Going to Mars…or at least gazing at it

Hike the solar system’s largest canyon, Valles Marineris on Mars, where you can catch blue sunsets in the twilight, and see the two moons of Mars (Phobos and Deimos) in the night sky. (NASA | KSC)

Mars is still brilliant at dinnertime. Even though its super-close visit happened in late July, and even though Earth keeps zooming away from it at 66,000 miles an hour, it’s still the sky’s brightest “star” between 6:30 and 8 p.m. Simply look far left of where the Sun set. It’s that brilliant orange “star.” You can’t miss it.

Last week my friend Jay attended a Big Apple NASA lecture whose subject was “Going to Mars.” It’s a topic that generates a surprisingly large amount of passion. Maybe it’s time to review our strange Martian connection.


When this Night Sky column started running, astronauts had been walking on the Moon just two years earlier, so going to celestial bodies was a current-events topic and Mars was the obvious next step. If we could pull off the successful Apollo Moon missions in less than a decade, and now in the mid-’70s had acquired a lot of space technology, surely astronauts would be walking on Mars within 15 years, tops. Indeed, the NASA PR people and mass media astronomy writers confidently predicted there’d be men on Mars by the ’90s.  (That’s how everyone talked back then: “men on Mars,” as if women were chopped liver.)

Mars was a very familiar world. Having spent my youth memorizing astronomical data, I knew that its day – 24 hours, 37 minutes and 23 seconds – nearly matches ours. I also knew that its maximum surface air pressure matches our own, way up at 98,300 feet – meaning, the Martian surface air is 30 times thinner than the air atop Mount Everest. And if that weren’t bad enough, all that thin, barely-there gas is carbon dioxide: no oxygen. You can’t breathe there.

That’s its biggest nuisance. Sure, the Martian surface has radiation, and the temperature is almost always below zero, and there’s no liquid water (although you could melt the ice that’s found in some places). But the no-air business is the real stopper.

It means that no one could ever hang around outdoors. It means that Martian colonies must be solely indoor experiences, except for walking in a pressurized spacesuit.

One stated reason for colonizing Mars is to have backup real estate if Earth gets too crowded or if we mess it up too badly. And maybe someday that will be a compelling argument. But right now, Earth has vast tracts of inhospitable places like the Antarctic and the Gobi Desert where nobody is lining up to live. A settlement in Antarctica would be incomparably more life-friendly and inexpensive than living on Mars. At least breathing isn’t an issue in the MacMurdo zip code. And yet no one’s building Antarctic cities. So perhaps we’re not really running out of terrestrial real estate.

The most compelling Mars-colony argument is that it’s our nature to explore, and there are no other suitable planets. Mercury and Venus are far too hot, and all the others have no solid surfaces or water in any form. They’re gas worlds. So, when it comes to planets, it’s Mars or nowhere – which is why influential groups like the Planetary Society are so obsessed with the Red Planet.

But what about the expense? Here’s where we rewind to the 1970s, when everyone predicted manned Martian visits by the ’90s. Then, in the ’90s, experts pinned our first landings for the 2010s. Nowadays NASA is saying the 2030s, and sometimes they specifically say 2033. Mars is always a remarkably consistent 15 years in the future.

Why? Because no one wants to spend the money.

John F. Kennedy was visionary when he allocated funds for a project that wouldn’t reach fruition during his administration. Others don’t have such long-sightedness. And what if one of the early astronauts dies? If one of the Martian pioneers develops a fast-growing tumor and they’re stuck in a two-year mission with no advanced medical help within 34 million miles, how would the public handle that? The whole thing requires courage.

As always, we’re left with shrugs and speculation as we stare at the bright orange “star” – just like hundreds of previous generations.

Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyOne.com. Check out Bob’s new podcast, Astounding Universe, co-hosted by Pulse of the Planet’s Jim Metzner.