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Mars beckons..?


In the rosy afterglow of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebrations, one word, one idea, one dream seems to be on everyone’s lips and in everyone’s minds: Mars

Until this week the phrase  “manned mission to Mars” was whispered fearfully, in corners, like the names “Voldemort” or “Candyman”. But now astronauts, scientists and writers are almost pushing each other out of the way in their rush to talk about Mars, and the value of sending people there. Apollo 11’s Michael Collins wishes he could go, and Buzz Aldrin is desperate to send other people there, even if they don’t come back again. New NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden acknowledges that there’s a smouldering desire within NASA to go to Mars, and seems to feel it too. One newspaper editorial after another is calling upon NASA to be bold again, to break out of its self-imposed exile in Earth orbit and reach out for the Red Planet.

Is there a hint, just a hint, of Mars momentum building…?

Whoah there, Silver! I’m as keen as anyone to send people off to Barsoom, but let’s all just take a deep breath shall we? How likely is a manned mission to Mars by the 60th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic landing on the Moon?

Well, let’s face facts and stop kidding ourselves: countries aren’t queuing up to go to Mars. China, whatever it says, isn’t going to Mars anytime soon. Europe hasn’t got the technology, the money or the experience to go either. The only nation that could possibly go it alone and send a manned expedition to Mars is the US, and that’s just not going to happen anytime soon. It’s becoming painfully clear that President Obama – whose pre-election support for NASA seems to be evaporating faster than a comet that’s flown too near the Sun – is not going to be the visionary supporter of space exploration we all hoped. It’s not his fault, really; the US economy is a mangled, smoking train wreck that’s been hit by a crashing plane, and it’s going to take a helluva lot of fixing, if it even can be fixed. Obama’s review of NASA is either a) a genuine attempt to get NASA back on track, or b) a cunningly-disguised way of cutting NASA’s budget and ambitious plans without being open about it. Either way, if you’re expectantly watching Twitter for news of a “We choose Mars!” speech from Obama you’re in for a long, long wait. Check your wall planners and calendars for the day hell freezes over – it’ll be a week after that.

What about an international mission then? Well – 

Sorry, I was distracted then. A pig flew past the window. 

No, come on, get real. That’s a pipe dream. NASA and ESA have just agreed to work together on the unmanned exploration of Mars, and that’s a generation’s worth of budget-balancing work right there, so any joint manned Mars expedition is way, way beyond that. 

But the real reason why we’re not going to Mars anytime soon has nothing to do with money, and it’s about time we accepted it. 

It’s the classic “elephant in the room” – a huge, looming, unpalatable truth that no-one in the space advocate or space enthusiast communities wants to acknowledge. 


There. I’ve said it. We were all thinking it, but no-one was saying it. Time to face facts. There is, at present, NO public demand – or even support – for a manned mission to Mars. They think it would be a huge amount of money spent for absolutely bugger all practical use. And until space enthusiasts and the space community, and, yes, NASA itself, can give the public a damned good reason for sending people to Mars and not just more rovers, WE ARE NOT GOING TO MARS. 

Frustrating, isn’t it? 

Yes, but you know what’s even more frustrating? We already HAVE that damned good reason to send people to Mars, but it’s ANOTHER elephant in the room; we all know one way to get the public behind a manned expedition to Mars, but no-one will stick their head up out of the trench and say it, for fear of being thought of as impractical, or being ridiculed as the next best thing to a UFO spotter. 

But I don’t care. I’ll say it, right here, right now. The public don’t give a **** about rocks, or salts, or silicon-thick dust. They don’t give a **** about snow falling from the martian sky. They don’t give a **** about the potential for an area of Mars to have had possible microfilms of water in aeons past. 

The only – the ONLY – way NASA or anyone else is going to get the public behind a manned mission to the Red Planet is to make it something they can identify with, something that resonates with them, something they can understand. Something with a finishing line, something that would culminate in a world-stopping TV broadcast. 

The only was the public will support the expense, and danger, of sending a team of astronauts to Mars, from one country or many, is to make their mission a heroic, daring quest – a search for a prize that would either succeed, or fail. 

