You can learn all you need to know about a culture by studying its attitudes regarding Mars. This has been true since at least 1877, when the notion of Mars as real estate became a matter of public speculation. That year, Giovanni Schiaparelli, a Milanese astronomer, observed that the surface of the red planet was crosshatched by a network of intersecting canali. Though canali denoted “channels”—likely caused by erosion or meteor showers—credulous Americani translated the word as “canals,” which was taken to mean giant public-works projects overseen by industrious Martians. This had deep significance in 1877, when canals had come to represent the pinnacle of human achievement. The surveying of the Panama Canal had just gotten under way, and the Suez Canal had been completed eight years earlier. These were proud accomplishments, but the Martians, it now appeared, were well ahead of us, having built a vast network that appeared to increase in size and complexity upon each subsequent observation. The canal race was on.
Over the next thirty years, an amateur astronomer named Percival Lowell, of the Boston Lowells, discovered nearly five hundred additional Martian canals. A 1906 issue of the New York Times Magazine ran a front-page feature about Lowell under the headline there is life on the planet mars. It began: “Legions of canals on Mars, forming a colossal and a widely planned system designed to irrigate the oases of the vast planet, are an unanswerable argument for the existence of conscious, intelligent life.” On January 1, 1910, as concrete was first being laid for the construction of the Panama locks, a front-page Times headline declared, mars building new canals (“The Martians are making the dirt fly”). Eighteen months later, the paper published a follow-up dispatch: MARTIANS BUILD TWO IMMENSE CANALS IN TWO YEARS: VAST ENGINEERING WORKS ACCOMPLISHED IN AN INCREDIBLY SHORT TIME BY OUR PLANETARY NEIGHBORS—¬WONDERS OF THE SEPTEMBER SKY.
Here, at the peak of the industrial age, was the ultimate motivation to push harder, to reach new heights of production and innovation. An astronomy professor at Iowa’s Charles City College predicted that advanced telescopes would soon make it possible “to see cities on Mars, to detect navies in its harbors and the smoke of great manufacturing cities and towns.” The Martian canals measured one thousand miles long and twenty miles wide—“in comparison,” as one journalist pointed out, “the cañon of the Colorado River would be a secondary affair.” If the Martians could build two immense canals in two years, why should it take us half a century to plow such diminutive ditches as the Suez and the Panama? Buck up, earthlings!
Radicals, meanwhile, greeted the news about the canals with a spirit of vindicated satisfaction. There was, after all, only one possible explanation for such rapid expansion of the Martian infrastructure: the mass mobilization of the proletariat. Russian writer Aleksandr Bogdanov published a pair of novels—Red Star (1908) and Engineer Menni (1913)—relating the adventures of a comrade who travels to the red planet and discovers a socialist utopia. The Martians have constructed the canals for irrigation, rendering the planet’s vast deserts habitable. The canals serve “as a powerful stimulus to economic development at the same time as they firmly reinforced the political unity of all mankind.” On a tour of the planet, he learns that all men on Mars speak a single language, workers are entitled to an unlimited supply of goods, men and women are nearly indistinguishable in their attire (loose-fitting bodysuits are très chic), and the sun hangs like a cherry over the horizon. Even the salad greens—“socialist vegetation”—are red.
This notion of an advanced Martian race persisted in post–World War II science fiction, despite the discrediting of the canal theory in the years since Lowell’s discoveries. Jack Williamson’s Seetee novels in the early fifties rely upon a not-particularly-subtle analogy: after several world wars, the fascists invade Mars and institute a planet-wide holiday called Hitler Day. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) depicts the planet alternately as a triumph of racial desegregation, a libertarian utopia (the colonists “come to Mars to get away from being instructed and ruled and pushed around”), and a refuge from atomic war. Disillusioned Earthmen float down canals “filled with emptiness and dreams.”
Voguish postcolonial themes dominated Martian novels and films in the late sixties and beyond. Martian colonists are enslaved, made to work in the mines, and treated brutally; inevitably, they revolt against Earth rule and seek planetary independence. In Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990), based on a 1965 Philip K. Dick short story, laborers blow their meager savings in futurist shopping malls; in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars , Green Mars , Blue Mars ), rapacious multinational corporations threaten the stability of the colonies.
The canals themselves mostly stopped appearing in fiction after 1965, when NASA’s Mariner 4 flew to Mars and confirmed that they did not exist. As it turned out, the canals were an optical illusion, albeit one that persisted for nearly a century. Some scientists supposed that what Lowell and his followers had observed were only streaks of dust caused by wind slapping against mountains and craters. The more common, if less charitable, interpretation is that the canals were completely made up—the product of wishful thinking.
