We Are The Martians

March 23, 2012

Lately I’ve been noticing Mars rising in the east and moving steadily southward as it climbs in the sky. It’s probably always been associated with war because of its red color-although it can also be yellow or orange depending on what’s going on in Earth’s atmosphere-and also because it’s frequently visible, and, let’s face it, there’s always a war going on somewhere. I think there may be another reason Mars has a special fascination for most of us, though. At least since astronomers realized the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around it was easy to see Mars as the next big stepping stone in outward exploration. That’s why it’s interesting to me that, right now, if I look to the east I see Mars and, depending on the time, if I turn around and look to the west I’ll see both Venus and Jupiter very close together. Since Venus is really in a lot of ways Earth’s twin-it’s the closest planet to us, and the closest in size-and since it’s the brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon you’d think Venus would be more interesting to us. And yet as far as I know only the Three Stooges went to Venus, while in most science fiction Mars is either the target of our explorations or the source of an invasion.

And that’s true of most real science too. Aside from a series of missions decades ago we haven’t really made much effort to explore Venus. Part of that is practicality: the spacecraft we sent to Venus were either crushed, since the air pressure on Venus is the equivalent of being more than a mile underwater on Earth, or melted. Or both. And then there’s the sulfuric acid snow. In the early days of the space age a lot of astronomers believed there must be oceans on Venus, that there might be plant life there, and that it might even be habitable. One of the few who reasoned that Venus must be a pretty brutal and barren place was a young guy named Carl Sagan. But I think even to the astronomers who misjudged it Venus wasn’t as interesting because it represents a step inward. And you’d also think Jupiter, which is the brightest object in the sky after Venus, would actually be an even more obvious choice than Mars for the next logical step out into space. And yet Jupiter doesn’t even have a surface we could stand on, and the difficulty of even exploring Jupiter, let alone colonizing it, make Venus look like the Mediterranean. Jupiter, unlike Mars, is a place we could never call home. And we could potentially make Mars home. If Venus is Earth’s twin then Mars could easily be Earth’s kid brother. If Mars had a moon like ours it might even look more like Earth. Our Moon, after all, helps stabilize Earth’s environment. If you’re thinking that Mars has two moons keep in mind that Phobos and Deimos combined would add up to an incredibly tiny fraction of the size of our Moon. I’ve seen science fiction films set on Mars with Phobos and Deimos portrayed as looking like a couple of Earth’s Moons hanging in the sky, when really they just look like a couple of bright stars. And yet their names mean "fear" and "dread", because, in spite of or maybe because of its fascination, it seems like we’ve always had a fear of Mars.

Maybe it’s because of that ancient association with war that "Martian" and "alien" have often been synonymous, even though Martians, by definition, come from Mars, while an alien-a stranger, an outsider, something or someone who may, through no fault of their own, inspire our most irrational fears–can come from almost anywhere. Even next door. H.G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds, and the paranoia that followed Orson Welles’s version, say more about us than we might care to admit. There are, of course, exceptions. Writers like Heinlein and Bradbury make the Martians themselves mostly peaceful, but the emphasis turns to human aggression. When Bradbury says we are the Martians it’s not exactly a compliment. Even the idea of terraforming Mars, thawing its carbon dioxide poles like a giant batch of dry ice to warm the atmosphere and tapping deep reserves of water seems less like a way to make it easier to settle and more of an act of aggression. Don’t get me wrong-I love the idea of Martian colonies, although, with the sandstorms and brutal winters, I think I’d still rather visit than live there. But even if it were technologically possible taking the mistakes we’ve made on this planet and purposely making them on another seems like a spectacularly boneheaded idea. In spite of all that, though, there is more to Mars than fear and dread. After the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli said he saw "canali" on Mars the word, which could mean "channels" or "gullies", his statement was translated into English as "canals", which inspired a lot of interest in Mars. The American Percival Lowell was convinced the Martians were a dying civilization that had built canals to collect their shrinking water supplies. He was inspired to build a first-rate telescope where, several years later, a young man from Kansas named Clyde Tombaugh would discover Pluto, which used to be a planet, but that’s another story. And while we’ve launched probes at Mars it’s also sent a few interesting items our way, including the meteor known as Big Al. Even though Big Al turned out not to harbor fossilized Martian bacteria it, like Schiaparelli’s canali, inspired a lot of interest not just in Mars but in science. And even though half the spacecraft we’ve sent to Mars either never made it or crashed and burned before even starting their missions we keep going back. So lately looking up at the sky even though I do find Venus and Jupiter pretty interesting I keep turning back to look for Mars, because it brings out the worst and the best in us.

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