For the Love of Mars

The members of the Mars Society are united in their frontier vision of the Red Planet, but fiercely at odds on the nature of the Martian society they'll construct.

By Oliver Morton|Monday, February 01, 1999
"Mars," the physicist and science fiction author Gregory Benford tells me, "is like the moon"--he pauses for effect--"with bad weather." We're sitting close to the boisterous but well-managed mountain creek that runs through Boulder, Colorado. The sky is blue, the sun hot, the wooded hills gloriously green except where red sandstone thrusts itself into the sweet-smelling air. We are sampling, in Sunday lunchtime moderation, the various offerings of one of the town's oldest microbreweries, from a light pilsner to an oatmeal stout. If you avoid the beer made with blueberries, this is about as nice a setup as the planet has to offer. And yet, up the hill on the campus of the University of Colorado, hundreds of earnest people are talking about the need to head out for small, cold, inclement Mars--a place that, as Benford points out, is not just nastier than idyllic Boulder. It's nastier than anywhere on Earth.

In most people's minds Boulder is an Earth-first kind of place. But for a certain crowd it is inextricably linked to matters Martian. In the 1980s a bunch of graduate students and fellow travelers started holding conferences about Mars here. When NASA was resolutely ignoring the Red Planet to concentrate on space shuttles, this Mars underground was dedicated to telling the world how scientifically vital and technologically feasible Mars exploration was. Now aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin is trying to turn the enthusiasm of those Case for Mars conferences into a mass movement, a new Mars Society. Over a weekend last August some 700 enthusiasts arrived for the society's founding convention, submitting themselves to four days of discussion in the University Memorial Center. They are passionate about getting to Mars. And for many, paradoxically, the very attraction of Mars is that it is distant and nasty. For them, Earth is just a bit too soft. It is comfortable, even decadent. They think we need the challenges of a new frontier and that Mars, which has all the resources needed for a self-sustaining settlement, can provide them. Like the children of the sixties that many of them are, they have a dream. And with technologically educated imaginations, they have projected it onto another planet.

Pro-Mars, Anti-Eden Just before ten o'clock on Thursday morning, Zubrin is working himself up to the climax of his opening address to the conference. He has told the assembled throng how to get to Mars; now he's telling them why to go.

Mankind, says Zubrin, has always grown through adversity. "We did not get thrown out of Eden because we ate from the tree of knowledge. We ate from the tree of knowledge because we left Eden." The great migration from the African savanna on which we evolved to inhospitable Ice Age Eurasia was the beginning of a long history of new necessities mothering new inventions. Now the hardships are behind us. Only with a new frontier to conquer will we rise to greater technological and human heights. And when we do, Zubrin tells us, the Mars Society and what it did will be remembered. He invokes Pericles' funeral oration for the dead of the Peloponnesian War, in which the statesman asserted that the Athens they had died for would be remembered forever. He tells us of our descendants on scattered, distant worlds who will look back in wonder at what we did at this turning point. He offers us not just a new world for settling but the immortality of writing a new chapter in human history.

Most of the audience knows this stuff. It's been reiterated in Zubrin's many speeches over the past decade. It's in his book, The Case for Mars, the response to which inspired him to start the Mars Society. But they like the message, and Zubrin is giving it all he's got. He's not tall, he has a slightly comical face and a tendency to scowl, and his hair is often unruly. But he is full of fire. He's inspirational and funny--often at the expense of people who don't get the vision. He's sincere. And he works hard (all the harder this morning since the microphone's busted). The standing ovation was never really in doubt, but he earned it.

In the late 1980s, while working at Martin Marietta down in Denver, Zubrin came up with a new way to get people to Mars. Not a breakthrough technology but a way of combining a number of then current but nonmainstream ideas into a mission profile that looked remarkably cheap. The key lay in tackling Mars as two separate problems--getting there and getting back. The first could be solved with existing technology; the second could be managed with a crewless mission that could make fuel for the return journey on the Martian surface before the first explorers even left Earth. Zubrin and his colleague David Baker called this plan Mars Direct because the spacecraft involved would be small enough to be launched to Mars straight from Cape Canaveral. And Zubrin set out to get it accepted.

"Traditional" plans for crewed Mars missions involved huge spacecraft built in orbit. These, to Zubrin, are the Death Stars--too big, too slow to develop, and too expensive ever to be feasible. In the early nineties, Death Stars were NASA's Mars missions of choice. Now, in large part thanks to Zubrin's efforts, NASA talks of a much more feasible mission, "Mars semi-direct," that could be mounted for less than the total cost of the International Space Station. But it's just talk. NASA has no active plans for putting people on Mars.

