Seeing Mars, Seeing Red

Seeing Mars, Seeing Red

As the climate warms and this planet of ours continues sprinting toward extinction, we’re seeing the cultural fixation with Mars take center stage.


Mars has been in the news again—red-faced, up there in the heavens, as if it’s embarrassed by what we’re doing down here on Earth. In October, President Obama wrote: “America will take the giant leap to Mars.” This statement, as he prepares to leave office, is consistent with his very first address to the nation, in which he asserted that he’d “restore science to its rightful place,” with one eye turned toward the red planet. Elon Musk, the South African–born businessman and inventor, outlined his vision for the human colonization and terraforming of Mars in a recent speech, describing how his company, SpaceX, with a billion-dollar investment, will make humanity a multi-planetary species. For its part, National Geographic has set up an interactive, white-domed space display in New York City to drum up interest for this week’s six-part, live-action miniseries imagining the very first manned mission to Mars, circa 2033. And the list goes on and on.

The whole drama’s spliced through with scientists and other experts discussing what needs to be done to make the Mars mission a reality. Of course, all of these lofty and fanciful imaginings are set against the very real backdrop of our technological and material limitations. Just last month alone, NASA’s Juno space probe went offline in orbit around Jupiter, and the European Space Agency, in its own unmanned mission to Mars, lost contact with its Schiaparelli experimental lander, leaving a crater-sized abrasion on the surface of that blushing planet.

Mars was named for the Roman god of war, and our renewed fascination with it feels especially appropriate in these war-fevered times, as the United States continues its seven distinct bombing campaigns and our hypermilitarized police continue to target demonstrators in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, Standing Rock, etc. Mars was first charted by pre-antiquity Babylonian and Egyptian astronomers and has shown up in popular literature as early as the mid-1600s; it still manages to have a firm hold on our popular imagination, what with the big box-office success of films like The Martian, in which the planet is just another site of white male American exceptionalism. Mars also continues to show up in our poetry: Tracy K. Smith’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book Life on Mars borrows as heavily from the red planet as from David Bowie. In 1980, the popular astronomer Carl Sagan wrote: “Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.” Right now we’re witnessing this cultural fixation, this seeing red, expand and move center stage as the climate warms and this planet of ours continues sprinting toward extinction. In other words, it seems the only way out is up.

My own interest in Mars started young, as most lifelong obsessions do—indeed, so many of humanity’s earliest myths and fables likely began with someone staring into the unknown and projecting a story onto the empty space. As a boy, I first saw the planet through the lens of my creepy neighbor’s telescope. It looked like a far-off ornament floating in a black lake. The idea that this massive red body, which I’d read about in textbooks, was actually a concrete object, always circling, forever changed how I viewed my body and life in relation to the universe. Back when the first NASA Mars rover, Curiosity, descended upon the planet’s iron-oxide face in 2003, I’d sit at my parent’s desktop computer, with its tediously slow-modemed Internet connection, and wait for the alien landscapes to load the way other kids maybe waited for pornography, each windblown boulder a new impossible nipple. The wonder I experienced was twofold: I marveled at the stunning advances in human technology, as well as at the profound mysteries they allowed me to glimpse on my computer screen.

The planet came further alive in my imagination by way of literature. One of the first books I fell in love with, and which made me want to write, was The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, published in 1950. This book chronicles the human exploration and subsequent colonization of Mars. It was written before the 1964 Mariner 4 probe to Mars, which revealed for the first time a relatively lifeless planet of deserts and canyons, but nevertheless transformed the popular awareness. Before this mission, the planet could only be seen through a telescope, and almost anything was possible: Writers and the rest of us could echo Sagan’s sentiments and project our hopes and fears and mythologies onto the surface of that far-off mirror. After the probe, which took the first photographs of Mars from space, we knew and could see more, but our curiosity wasn’t sated for long.

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After the tragic election of our orange-faced, dusty, self-appointed war-god, there’s even more urgency beneath questions about how we as a society put our money and technology to use: Who has or doesn’t have access to smartphones or automobiles or grocery stores? Who gets to flee the country (or the planet), and who gets left behind on Earth? In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron interrogated this gulf between privilege, race, oppression, and space exploration, succinctly and movingly, in his poem/song “Whitey on the Moon“:

I can’t pay no doctor bill
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still
(while Whitey’s on the moon)

The man just upped my rent last night
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights
(but Whitey’s on the moon).