Scientific fact may vary with the season, but wishful thinking never goes out of style. The question of space colonization is now being debated as enthusiastically as ever before, and with good reason: There’s a gigantic amount of money behind it. Our planet may be in the middle of a recession, but the Mars business is booming.
This resurgence of interest is not due to the work of NASA or any other federal space agency. President Obama, in the latest federal budget, has actually eliminated all funding for the manned space program. There are persuasive arguments for this. Unmanned satellite-borne observatories have been responsible for nearly every major scientific discovery NASA has made. It is more dangerous, expensive, and complicated to send astronauts to do work that robots can do better.
But why allow the federal government to do work that corporations can do better? Space Exploration Technologies, Earth’s first privately operated manned spaceflight program, has replaced NASA as our best hope for Mars. SpaceX, a kind of Halliburton of the space industry, builds and designs its own low-budget rockets and space consoles. It is already turning a profit, having won a $1.6 billion federal contract to ferry supplies to the International Space Station; it has also signed deals to shoot telecom satellites into orbit. Though the aerospace industry is shrinking, SpaceX employs nearly one thousand staff members and continues to expand. Among the fresh hires are several NASA astronauts who have realized that if they want to fly, they’ll have to seek employment elsewhere. They’ll have to hustle for the few opportunities that present themselves. Astronauts, once the heroes and wizards of the space age, are now freelancers.
Our new wizard is SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, a thirty-nine-year-old South African who was one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the internet bubble era. His first start-up, which helped newspapers to digitize their business and events listings, sold for $307 million in 1999; next he founded PayPal, which he eventually sold for $1.5 billion. He owns an electric-car company that sells plug-in automobiles, but SpaceX is the business dearest to him. Over time, he believes, the human spaceflight market will far surpass the satellite market in profitability. A true believer, he speaks about his business with a gawky blend of corporate-speak and eschatology: “Extending life beyond Earth was my driver,” he says of the motivation behind SpaceX. “The notion of planetary redundancy is defensible as the most powerful thing to ensure long-term survival.” Long-term survival is not his only driver, however. “My goal is to open up space and make it [accessible to] the average person,” he says. “If they save up a lot.”
In the short term, there are reasons besides satellites to think that space can be lucrative. Charles Simonyi, the billionaire software developer behind Microsoft Office, paid the Russians an estimated $35 million to hitch a ride to the International Space Station. For a meager $200,000, you can reserve a ticket to a suborbital ride with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space fleet (flights begin next year).
There’s also the enticing prospect of galactic mining. Asteroids are thought to contain massive deposits of valuable metals. The first near-Earth asteroid ever detected, 433 Eros, has more gold and silver than could ever be mined from Earth, as well as enormous quantities of platinum and other rare metals. In 2001, NASA sent a probe to Eros. It circled the asteroid for about three months, then landed safely and conducted an additional week of tests. The full cost of the mission was $224 million. The rock has been estimated to be worth more than a quintillion dollars.
A more high-minded argument derives from concerns about Earth’s environmental sustainability. Some environmental writers have cited Mars as an example of global warming gone terminal (“the dead planet”)—or, more optimistically, as a tabula rasa that presents us with the chance to start all over again. It would be, as Arthur C. Clarke put it, a “new Eden.”
It’s true that Mars is, after Earth, one of the most hospitable places we’ve found, but that’s not saying much. If you stepped out into space without a space suit, you would die in seconds; on Mars it would take nearly two full minutes before you lost your mind, all the water in your body vaporized, and your circulatory system collapsed. At noon, on its equator, Mars reaches a humane seventy degrees Fahrenheit, though by evening the temperature declines between one and two hundred degrees. There may or may not be underground reservoirs of water. The atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide. Even in a space suit, long-term exposure to the low gravitational force would cause decreased blood flow to the brain, muscle and bone deterioration, and organ failure.
And were we to build some kind of climate-controlled dome society (modeled, perhaps, after the colony in Total Recall), there is still the problem of cosmic radiation. The radiation exposure one would receive after a single year on Mars is equivalent to as much as six times the lifetime limit for astronauts—who already have abnormally high cancer rates. After several years on Mars, human inhabitants would develop any number of cancers, as well as brain damage, infertility, and blindness.
For all these reasons, as well as aesthetic considerations, the most widely accepted proposal for Mars colonization is the theory of terraforming, a term coined by Jack Williamson in his science fiction. The idea is that we would transform the Martian desert into a replica of Earth, in the fashion of, say, Dubai. We could create man-made rivers and lakes and oceans, man-made forests dense with man-made trees, man-made soil, and man-made rain that would yield, over time, an atmosphere suitable for human life. This would amount, in other words, to reverse global warming—a positive example of environmental tampering. If we are powerful enough to destroy a planet, the logic goes, shouldn’t we be able to engineer a new one?