So, having made the case to aerospace engineers that we can get to Mars, Zubrin wants to convince the rest of the world that we should. That's where the Mars Society comes in. It's a lobby, a scientific network, maybe something of a cult. Its members in Boulder are predominantly male (though perhaps less so than a typical aerospace engineering crowd), mostly American, overwhelmingly white. A striking number had ponytails. Quite a few had memorable T-shirt slogans: NUCLEAR POWER--JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT (as worn by those who decommission nuclear submarines); EVIL GENIUSES FOR A BETTER TOMORROW (as worn only by George William Herbert, one of the presiding spirits of the newsgroup).

Some are scientists devoted to Mars--Mars underground agitators, grown up and respected. Others are aerospace engineers. Some are artists; some are priests. And many are just believers, either longtime space activists or newcomers who have read Zubrin's book and want to make it happen.

Anarchy Rules "It's a frontier. People are supposed to die. That's the point," shouts an exasperated Australian. On Saturday afternoon, in a lecture theater at the chemistry school, a session titled "The Need for Law on Mars" has gone off on a tangent about the labeling of pharmaceuticals. Edward Hudgins, a libertarian from the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., is giving a paper on a Martian utopia with no central government. A woman in the audience has suggested that the autonomous free-trading communities he sees participating in the creation of a new civilization through the emergence of spontaneous order might want to be sure about the safety of things they trade with one another. Hudgins says that they wouldn't need government for that and that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is a bad thing. The woman demurs, on the basis that it saves lives; the Australian makes his trenchant intervention. The other attendees make noises of agreement--government bureaucracies are something they can do without.

But what of government itself? Zubrin is neutral on the question. If the government mounted a first-rate long-term Mars settlement project that he thought made sense, he'd be all for it. If it offered a prize to recompense private Mars missions, he'd be for that too. If the private sector showed an ability to go it alone, well, that would be just fine. For all his worries about overregulation, he's not viscerally opposed to all forms of government. What admirer of Periclean Athens could be?

Hudgins sees it differently. He wants to go to Mars because there is no government there. Besides, going to Mars without government help would be a wonderful symbol. In many minds, the Apollo project is the greatest example of what a national government can achieve. Private settlement of Mars would undermine that belief, showing that there is no public-sector achievement that private enterprise could not better.

There's a fair amount of antigovernment rhetoric around the University Memorial Center this weekend. Most of it stems not from a deeply felt ideological view like Hudgins's but from disillusionment. The poignancy of Mars is not just that it is attainable, it is that many people think it should already have been attained. The literature of their youth told them so. And yet since the successes of Apollo there has been not just stasis in space exploration but retreat. Feeling let down by government in this, many would-be Martians turn to the private sector. They compare the costs of Mars exploration to movies and the Olympics. They look at lotteries, bond issues, and sponsorship. They talk of the breakthroughs that could be made if NASA were to get out of the way.

But there are two problems here. One is that no private company will put up the funds to go to Mars without cheaper, more reliable space technology and the promise of real profit. So it might make sense in the 2020s or 2030s, but not anytime soon. The second is that for quite a few of the convention participants, a lot of this stuff is simply not fitting. Do you really want to go to Mars as a TV show? Sponsored by Tang? Isn't that, as more than one speaker from the floor seemed to feel in a session on nongovernmental paths to Mars, crass commercialism? Isn't Mars better than that? Sacred even?

Enter the Arcadians By Sunday morning I'm looking at nineteenth-century landscape paintings. Not all the society members are here--there are four other sessions going on at the same time, as there have been for most of the weekend. Next door there is Philosophical Impact of Mars Exploration (sample presentation: "Global Dialogue Toward the Genesis of Life on Mars and Beyond"); downstairs you can find Mars Base Technology ("Design Considerations for a Mars Tractor"), Mars and Public Policy ("Why NASA Might Never Launch a Manned Mission"), and Timekeeping and Calendar Systems for Mars ("A Mars Proleptic Calendar and Sol-Date Timing Reference"). The landscapes, though, have drawn a fair number of folks, and deservedly.

The man showing the slides is Richard Poss, a professor of humanities at the University of Arizona. He's arguing that paintings of Mars by contemporary artists like Pat Rawlings and Michael Carroll--who's in the audience--echo the romantic landscape tradition implanted in America by Thomas Cole and his student Frederic Edwin Church. These painters created a tradition of "radiant rendering" that legitimized a spiritual relationship with the wilderness. But Cole, Church, and their peers were idealizing a world already passing. Their canvases of dramatic, uninhabited vistas left out the people and the technologies that were settling America. The Martian artists, on the other hand, celebrate the presence of humans and their handiwork, while retaining a sense of the sacred in the wilderness around them. This technologically progressive romanticism sums up a sort of Martian arcadia--perhaps the vaguest, and probably the most widely felt, of all the dreams projected onto the Red Planet.