The only good reason to send people to Mars would be to make their mission a dedicated, focussed search for life on the Red Planet. 

Why? Because, at the end of the day, all this space stuff, it’s all about Life. 

As a species we are fascinated by Life. We are driven, with a ferocious, insatiable hunger, to learn all we can about its origins and fate, strengths and frailties, limitations and possibilities. Justifiably, we spend vast amounts of time, and money, trying to find ways of extending Life. Perversely, we spend even more time and money inventing, building and selling to others weapons to use to destroy Life. 

And we look for Life with an obsessive passion. For centuries we have travelled the globe looking for new forms of Life in dense jungles, under the ocean and now beneath the ice. We are now, with ambition and optimism, starting to search for Life beyond Earth, and are fascinated by the possibility of its existence. That’s why I get such a thrill looking at the sky on a clear night. Whenever I look at Saturn I know that two of its moons, Titan and Enceladus, may be homes for alien. Whenever I look at Jupiter, flickering and flashing in the sky, I feel a giddying tingle when I think about all the places Life may be lurking in that mini solar system of exotic worlds: perhaps underneath the icy crusts of its moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, perhaps even within the storm-wracked clouds of the mighty gas giant itself… If some optimistic exobiologists are right, then perhaps even the acid-saturated clouds of Twinned-With-Hell Venus, the gorgeous Morning Star which blaze above the mountains and fells of my Lake District home, may harbour hardy alien microbes… 

And now, while some astronomers search for primitive Life on the surfaces of Earth’s sister planets with robots, others are designing telescopes that will one day take pictures of Earth-like worlds orbiting other stars. Within a decade we could have the first photo of a “New Terra”, and when it appears on websites, TV screens and the front pages of newspapers around the world that first image of a tiny blue-green world shining like a painted marble against the blackness of deep space will have the same impact as the first Apollo photo showing Earth as a whole disc. And of course, as you read this, SETI astronomers are aiming sensitive electronic ears at the sky, straining to detect whispers from advanced alien civilisations on planets orbiting distant, mysterious stars. 

So, you see, in the end, it’s all about Life. Understanding, encouraging, creating Life – that’s what we, as a species, do. It may even be, in the grand scheme of things, why we’re here in the first place. Maybe the scientists who dedicate their lives to solving the hallowed Drake Equation are wrong, and there are no other civilisations Out There. Someone has to be first, after all. If it’s us, Man, then it might be our role, our responsibility, to spread life across the stars, across the Galaxy, who’s to say otherwise? 

And it’s only the quest for Life, and our desire to understand it, that will take us to Mars. 

Because as much as we like to tell ourselves otherwise, people, The Public, whatever you want to call them, are not excited by, or even interested in, the geology of Mars. Unlike the people who read articles and features on Universe Today, Space.com, UMSF, The Planetary Society blog and all the other space enthusiast-friendly watering holes on the web, they are not excited in the slightest to hear that MRO has taken the highest resolution images yet of craters in the southern highlands. They don’t bat an eyelid at the latest news report describing the Mars Express probe’s latest methane measurements. *** SO WHAT?! *** is the collective response to an announcement that new Themis data suggests Mars was once warmer and wetter than it is now… 

We like to kid ourselves that this isn’t the case, that the Public are as excited by these things as we are, but come on, let’s face it. They’re not. And that’s the truth of it. 

Ah, but even whisper a rumour that Life has been found on a meteorite from Mars, or drop even a hint that a space probe photo shows something artificial on the Red Planet, and boy, do ears prick up! 

Which is why I truly, sincerely believe that there’s only one way we’re going to get people to support a manned mission to Mars – and that’s to make such a mission part of a wider program to search for Life there, and elsewhere in the solar system. 

Forget clouds, people want critters; forget pH levels, people want primitive life-forms; forget mineralogy, people want microbes. 

