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Mars,ours - the American Planet

In some sense Mars has already become an American planet - soon to be colonised and revivified.  Mars is the only planet in our solar system that is potentially habitable. Venus has died a literary death in the face of astrophysics.

This is not simply because of the US’s near monopoly in the technology of space flight.

Alone among the planets, Mars seemed vaguely Earthlike.  Take Arizona… it 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.

However there are problems in Colonising. Such as size, Olympus Mons, on Mars is so huge that it couldn’t exist on Earth: gravity is stronger here and the crust would be unable to support it.

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.

 ‘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?

AlongRay  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.

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.

The Mars Societyagonise 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.

*Ray Bradbury, far from being ‘optimistic’ in his attitude towards space travel, was in fact a technophobe with a yearning for pastoral innocence. Several of his best-known stories deplore the threat to human values posed by scientific advances. Television in particular he saw as destructive of book-based culture – a theme taken to its extreme in Fahrenheit 451, where books are actively sought out and burned

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