Take Don Scott, an education specialist at NASA's Ames Research Center and a former park ranger, who's sitting across the aisle from me in shorts and a fisherman's vest, watching Poss's slides with delight. Like Zubrin mourning the closing of the frontier, he too is moved by an earlier vision of America. But when Scott thinks of Mars' mountains and canyons and deserts (unavoidably reminiscent of the American West), it is not with the pragmatic hope of resuming an interrupted tale of triumph over adversity. Mars is where something new and better starts. It is a beautiful blank slate.

This awed response to nature and its possibilities fits snugly with the main scientific reason for traveling to Mars--life. The search for traces of life beyond Earth has no more promising prospects than Mars, regardless of whether one believes in the reported evidence of former life in Martian meteorite ALH 84001. And Martian life could be completely new, completely alien--something not of our planet's history, evidence of a new beginning elsewhere and elsewhen.

To find the fossil traces of Martian life that many hope for--perhaps, just possibly, to find something still alive, deep within the planet's crust--will require people. At present, a six-month rover mission delivers less science than a field geologist on a half-hour stroll, and there is little prospect of the robots overtaking us anytime soon. The search for life on Mars is a scientific goal that, in many eyes, is worth the hassle of sending people into space (unlike the research to be done on the International Space Station). And it is a search that, in its respect for nature, complements the idealized otherness of Mars that moves its arcadian enthusiasts. It offers the discovery of something utterly alien, primitive, but once alive: a second genesis.

All Together In the original Mars underground, in much of science fiction, and in the Mars Society, the idea of Mars having once fostered life has become inextricably bound to the dream of getting it to do so again. This "terraforming" is the grandest Martian aspiration on offer. It means reshaping its land, thickening its atmosphere, releasing its stored water, breaking its oxygen free from the carbon dioxide in which it is now trapped, and generally making the planet more hospitable. Terraforming is the most literal-minded working out of the proposition that Mars can be a New World--and it is a New World where ideals begin to clash, as they did at the convention's open forum on terraforming.

To anti-Edenists, like Zubrin--who made up most of the platform at the session--terraforming is the frontier we need. It's our Manifest Destiny; we will make for ourselves the territory we require--our new lebensraum--just as we always have (both loaded terms were used with the cheerful abandon of those who don't fuss with liberal sensibilities when there are solar systems to rearrange). To the arcadians, like Scott, such talk is dangerous: Manifest Destiny was a slogan of nineteenth-century American genocide and racism. Mars, they say, is a fresh start, a place to get away from guilty historical baggage. It deserves respect. If some remnants of the Martian genesis remain, some have suggested, perhaps planetary engineering should re-create an environment optimized for them, not us. Political correctness, comes the reply--Martian life, if it ever existed, will have been a set of primitive, oxygen-hating variations on the theme of gangrene, worth studying and preserving but without any claim to ecological rights. What arrogance, returns the floor. By the end of the debate a lot of people are really quite cross--a remarkable thing, considering how far-off, in both time and space, these Martian issues are.

That they care, though, is perhaps the most revealing testament to the peculiar way dreams of Mars mingle science and idealism. Mars is mostly seen by all concerned in terms of America, measured against a frontier barely a century and a half from the Colorado campus and against a sense of sacred wilderness less than a day's drive away. But Mars is not another America. We have its measure in advance; it will be surveyed far better than Lewis and Clark could manage before the first human boot touches the dust, its physical potential known in every detail. In many ways, it is already more real than America was to most Europeans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We have theories of its past and engineering specifications for its future. It is all already mapped.

At the same time, none of it has been experienced. No one knows the soft pull of its gravity, the sound of its thin winds whistling over shelters, the chill of its sunrises, the irritation of its dust. It is like a great truth, impervious to the flow of human opinion or commerce. Our vision of Mars is constrained by science yet free of history, and that is what makes it such a place for dreaming. Real enough but not too real; not human, but waiting.

The Mars Society's disagreements over terraforming are relatively small. For the time being, their dreams, even if they do not all match each other, are enough to bind the members of the society together. They left the convention with pledges to recruit more members, to lobby for more missions, to protest budget cuts, to argue the case for Mars to everyone. They founded new chapters both here and abroad (the total is now 70). They will work toward sending a probe of their own, piggybacking on someone else's rocket--perhaps a balloon to drift the planet's skies and reveal its grander horizons. If all goes according to plan, they hope to set up a small base in the Canadian Arctic by next year as a prototype for aspects of Mars exploration.

And they will educate. As Don Scott points out, the children who will grow up to go to Mars are, in all likelihood, in school today. And it is they who will see the consummation of the alien and the attainable that the dreamers of the society, in their different ways, so desire.
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