Thanks to decades of enjoyable but hopelessly over-optimistic science fiction, The Public have “aliens” in their hearts, minds and souls, and there is a fascination with the subject of extraterrestrial life that grows stronger and deeper every year. There are many different camps, of course. While many – most? – are happy to look up on a clear night and, considering the number of stars in and the size of the Universe, and the odds against Man being the only  intelligent species in it, Believe, others believe that aliens buzz the Earth and its inhabitants every day, that the sky is full of cosmic joyriders swooping around in their hot-rod flying saucers with glorious disregard for the world’s air forces and air defence systems, only stopping now and again to either abduct some poor hapless (and, conveniently, always camera-less) truck-driving pig farmer from Idaho, or use the downdraught of their anti-gravity drives to cut breathtaking Mandelbrot set patterns in corn fields. Still others believe that even if the sky is devoid of aliens now, it certainly wasn’t in the past, and that on at least one occasion a UFO crashed, was recovered, and is even now being taken apart, “back-engineered” in the hope of revealing its secrets. You’ll have your own view on that one, I’m sure. 

But why? Why is there this desperate fascination with the existence of aliens? 

Simple. As a species we’re lonely. And we’re scared of the dark. 

Why? Well, ever since we began to realise just how big the Universe is, and how small we are, we’ve had a growing feeling of insecurity and vulnerability. We look out on a clear night and with our naked eyes and can see thousands of stars. A humble pair of binoculars reveals entire other galaxies, vast pinwheels of billions and billions of more stars. Now the Hubble Telescope is taking images showing tens of thousands of galaxies in areas of sky no bigger than a marble held at arm’s length… That’s a lot of space, a lot of stars. It makes us tinier than tiny. If we allowed ourselves to believe that we were the only intelligent creatures in the immensity of the Universe it would drive us mad, so of course we feel lonely, and scared. 

And so we yearn for the company of others. 

We are a social species, Mankind; we want the company of others, it’s bred into us, we’ve evolved that way. Our ancestors didn’t live alone, they didn’t want to, they needed interaction and co-operation so they lived in groups, in families. That hasn’t changed. The building blocks of our civilisation are population centres – towns, cities, etc. And now we know that our “world” stretches out billions of light years in all directions we WANT there to others out there to talk to and interact with, we WANT there to be aliens, we want it SO badly we can taste it. Ideally they’ll be humanoid, with only subtle differences to us – a wrinkled nose here, a pointed ear there – and they’ll speak perfect English (with a West Coast twang) or at least have a handy translator device, so we can talk freely with them and learn all about the secrets of the Universe from our new galactic neighbours. But even if they’re not that familiar, then fine, we still want them around. So what if they’re just transparent globs of gloop drifting aimlessly around in the icy waters beneath Europa’s crust, or mere flaking patches of lichen found underneath a martian rock, or even microscopic bacteria scooped up out of the swirling clouds of Jupiter, they’d be a start, right? Because if there’s gloop, lichen or bacteria here, then surely there must be more advanced life Out There, right? 

And we seem to have a particular obsession with finding Life on Mars. Remember the furore back in ’97, when news broke – prematurely, it turned-out – of the discovery of fossils in a martian meteorite? The world went crazy! The scientists, to be fair, had only been announcing initial results which suggested a possibility of martian life, but as usual the media added two and two to get twenty, and before we knew it every paper’s front page was declaring “We Are Not Alone!” and Bill Clinton really was standing on the White House Lawn – this time without Jodie Foster or James Wood at his side – beaming with pride at how Americans had made the “Greatest Discovery Of All Time”. 

Now, it’s rather calmed down. The last I heard, no-one’s sure either way. But the legacy of that breathless day remains. Ask people on the street, in the bar or in the store if they think there’s life on Mars and it’s a fair bet that they’ll tell you all about the fossils contained within ALH84001 as if the case was proven there on Day 1. As far as they’re concerned, yep, sure there’s life there, it was in the paper after all. 

Which is why, going back to my point, the only way we’re going to get people to support manned exploration of Mars is to focus on the Search For Life there. If we tell people their hard-earned dollars, pounds, Euros or Yen are going to be used to send people to Mars so we can learn more about its weather systems, rock formations or dried-up rivers then they’re not going to want to know. But if we tell them we’re going there to actively look for life, to find out once and for all if there really are “martians”, then they’ll sign up for the ride, I’m sure of it, I really am. 

So we must begin to refocus our Mars exploration efforts towards looking for Life. 


