Why Earthlings Are Attracted to Mars

How science fiction and history keep pulling us to the Red Planet.

A Pesek painting of Mars as viewed from its moon, Phobos. (All images courtesy Ludek Pesek Collection)
Air & Space Magazine

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Adapted with permission from Imagining Mars: A Literary History by Robert Crossley, Wesleyan University Press, Copyright Robert Crossley, 2011.

In August 2003, when Mars and Earth drew closer together than they had been for 6,000 years, I was deep into the research for a literary history of Mars. Earth and Mars routinely align in what astronomers call an opposition, with Earth in the middle and Mars and the sun on opposite sides. It occurs every two years, but only rarely when Mars is at its nearest point to the sun. Having had the thrill of examining Percival Lowell’s historic Clark Refractor at the observatory he founded in Flagstaff, Arizona, I wanted to celebrate the 2003 opposition by looking at Mars through the closest cousin available to me in the Boston area.

I headed for Wellesley College to look at the planet through the Whitin Observatory’s superb Victorian-era Fitz/Clark 12-inch refractor. “Public nights” at the Whitin are usually modest events, and I anticipated having the telescope largely to myself and a few others. Wrong. I arrived to find several hundred Mars enthusiasts patiently standing in line for a turn at the eyepiece. Every now and then as Mars peeked out from the passing clouds, a cheer went up. Around midnight I reached the head of the line and had 30 seconds to savor the quivering image of the planet next door before yielding to the person behind me. Though the moment was brief, that evening gave me a fresh appreciation of the durability and critical mass of public fascination with Mars.

For most of my life I never reflected on the significance of my own longstanding curiosity about Mars and Martians. It was just part of the air I breathed. Like many in my generation, I had been enthralled as a kid by seeing Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars at Saturday movie matinees. I had also often heard my father tell the story of the frightening 1938 radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ adaptation of The War of the Worlds, and I had read books of popular science still illustrated with Lowell’s maps of Mars, long after his canals had disappeared from genuine scientific discourse. Sometime in my adolescence I discovered The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury’s highly romanticized tales of Americans on Mars; his purple prose seemed not entirely unlike the lush lyricism of Keats’ poetry, which I was also then discovering. I felt no conflict between my awakening to “serious” literature and my love for Bradbury’s fantasies.

“No Martian can escape the past; we are told tales in our infant beds,” writes a 22nd century woman living on Mars in Greg Bear’s 1993 novel Moving Mars. Storytelling, as Bear’s character testifies, has shaped our awareness of Mars perhaps as much as scientific investigation. But I was unaware of how deeply the tales I’d heard about Mars in my childhood had seeped into my psyche. At age 50, that changed. I was teaching a course on the history of science fiction, and, reviewing my syllabus, I noticed that four of the 10 novels I was slated to teach had Martian settings. It had not been a conscious choice. Once I realized how large a presence Mars was going to have in my classroom, I knew I needed to offer my students a context for understanding Mars as a phenomenon in cultural history. I set out to construct a timeline of the scientific and literary milestones in our knowledge of Mars. For the first time, I grasped the centrality of the Great Opposition of 1877, when astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, drawing what he saw through his telescope, sketched a map of Mars covered in a latticework he labeled “canali.” Percival Lowell’s imaginative interpretation of Schiaparelli’s map infuriated scientists for decades, but the stories that created the American fascination with Mars began here.

Soon after I embarked on my study, the world of science experienced a reprise of the controversy engendered by Schiaparelli’s sketches. The great debate in 1996 was started by the Antarctic meteoroid ALH84001: It came from Mars, but did it contain fossilized Martian bacteria? Suddenly the issue of life on Mars—largely dormant in scientific circles for decades but still a lively scenario in fiction—was in the forefront of public awareness of our missions to Mars. At my university, I led a colloquium with a colleague from the biology department. We gave it a title meant to be provocative: “Mars: Desire vs. Evidence.” Ever since graduate school, I had been impatient with the notion that there was an unbridgeable gulf between the “two cultures” of literature and science. The colloquium and the other debates of 1996 proved, to me at least, that the gulf can be bridged and that explorers of Mars, in all disciplines, have a better chance of understanding the planet if they examine the relationships between the Mars of our dreams and the Mars that’s actually there.

By the time I came to this realization, I was eagerly revisiting my youthful romance with Mars, but now fortified by habits of scholarly research. I wanted to know just how many novels had been written about Mars, and I started educating myself about the planet’s astronomical studies. With a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, I undertook serious work in 2000, and soon had a revelation foreshadowing that evening at the Whitin: I had no idea how vast the literature of Mars would turn out to be.

I haunted the Boston and New York public libraries, read microfilms at the Library of Congress, hunted down copies of long-forgotten novels in antiquarian bookshops and on eBay. Utopian Mars, feminist Mars, satirical Mars, boys-adventure Mars, Arabian Nights magic on Mars, Robinson Crusoe transferred to Mars, Thomas Edison on Mars. The abundance of Martian fiction was astounding, overwhelming. And some of it was wildly bizarre, particularly the travelogues written by psychics and mediums who did not think they were writing fiction and who claimed to have mastered the Martian language.

Early during my NEH year, I enjoyed a week’s residency at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, where, as the only humanist among the visiting astronomers, I got to see how differently but not incompatibly literary and scientific scholars do their work. We all lived in the chateau for visiting researchers; each morning as I finished breakfast and headed for the library, the astronomers came trooping in from their night on the high desert, hungry for dinner. In the Lowell Archive, I pored over the amateur astronomer’s correspondence with scientists who disputed his findings and the voluminous fan mail from laypeople around the world who adored his obstinate claims of Martian civilization.

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