With Only Passing Reference to the Earth

James Hamilton-Paterson

  • Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination and the Birth of a World by Oliver Morton
    Fourth Estate, 351 pp, £18.99, June 2002, ISBN 1 84115 668 X

In his introduction to this remarkable book, Oliver Morton writes that it is ‘about how ideas from our full and complex planet are projected onto the rocks of that simpler, empty one’. Projection, Morton believes, has determined our thinking about Mars from the outset. The planet had attracted its complement of myth well before the Milanese astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli made his new map of Mars in 1877, and its features, dimly discernible through inadequate telescopes and often obscured by dust storms, had already acquired fanciful names. Schiaparelli’s was a better map than any before, and he drew his names from the classics. He also saw features on the planet that he termed canali, or ‘channels’. He refused to decide whether they were natural or artificial, but his disciple, the American astronomer Percival Lowell, was in no doubt. Alone among the planets, Mars seemed vaguely Earthlike, if smaller and terminally arid, so he reasoned that its autochthones must have built a network of canals.

From this single flight of fancy, based on faulty optics and misidentified geological features, came the myth of Mars as a dying planet with an ancient – possibly extinct – civilisation, a myth that underwrote popular fancy and science fiction from H.G. Wells onwards. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles of 1951, which as an adolescent in the 1950s I knew as The Silver Locusts, combined this idea with that of Mars as a frontier planet soon to be colonised and revivified. Set between January 1999 and October 2026, Bradbury’s stories are the product of a postwar technological optimism that infects Mars enthusiasts to this day. The stories’ timescale might have been wrong, but the choice of setting was right. Mars is the only planet in our solar system that is potentially habitable. Venusians have died a literary death in the face of astrophysics.

Since 1965, when Mariner 4’s camera sent back 21 grainy images, increasingly exquisite maps have been drawn of Mars’s surface. The process has been interrupted and delayed by a string of failed orbiters and landers, but it has continued nevertheless at prodigious cost, carried forward on a wave of enthusiasm following the flood of tantalising data sent back by Mariner 9 from late 1971 onwards. Its first pictures were spoiled by a dust storm that hid much of the planet’s face but allowed the tops of four massive volcanoes to protrude above it. It is still not known whether these volcanoes are long dead, dormant or still faintly active; but they focused a suddenly intense interest on Martian geology. The biggest of them, Olympus Mons, is so huge that it couldn’t exist on Earth: gravity is stronger here and the crust would be unable to support it. Morton, sitting on a plane, realises that the entire flight envelope of his commute between San Francisco and Los Angeles (half an hour at almost the speed of sound with a midway altitude of 33,000 feet) could easily be contained within the cone described by Olympus Mons.

Morton’s account of the mapping of Mars and his history of the scientific imagination and effort that has been expended trying to understand Martian geology – crucial to assessing the likelihood of life there – would itself have been enough to carry this book. He finds something old-fashioned about the mapping, despite the dazzling technology that makes it possible, because it is politically disinterested in a way that has never been possible when mapping Earth. Yet we also know, without needing it to be spelled out, that in some sense Mars has already become an American planet. This is not simply because of the US’s near monopoly in the technology of space flight. Arizona, where Lowell had his own observatory, has long been the unofficial capital of Mars studies, thanks in large part to its landscape and geology, and the fact that many Martian features have come to be understood in terms of Meteor Crater and the Grand Canyon. Arizona’s own desert landscape also supports artists who paint scientifically accurate Martian scenes, sometimes depicting the planet as if it were already colonised. The book has well-chosen pictures illustrating the striking similarities between Hudson River School landscapes and some contemporary artists’ imagined versions of Mars. The planet shimmers in the night skies above the south-western deserts like something projected onto a black screen by a collective imagination. It is variously a fabulous technical challenge, an extension of the American frontier and the locus for sundry utopias. The planet’s entire surface, roughly equal to the area of all Earth’s land-masses, has been mapped, imaged and imagined: it has, we might say, been appropriated.

