Biggest surprise: How familiar, how Earthly, the Martian surface looks. As my agent said when I sent him a panorama taken by the rover Spirit, “Looks like the outskirts of Las Vegas.”
Human landing: Best guess, 2035.
Michael Collins, Gemini and Apollo astronaut and author, Mission to Mars.
Of the many authors who have imagined human missions to Mars, former astronaut Michael Collins was the first to speak with the authority of someone who had traveled in space. He published his book Mission to Mars in 1990, four years after NASA suffered its first space shuttle accident, but on many pages it reads as though it were written last week—in its assessment, for example, that a lack of political will to pay the high cost of a human trip to Mars is more daunting than the technological challenge. “The only thing I know for certain,” Collins writes, “is that starting a human colony on a second planet will cost much less than the weapons we buy to destroy the first one.”
Recently, Collins spoke about his book and his outlook on a human mission to Mars.
Air & Space: You sometimes joked that the Apollo program sent you to the wrong planet. How did your fascination with Mars begin?
Mars has just always seemed to be a more interesting place than the moon. It’s the closest thing to a sister planet that we have, and if you put two photographs up on a wall—one of Mars and one of the moon—with a little blurb saying This is the moon and this is what it’s all about and This is Mars and what it’s all about, and you poked someone in the ribs, and said, “Choose!” I would say 99 out of 100 people would choose Mars.
You published your book Mission to Mars 22 years ago. Do you think we are any closer to a human mission to Mars than we were in 1990?
No, I think we’re probably farther away today than we were 20 years ago. Because the current White House and the current NASA administration don’t really have a clear-cut vision of where they want to go. Perhaps to some asteroid is about as close as they get. And I think without a very clear vision and an accompanying timetable, we’re just not going to get there any time soon.
What have you thought of the images from the rovers Spirit and Opportunity?
I thought less about Mars and more about the machine. I thought those two machines were marvels of engineering, and to see them and their tracks was very enjoyable to me. I think the disappointment is that I thought we’d get a more extensive chemical analysis of the Martian surface with some sort of an indication fairly clearly one way or the other whether there was evidence of life present or past—or whether that should be ruled out.
When you addressed Congress after your Apollo mission, and again in 2009, in your press release on Apollo’s 40th anniversary, you expressed hope for a manned Mars mission. That’s a long time to keep hope alive. Is there any reason for optimism?
If you take a very long, long view, I like to steal the phrase “outward bound.” I think humankind will go away from the surface of this planet and go outward bound, exploring the solar system and perhaps even beyond. So I’m optimistic in the very, very long run. I think the urge to go to different places will continue. I think the urge will intensify: to see, to touch, to smell, to feel. But in the short or intermediate term, no. I don’t see anything too hopeful. It’s too expensive right now.
So can you guess when humans will land on Mars?
No time soon. Not in my lifetime certainly.