I believe that we have to make sure that every unmanned mission despatched to Mars from now on has a genuine “Life Quest” element. The MSL rover should ONLY be sent to an area deemed promising for Life – not just to some safe area where it’s not likely to tip over or be distracted by anything interesting – and actively sniff, test and LOOK for Life or its traces. Any future orbiters built should image the crumbling rims of the craters with spy satellite resolution, seeing once and for all just what those mysterious gullies are, and see if there really are “wet and warm oases” on canyon floors as some exobiologists hope. 

And we have to go back in time too. I am so, so tired of reading reports in science magazines and on websites debating whether or not Gil Levin’s Viking lander biology experiments did or did not reveal the existence of microbial life in the martian dust. Enough!! Can’t we have a determined effort to solve that riddle once and for all? Can’t we use our 21st century technology to go back and re-examine the Viking tests, try and figure out just what the hell did cause those spikes on the graphs? I mean, for pity’s sake, we can dig up the bones of Neanderthals and tell what they had for their last breakfast, what colour their hair was, what their favourite TV program was, almost. Instead of wasting time, money and energy fighting rumours that Armstrong and co. never actually walked on the Moon, why can’t NASA go back to those intriguing results and see if they can learn anything new, and stop pretending they never happened? At the very least it would help techs design equipment and procedures for future missions. 

And I’ll tell you something else – I’m sick of the rumours and innuendoes and hints and whispers re the data from Phoenix and organics. I know these things take time, but for frak’s sake, tell us what Phoenix found. 

The chances are that martian life won’t be discovered by a lander, mobile laboratory or an eye in the sky, and all our unmanned missions will just show us where Life isn’t to be found on Mars. Fine. Their failures will just tell us where we have to go and look in person. 

It’s always been that way if we’re honest with ourselves. We just have to admit it, bite that bullet, and focus. Yes, the weather systems, geology and other aspects of Mars are all fascinating in their own right, and to the scientists who study those subjects, but now, today, they are not fascinating to the man or woman in the street. 

So. Deep breath. Where do we go from here? 

Like I said, we – and by “we” I mean NASA, politicians and space advocates such as ourselves – focus, and be honest, with ourselves, each other, and the people who we are asking to pay the bill for our dream. We rein-in all the noble speeches about it being our “destiny to explore” and put on mental hold, if only for a while, our lofty plans for colonisation and terraforming, because until the question of native martian life is solved they’re Not Going To Happen Anyway. We make a case for going to Mars based on one simple thing that everyone can understand – we want an answer to the question that haunts us more than any other: Are We Alone? 

In short, we have to put the adventure back into space exploration by MAKING it an adventure. Why, 40 years later, are the public still fascinated and excited by Apollo? Simple: the Apollo missions each WENT somewhere, DID something, brought stuff BACK and we all felt a PART of it. The Apollo program filled the watching world – at a time when the world was falling apart – with wonder.  

Today, four decades after Armstrong walked on the Moon, we’ve lost the wonder of going into space. Actually, “going into space” today just means Going to and from the space station, and whether that’s done in a shuttle or a capsule it is seen (wrongly) by the public as boring, mundane, routine. The case for returning to the Moon hasn’t been made by NASA, people out here just aren’t into it. A manned mission to an asteroid? Zzzzzzzzzzzz. 

Ah, but a mission to Mars, to look for life..? That’s a whole different ball game. 

So. It’s time. Time to stop delaying, and reviewing, and frakking about. It’s time to stop being timid, to playing safe, and grow a pair. It’s time to say: 

“We choose to go to Mars… we choose to go to Mars, to send our bravest, brightest men and women far from the blue Earth, across the solar system to the Red Planet, to look for the answer to the most important question faced by Mankind: are we alone?” 

So say we all?

6 Responses

  1. Good essay. However, there is one great rarely voiced truth about searching for life on Mars (and indeed the rest of the solar system) that people often conveniently ignore. If that newly discovered life turns out to share a common origin with terrestrial life it will tell us nothing whatsoever about how frequently life arises elesewhere in the universe. We need to find life that originated independently.