‘Because it’s there’ is a standard answer to the obvious question, but is too studiedly offhand when talking of an expedition at present beyond our capabilities. ‘Getting to Mars’ is the dream’s deceptively simple shorthand. It crucially leaves out ‘and getting back again’. The outward journey alone will take two years. Once there, astronauts will need constant protection from the extreme cold and lethal radiation (there is little atmosphere and no ozone layer). They will be wholly reliant on equipment dropped by previous unmanned expeditions that will enable them to generate all sorts of things, including their own oxygen. It will be impossible to bring all the necessary fuel, so they will have to synthesise tons of hydrogen to power their return journey. That in turn will require that Mars have the right ambient chemistry, which unmanned craft will previously have ascertained. And everything hinges on there being a source of purifiable water that can be freed from the frozen Martian soil in sufficient quantity. After their stay, and with phenomenal luck, the travellers will return four or five years older having spent the time imprisoned in protective suits or airlocked Portakabins eating rehydrated rations, never once having been able to walk free and feel the ancient planet’s distant sun and thin wind on their faces. And for what, precisely – because it’s there?

Morton makes the important point that space exploration is to a degree a political and ideological business. He might have expanded this to include all exploration. The early European navigators and explorers mostly undertook their voyages at the behest of kings in search of wealth. No doubt raising the money was made easier by speculative promises of exotic discoveries of fabulous societies and weird life-forms; but with few exceptions (one would be Philip II’s desire to inflict Christianity on China) these journeys were about booty and empire. Not until Captain Cook’s South Pacific voyages at the end of the 18th century was an expedition of discovery undertaken largely for its own sake: for knowledge, for scientific information and – he had an official artist on board – for a complete visual record. Cook’s three great voyages were an aberration peculiar to the Enlightenment. The following century saw British expeditions revert to throwing lives away in ill-provisioned attempts to find the North-West Passage, ultimately for mercantile but also for strategic reasons: to prevent such a passage falling beneath foreign control.

The relevance of all this to Mars may be tangential, in a century’s time maybe not. An age might have to elapse before there can be any returns on capital in the form of scarce minerals in minable quantities, the costs of whose transportation alone might nullify their value. For the foreseeable future anyone stumping up the money for a manned expedition to Mars will have to be content with knowledge and images, and hope their Captain Cook/Kirk doesn’t fall prey to belligerent locals. Politics remain the problem. It is not merely that such a venture will be so expensive that only a government with the United States’ resources could afford it; the Moon landing of 1969 was above all a panicked American response to the threat of Russian superiority in space. In June this year the Russians issued a new unspoken challenge in the form of an invitation to mount a joint Russian-American attempt to put humans on Mars ‘within the next decade and a half’. The truth, though, is that the US will go nowhere until it is good and ready, and that will depend as much on issues of political viability and national morale as it will on money. The 1969 Moon shot was conceived at a moment of optimism and confidence. The present is not such a moment. The US is currently preoccupied by a global war of its own defining: money is tight, budgets are being cut, Nasa is in a mess. ‘Mars missions are more likely to be launched by a confident society already convinced of its capabilities,’ Morton observes, ‘than by a society trying to fight off its perceived decadence.’ Realpolitik wins out, for the moment, over excited news flashes about the presence of water on Mars and the possibility of a fossil bacterium having been found in the Martian meteorite ALH 84001.

There is also the issue of world public opinion to take into account. A Mars landing would invite the criticism that it was being used as a glamorous distraction from urgent domestic problems. It would provoke all sorts of questions about ulterior motives – it is impossible to overlook the fact that military technology and strategy mediate so many fields of research, from oceanography to space exploration. It would even arouse the suspicion that the world’s most powerful nation might be thinking along Bradbury lines and eyeing the solar system as a potential haven from a ruined planet. Bradbury’s sentimental images of Illinois countryfolk filing en masse into rockets with their suitcases to begin a new life at what Star Trek famously called ‘the final frontier’ were centuries ahead of any plausible reality, if not purely a literary dream.

One of Morton’s strengths is his familiarity with people from the whole gamut of Mars studies. Indeed, if it weren’t for his stories about scientists, academics, artists, writers and dreamers, and his interviews with some pretty wacky individuals, it might have been more difficult to carry his narrative so readably through the requisite geology and physics. Better still is the account he gives of the lively, often acrimonious debate surrounding the purpose and ethics of going to Mars. The home of this debate is the Mars Society, an informal aggregation – predominantly but not exclusively American – of people who eat, sleep and dream Mars, scientists or not. These are people who in some sense are already living there. That they do so in the freedom of their imaginations rather than in Portakabins doesn’t make their visions any less real.