Researchers at NASA propose that today it is technologically possible to transform the Martian climate. The process would begin with the construction of a large, nuclear-powered factory, designed for the sole purpose of spewing chlorofluorocarbons into the air. This would gradually raise the atmospheric pressure and surface temperature. In several decades, Mars’s polar ice caps would melt and we could begin to plant trees. Up to several centuries later, according to the NASA literature, we should have enough oxygen to do without oxygen masks, and an ozone layer to protect us from cosmic radiation.
The pioneers of terraforming have proposed some impressive ideas. If only they could be applied to the planet we already have, which in the next few centuries may well develop as toxic an environment as the one on Mars. Earth could use a good terraforming. It would come at a better value, too. Were we somehow able to scrub clean our toxic skies, pump oxygen into the atmosphere, and regenerate pristine oceans and forests, the idea of fleeing for another planet might lose some of its urgency.
The secret about the debate over life on Mars is that science has not advanced very far since the days of Schiaparelli. As the planetologist Kevin Zahnle says, “The most interesting information remains right at the limits of resolution.… Always life on Mars seems just beyond the fields that we know.” It may remain that way for the conceivable future.
But there is one persistent argument that ensures the Mars debate will not end, at least not any time soon. It requires immensely long-term thinking—in geological rather than human time—but on its own terms its logic is unimpeachable. It goes like this: Even if we manage to avert climate catastrophe or nuclear Armageddon, other equally damaging disasters will occur. Asteroids, like the one that annihilated the dinosaurs, will hit us again. Ice ages will come and go, stripping the continents bare of life. The supervolcano that lies beneath Yellowstone National Park has erupted three times in the last 2 million years; each eruption came close to exterminating all life on Earth, suffocating North America beneath a foot of hot ash, and covering the entire globe with clouds of dust that blocked out the sun for a full year. The last eruption was 640,000 years ago; the next one, as far as we can tell, is due.
It’s unlikely that any of these things will happen in the next hundred or thousand years—but they will happen. And even if we should somehow reverse the coming ice ages and knock down the asteroids and defuse the volcanoes, there is still the problem of the expanding sun, which in a billion years will have boiled all life on Earth (Mars will remain inhabitable for another several billion). No matter how much we invest in repairs, our eviction notice will come then.
Mars enthusiasts are a diverse lot—libertarians, primarily, though also high-minded profiteers, entrepreneurs, technophiles, Trekkies, jilted ex-NASA engineers, and billionaire hobbyists—but most of them congregate under the umbrella of a nonprofit organization called the Mars Society. It has nearly eight thousand official members, including Elon Musk, Buzz Aldrin, and James Cameron. In a recent essay published on the Mars Society’s website, Cameron praised President Obama’s decision to support commercial space exploration. “NASA is empowering American free enterprise,” he writes. “This is the path that can make our dreams in space a reality.” The title of Cameron’s essay is “Rockets Run on Dreams.”
The founder and president of the Mars Society is Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer with libertarian views who runs an aerospace company in Colorado. Although Zubrin endorses most arguments made for Mars exploration, he is a particularly effusive supporter of a space-age manifest destiny doctrine. In his pronouncements on the subject, he channels the spirit of the homesteaders and the Wild West, advocating “living off the land” and a “frontier” life that would “create a practical can-do culture.” The “intelligent use of local resources [was] the way the West was won… and it’s also the way Mars can be won.” There are limits to the frontier analogy, both in terms of clarity and good taste, though Zubrin appears oblivious to this. In defense of his dogma, he has argued that “by developing the American West we have created a place that millions of Mexicans are trying to get into.” He is not trying to be ironic.
Zubrin’s Mars would be a libertarian fantasy come to life: Natural resources would be free for the taking, for instance, and there would be no laws governing occupations. As he has put it, “The Martian frontier could be like the frontier in the American West, where you didn’t need a license to be a doctor. If you got good results, you had a clientele. If you had bad results, you were lynched.” The only problem with unleashing the market’s stern discipline on the Red Planet is that, given the low gravity, lynching would be more bothersome than fatal.