    Personally, I’m very enthusiastic about Mars as the new frontier, a New World upon which the next pages of the book of civilisation will be written. Call me an unreconstructed Zubrinite or an overzealous Kim Stanley Robinson fan if you will, that’s how I feel!

  2. You have some great words there and basically that “spirit of adventure” you are talking about has been lost. You are right in that assertion. The missions sent to Mars have been amazing feats of engineering but unfortunately were constrained by political agendas and budget restraints. You talk of “the search for life” as a lightning rod for “why” the public might get interested and your examples do prove that people are indeed fascinated by that “life quest”.

    But what if we find nothing? We will have spent billions, if not trillions, on a fruitless search for nothing.

    I’ll go you one better for “why” we should go- To create life on mars. There, I said it. Yes, to create a unique civilization and biosphere on that red star in the sky so that we humans who are “afriad of the dark” can look into the night sky and know that someone else really was out there. Sure, it would be just more humans, but the fact that we have neighbors on a planet so far away will seem like aliens to most of us here on Earth.

    What really gets people excited- to the point that they’ll actually devote their own money? The potential that they too might visit, or live on an alien world. If that world has its own civilization (human or not), will be a great attractor. The search for life needs to be a bold adventure, and I think even your words are too timid on the subject.

    We are talking about searching every inch of a planet with as much land area as all of Earth’s continents combined. The only way you can do justice to a “search for life” is to settle Mars. Heck, we have been exploring earth for millenia and we still haven’t finished. A few noble NASA missions won’t answer that question, no way. You’ll need an infrastructure and multitudes of people working over decades, people that will need robust settlements so they can conduct an agressive search for life. Lonely science outposts are not enough.

    Are we alone? No one knows, but if we are going to find out, we better do it right. We better make sure our explorers can “live off the land” and live on Mars for years at a time to get our best chance at answering these questions.

    But like I said before- One thing we can do is spread life to mars. Suddenly we would see a new evolution on a new planet, and we would not be alone. Years would pass by and by that strange mix of environment and genetics, a new, alien world, filled with martians and martian biology will emerge. It will be a distinct and wonderous thing.

    All those years ago, humans looked up at the Moon, and for a few days knew that they were not alone. We can, and should do this again, whether life is found or not. That’s what we are pushing for at Marsdrive.

    Well written article all the same, and I agree totally with your take on the public not caring about any of this. You just need to understand though that for Mars to be explored in the kind of depth you are hoping for, it is simply too far away to keep sending all our hardware there all the time. It will be too slow and costly that way. Self sufficient Mars settlements will give a much faster return on investment for exploration than the occaisonal science trek. If we are going to inspire people, let’s look at all elephants in the room.

  3. OK then…let’s not send people to mars, but let’s do start developing a real space station in one of the geostable positions from which we can send missions to both the moon and mars and the asteroids and while developing the know how to bring space based solar power systems into reality. Obama’s shown some promising interest in using prize money as opposed to government contracts to inspire innovative designs from a burgeoning industry.
    Agreed that the old system of getting there is just not likey to happen soon, but there are reasons and motivations aplenty aside from the archaic notions of the space race and the cold war.

  4. It is not “Should we”, “Why” or “When”. We are already going and we are already a presence on Mars. There are numerous companies springing-up that are solving the trivial to major obstacles in designing spacecraft, living quarters, suits, habitats, tools, instruments, etc.
    SpaceX, Bigelow, Virgin Galactic, etc. Many countries have their own space programs also. Why plan a small, short trip to the moon when you can have the Grand Adventure of a settlement on Mars?
    A perusal of the external links on the Mars Society website
    illuminates the varied interests of a large group of people.
    If ships start traveling back and forth to the Moon in the near future and, in twenty years, several independent expeditions are launched towards Mars (which I find highly likely), then most of the Moon industries will immediately start retrofitting themselves to join the journeys to Mars.
    I say that the Future is a partnership between Mars and Earth and the Moon will fade back into the romantic apparition in the sky that it is now.

  5. Your words ” . . . decades of enjoyable but hopelessly over-optimistic science fiction,” could also be considered “preparation.”

  6. Thank you. Let’s hope this gets to the President’s desk.
    David Allen

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