsenals. The resulting Space Race followed, which began massive manned spaceflight programs in each country. The United States and Soviet Union looked first to our Moon as a destination, but many in the space program believed that once we reached the lunar surface, Mars would be our next destination.

Less visible was the race for scientific supremacy, and accordingly, each looked to our two closest neighbors in space: Venus and Mars. Venus, the closer of the two, became the first such battleground, and was closely followed by Mars. Between October 1960 and November 1962, the Soviet Union launched five satellites to Mars: none were successful due to a variety of system or launch failures. The United States didn’t fare any better at first either: their first mission, Mariner 3, failed to shed a protective cover, and lost power. Mariner 4, however, successfully reached Mars on July 14th, and would become humanity’s first glimpse to the world that we had dreamt so much about.

This first introduction, according to William Burrows in This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, “ . . . was terrible. Mars was no longer an elusive orange blur with whitish poles and alluring dark blotches. It had been transformed from a place that had recognizable features with which earthlings could identify. Gone were the canals or anything else that could have been purposely dug or built. Gone were the oases holding precious supplies of water. Gone were creatures of any form. Gone, too, were ocean basins, vegetation, or any landscape that even remotely looked like Earth.” (Burrows, 464)

The romantic and exotic images of Mars that had been written about from Wells to Burroughs to Moore to Bradbury had been completely shattered. The grainy images transmitted back to Earth showed an alien world—alien even to science fiction authors. Mars was cold, uninhabitable, and dead. While many might have doubted that Mars would have been home to alien life, it was a stark reminder that our science fiction stories sometimes fall short of reality.

Cold Mars

While science fiction’s collective vision for what Mars didn’t match the real nature of Mars, it did learn and begin to change.

New unmanned missions to Mars followed in the next launch window in 1969. The United States launched Mariner 6 and 7 in February and March, while the USSR missions 2M No.521 in March and 2M No.522 in April failed. 1971 brought new missions: Mariner 8 and Kosmos 419 both failed, but Mariner 9, which launched on May 30th, successfully became the first spacecraft to orbit Mars, where it would spend the next five hundred sixteen days, taking pictures of the planet below. As this happened, humans landed on the Moon for the first time. We were slowly beginning to step into the solar system.

As Mariner 9 approached Mars, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory held a conference with several notable figures: Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Carl Sagan, and others. There, the science fiction authors paid tribute to Stanley G. Weinbaum, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H.G. Wells for their works in bringing Mars to the imaginations of millions of readers. However, what had become clear was that Mars was not the world so richly imagined; it was a cold, dead world that was difficult to reach. There, Clarke made a bold prediction: “Whether or not there is life on Mars now, there will be by the end of the century.” It was a bold claim for a country that would soon be shuttering its manned lunar program, and he would eventually step his estimate ahead several decades. His remarks are important, however, because they positioned how we would tell stories about Mars: no longer a world of exotic life and mystery, it would become the home for a colony, a way point on the way to other planets, a distant outpost.

1976 brought us our next best look at Mars. At the next available window, NASA launched Viking 1 and Viking 2 on August 20th and September 9th, a pair of complicated missions that would, for the first time, land equipment on the surface of Mars. The pair of landers arrived on the surface of the planet on June 19th and August 7th, respectively, and served as humanity’s first ambassadors. Their scientific missions included biological and chemical experiments, yielding new insights into the red planet.

The results of the Viking missions provided planetary scientists with a wealth of information, and caught the interest of new science fiction authors. Kim Stanley Robinson noted that he had been particularly inspired by the images sent back by the Viking probes, and felt a yearning to hike and explore the planet’s mountain ranges. Over the next decade, he thought about how to terraform the planet, and in 1990, he published the first installment of his Mars trilogy: Red Mars, and followed with Green Mars and Blue Mars, examining a wide range of topics from the planetary science that was being uncovered to the ethical considerations of terraforming a world like Mars. Over the course of the 1990s, other hard science novels about exploring the surface of Mars came out, such as Ben Bova’s Mars and its sequels.

The planetary romance of the early twentieth century had gone, but in its place were new opportunities for science fiction authors. The research conducted on the surface of Mars opened up the possibilities of new stories of exploration and the scientists and adventurers who boldly went further into the solar system, armed with a new level of realism.

New Missions, New Stories

Our understanding of Mars has only continued to improve. In 1996, the Pathfinder mission with its Sojourner rover became the first such probe on the surface of the planet, exploring its immediate surroundings. Others followed: the Mars Odyssey and Mars Explorer continue to operate on the surface, while another pair of rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed in 2003, where each outperformed their designated mission. Spirit shut down in 2010, but Opportunity continues to function, as of the time of this writing. Each mission uncovered, and continues to contribute to our knowledge of Mars. Most recently, millions around the world watched Curiosity touch down in a daring landing in August 2012 that might have come from a science fiction author. Appropriately, Curiosity’s landing site was formally named Bradbury Landing. It continues to send back new images every day, and the data it has collected will continue to entrance scientists and science fiction authors for years to come.

The latest string of novels that have taken place on Mars incorporate the latest research from the planet. Andy Weir’s breakthrough novel The Martian is one such example. Following an astronaut stranded on the planet, Weir drew from books such as Robinson Crusoe and scientific work to figure out the central storyline: how would such an astronaut survive?

“All you have to do is start examining any aspect of his survival and you’ll quickly find the problems he runs into. He’s going to need food, but you can’t just create food that easily; you need to actually grow it. Doing some math on how long his supplies would last told me, well, it’s just implausible for his supplies to last long enough. So that’s a simple case where science creates plot. Then he needs to have this much water to grow food. He can get plenty of dirt from outside, but he needs the dirt to have a certain amount of water. I did all the math to figure out how much water he’d need, and it was just implausible that a manned mission would carry that much water.”

Weir, through Watney, does more than just detail the science of Martian exploration. His book explicitly uses prior, real world missions, such as Pathfinder, to further its plot and play a key role in the story. The Martian, in many ways, is about as far as one could go from the earliest conceptions of Mars, and borrows extensively from real-world knowledge: Mars is a dry, uninhabitable location in the solar system, far from a destination to settle on or to meet strange Martians. Other recent Mars books, such as Greg Bear’s War Dogs, which sets an interstellar war on the surface, highlights the real focus on life support and survival on an inhospitable surface.

When asked about what attracts us to Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson highlighted our growing and changing understanding of the planet:

“Throughout human history it’s been interesting because it’s red, it gets brighter then dimmer, and it has a hitch in its motion, going retrograde against the stars for a while. Then when we learned it was a planet, the next one out from us, we very quickly saw the polar ice caps, and the changing color, which looked seasonal. It seemed like it could be like Earth. Then Percival Lowell set everyone’s imagination on fire with his idea that he was seeing a system of canals, which meant a civilization and possibly aliens like us. Through the decades since there have been repeated alterations in the scientific explanation of the planet’s physical situation, which gave science fiction writers new scenarios for stories. Then the Mariner and Viking orbiters and the Viking landers gave us the real landscape, and it was extremely interesting, and to an extent, Earthlike. The idea of terraforming Mars quickly followed.”

Mars, for as long as it will hang in the skies above, will continue to inspire authors and astronomers alike, long after we visit, settle and give the planet a new name: Home.

This essay was originally published in May 2015 in Clarkesworld Magazine