The Mars Society very nearly fell apart at its first convention over the frank opinions of Robert Zubrin, a scientist who in 1990 had come up with an ingenious engineering solution to the problems of getting people to Mars. The plan, which he called ‘Mars Direct’, was to deploy recycled space shuttle rockets to deliver equipment essential for the return to earth, which would then be in place before the arrival of the first human inhabitants. Zubrin is a passionate advocate of a way of thinking that stems from disgust at what he sees as a critical loss of vigour in contemporary US society: crippling regulations, the banalisation of popular culture, a lack of individualism, economic stagnation. He yearns to flee all this. On his final frontier, where men are presumably men, the West that lurks in every red-blooded American will once again be built wild. This roustabout ethos has some support within the Mars Society; and certain schemes for developing the planet even envisage a rail network. Other factions in the Society bitterly oppose this backwoods take on space exploration. They worry about the fate of Mars’s Indians, should they exist. They agonise about contaminating a pristine environment. Their vision of a society on Mars is often utopian, ‘not a new America, but a dream of America done differently’. Historians trenchantly point out that the American West was opened up less by the rugged individualism of homesteaders than the massive commitment of industry, capital and federal power, to say nothing of Chinese indentured labour.

At an ethical level much of the present scientific debate about the pros and cons of landing on Mars – let alone planning to ‘terraform’ it – is quite sophisticated. Almost everyone except instinctive frontiersmen can see the flaws in terraforming, if by that is meant radically engineering the planet’s environment first to render it capable of supporting human life and ultimately to make it as Earthlike as possible. Morton gives some realistic indications of the astounding amount of energy required to liberate free water from permafrost several kilometres thick, and the great swathes of time needed to build up a breathable atmosphere. Here the debate takes an interesting turn: everything hangs on whether there is life on Mars.

For years Martians were imagined as the stuff of nightmares – bug-eyed monsters, ravening warlords or advanced experimenters on humans. They have also been wise, almost ethereal ancients (Bradbury) or else metaphors of the Other (Oxford littérateurs). Most contemporary scientists, however, are pretty much in agreement that finding dormant bacteria is about the most we dare hope for. Such a discovery would have fascinating consequences for the debate on the origins of life on Earth. In 1996, when the meteorite ALH 84001 hit the headlines, some scientists saw unmistakable traces of fossil bacteria in it, others only geological artefacts. The arguments remain unresolved: even when an actual fragment of Mars is put under a microscope, people continue to project their desires onto it. In any case the recent discoveries on Earth of extremophiles – life-forms living in hot rocks, around volcanic vents or deep beneath ice sheets – have made it seem less inconceivable that bacteria could exist on Mars, and maybe even elsewhere in the solar system. If we were to discover them, it’s possible that we’d find they were related – or even identical – to Earth archaeobacteria. It has long been hypothesised that ‘cross-seeding’ might have taken place as a result of meteor or asteroid impacts in the distant past.

Much of the debate on the ethics of terraforming Mars rests on this question of whether life on Earth might have begun with a bacterium imported from Mars, or vice versa. If Martian bacteria were found to be the same as our own archaeobacteria, but frozen and unevolved for the last several billion years, would it be reasonable to treat Mars as an adjunct of Earth and change its habitat to suit us, or would it be more ethical to help the bacteria develop (by warming their environment just enough) and then withdraw to observe a peculiarly Martian evolution? This second alternative has been given the name ecopoiesis, or the creation of an abode (Mars does attract classicists). As Morton remarks, ‘the idea is no longer to make something like the Earth; it is to make something new, or re-create something old, with only passing reference to the Earth.’

Such debates are by no means academic. Sooner or later humans will land on Mars, and they ought to be clear as to the reasons why. By then a lot more hard scientific data will have been gathered about what they can expect to find. Some of the more fanciful current projections will themselves have become as extinct as the ones that science fiction once expressed. (John Clute, quoted here, considered the entire genre a ‘set of fairytales about the afterlife’.)

To read this book is to become infected with a fascination I hadn’t realised Mars held. By the end I was left feeling a strange, even European twinge of envy. I marvelled at the imaginative energy of the Martian enterprise, at its visionary and dogged inventiveness. I wondered what project we might have on this side of the Atlantic that could generate a similar enthusiasm. The EU? Our brave new dispensation feels irredeemably tangled in the past, tainted by its dreary Christian democratic ideals and stuffy heritage landscapes. Just for the time it took to read Mapping Mars I felt that Arizona was the only place to be. Fleetingly, I found myself not completely proof against the frontier mentality, the reckless abandonment of the half-botched, the yearning for the utterly new.