Oldies & Oddities: Closer to Mars
- By David S.F. Portree
- Air & Space magazine, November 2001
(Page 2 of 2)
Between 1895 and his death in 1916, Lowell published prolifically about Mars. He believed Mars was home to a culture whose aristocrats had marshaled vast scientific powers to carve the canal network he saw through his telescope. They did this, he wrote, to postpone their world’s inevitable desertification. Lowell was a popular speaker, dynamic and enthusiastic when he spoke on his favorite topic. Most astronomers, however, rightly derided his theories as unscientific.
Suddenly, a thin, sharp line on Mars springs into clarity in the eyepiece, interrupting my musings. As it splits and fades, I feel kinship with Lowell, interred now in a gray granite mausoleum just 50 feet from his beloved telescope. I’ve seen spacecraft images of Mars. I know that the thin lines are products of eyestrain, not Martians. Lowell, however, lacked our spacecraft data. He had only his eyes, his telescope, and his judgment. What would I have thought, had I seen those black, thread-like lines at the end of the 19th century, not the dawn of the 21st? Might I have become a believer in canals?
Lowell’s observations, writings, and speeches inspired the first generation of rocketeers—Wernher von Braun, Sergei Korolev, and Robert Goddard—whose work led to the exploration of Mars by spacecraft. As I gaze through Lowell’s old telescope, I imagine NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft en route to the Red Planet, taking advantage of the 2001 opposition. Our robot explorers have proven Lowell’s theories wrong, but I think he would be delighted by the wonders they have found.
—David S.F. Portree