The Mars Society has followers all over the world, with local chapters in such countries as Croatia, Mexico, and Antarctica. It does not disclose how much money it raises, but it is apparently enough to support two continuously operating Mars Analog Research Stations (MARS). The centerpiece of a MARS station is a white cylindrical pod, eight meters in diameter, mounted on landing struts. The stations are located in deserts in Utah and on Devon Island, in the Canadian Arctic. Teams of four to six crew members live in each one for missions that last several weeks, or even months, at a time, performing experiments that might serve as a preparation for life on Mars. Last winter the Utah site celebrated its ninetieth mission with its first all-Belgian crew. The six-person team included a meteorologist, a geologist, a journalist, and an astronomer, the latter a seventeen-year-old girl who plans to study physics next year at the University of Liège.
During their two-week expedition, the Belgians collected fossils for study, conducted plant-growth experiments, and corresponded with classrooms throughout Belgium. The mission commander filed reports every day. Here are some representative excerpts:
2/9/10: Some of us have headaches due to the dry air and four of us had a bloody nose the last two days.
2/10/10: Some of us have headache and throat pain.… It was a beautiful day, but some of us didn’t feel optimal today.
2/13/10: Crew physical status: Good, [one crew member] had a bloody nose.… The water use is quite high, despite the fact we economise. We noticed we need about 5 liters per person per day for food and drinks. Washing dishes we do in only one can. Only 2 short showers a day. So my question is: What’s the average use of previous crews per week?
2/14/10: Crew physical status: Good, we all recovered well by going out by jeep the whole day.
2/15/10: The lack of dedication to the mission of some people overloads the others and it had to be spoken out. The problem was already there from the first day, when it came out that some people didn’t prepare anything for the mission, didn’t look at the manuals, which were send to them months ago and didn’t even prepare the tasks for their own role. The accusation into my direction that I didn’t brief enough about the systems was too much. Nicky almost exploded. Arjan reacted double: At one hand he couldn’t stop criticising the incompetence of some others during last week, but during the discussion he acted as if he was from Barcelona (don’t know anything). He has his own mission and own world.
2/16/10: Crew physical status: Good, despite three of us had bloody noses and irritation at the eyes.
2/17/10: Crew physical status: Good, Nora had a bleeding nose after using the vacuum cleaner.
2/19/10: We all enjoyed this mission, learned a lot and are very grateful to have had the opportunity to be the first entirely Belgian crew at MDRS.
The seventeen-year-old astronomer, in her final report on the expedition, wrote, “The station was not that clean and comfortable, but it didn’t prevent us from having fun.”
Our vision of Mars is always earthbound. The grand strategy of terraforming is itself an analogy: Mars as Earth. If Musk and his investors have their way, we may see private clients splurging on interplanetary trips in our lifetime. As long as they save up a lot, they may even be able to claim their own piece of Martian turf, which promises to be as unpoliced, untaxed and unsupervised as Wyoming. (Musk, for his part, has had some trouble with his own savings: according to documents filed last summer during his divorce trial, he is flat broke, subsisting on loans from friends. The demands of his lifestyle, meanwhile, require him to spend more than two hundred thousand dollars a month on personal expenses. His businesses, he claims, have not been affected.)
But suppose that the science comes around and life on Mars becomes possible. Might our utopian dreams finally be realized? Perhaps several hundred years from now, the descendants of the first mega-rich Americans to settle permanently on Mars will wake up one day on a planet that looks exactly like Earth. Men will be taller there, and stronger, and will have reached a post-racial state in which they’ll all resemble Polynesians. But their wonder will be intact. As soon as they take their first breath of oxygen, they will go exploring. They will peer down into the depths of the Valles Marineris, a system of canyons seven times deeper than the Grand Canyon. They will swim in crater lakes and hike mountains lined with spruce trees genetically engineered to produce vast quantities of oxygen. They will visit the patches of red desert that, out of some sentimental notion, have been preserved in their original state. Silent machines will drill deep into the planet’s crust and retrieve minerals that can be converted into energy and raw material goods. Apartment towers will rise into the pinkish sky, oriented at just the right angle to afford their inhabitants pleasant views of Earth every night before they go to sleep. As they stare back at their ancestral home, they’ll rest easy, knowing that they can finally put aside their old concerns. Here will be the chance to start anew in a virgin civilization, unblemished by the past. Nothing from the old world will have remained—and thank goodness for that.
Then an ugly thought will sneak into their slightly elongated heads. No matter how much they try to dismiss it, the idea will lurk and fester. Mars, it will dawn on them, will already have been infiltrated by contaminants from the old world. They’ll be everywhere, tramping all over the new planet, spreading, shoving, grasping: people, people, and more people, as recognizably human as ever, with all the violent instincts and pettiness and ignorance. The frontier will close up, the old institutions will return, and suddenly, just like that, Venus will start looking like a nice place to call home.