Space travel and exploration aren’t separate from what’s happening here on Earth. The issue isn’t just one of passive neglect; it’s clear how investment in one particular enterprise can actively increase the disenfranchisement of poor and oppressed people in this country and exacerbate the problems that already exist worldwide. Walidah Imarisha’s introduction to Octavia’s Brood, an anthology of sci-fi stories by  activists and organizers writing in the urgent vein of famed author Octavia Butler, begins: “Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction.” Later in the introduction, Imarisha introduces the idea of “visionary fiction,” which is “a term we developed to distinguish science fiction that has relevance toward building new, freer worlds from the mainstream strain of science fiction, which most often reinforces dominant narratives of power.” Visionary fiction is a literature that has a practical function: We can think of it as a map, a blueprint for new possibilities. It’s what Scott-Heron was both deriding and doing himself. The question that then gnaws at our stomachs is: When these science fictions become science realities, how do we resist uncritically stumbling toward the kind of exploration that recreates the violence and political structures of our current world? And how can we imagine a new world for the betterment of all oppressed peoples?

As exciting as Musk’s vision is, I find how he speaks about it to be unnerving—and illuminating. In one interview, he compares the building of a space-travel infrastructure to the conquest and expansion of the United States. “It’s like building the Union Pacific railroad,” Musk said. “And once that transport system is built, then there’s a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new, or build the foundations of a new planet.” This analogy is quite troubling when we think of who profited from the transcontinental railroad, who suffered to build that wealth, and who was written out of the histories. Almost any broad view of history teaches us to be wary of mass nation-building projects: see the bodies bricked up inside the Great Wall; see the countless Chinese laborers buried in the deserts of the American Southwest; see the enslaved African people whose labor built this entire country. And there are many more examples.

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In the introduction to the 1967 reissue of The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury is quoted as saying, “Science Fiction is a wonderful hammer; I intend to use it when and if necessary, to bark a few shins or knock a few heads, in order to make people leave people alone.” Poetry, like speculative and science fiction, is a place in literature for dreaming up what’s possible without being bound to the strictures of the real—or even necessarily bound by logic. The imaginative and intimate leaps that are only possible on the page can build a new city in your head with a handful of pen strokes; can be a protest song for the not-yet-born Martian labor force; can project the internal workings of the mind onto the cosmos and back again. I believe it’s in poetry that we find an ethical kind of exploration into inner and outer space alike.

There’s no greater example of this kind of heart-first thinking than human beings sending poems into space. Several low-Earth-orbit satellites for surveillance and cell-phone communication are engraved with excerpts from poems. The first was the TRAAC satellite launched by the United States in 1961; the poem by Thomas G. Bergin, inscribed on an instrument panel, reads:

Fear not, Immortals, we forgive your faults
And as we come to claim our promised place
Aim only to repay what good you gave
And warm with human love the chill of space.

In 2013, there was an open contest for poems to be put in orbit around the red planet. NASA asked people to submit haiku as a way to bolster public support for another Mars mission. Haiku—surely picked for its brevity—is an interesting formal choice, because traditional Japanese haiku are meant to incorporate a naturalist element. What could be better than launching a form of poetry that involves human landscapes to an alien planet? This gesture of sending poems into space, I think, exemplifies the best humanity has to offer in terms of space exploration. A poem—like a spacecraft, after all—is a human-made object that serves as a medium for exploration. The difference is that a poem’s terrain is the interior of the human soul and experience.

The winning poems were burned onto DVD (already an archaic technology) and sent along on the MAVEN mission to Mars. Vanna Bonta, an American, wrote:

Thirty-six million
miles of whispering welcome.
Mars, you called us home.

And Benedict Smith, from the UK, wrote:

It’s funny, they named
Mars after the God of War
Have a look at Earth

These poems were sent to orbit the red planet for seven years, which means they’re still circling now. When the orbiter runs out of fuel, it will be incinerated in the Martian atmosphere. What could be more poetic than that?

Well, maybe this: In his October message, President Obama said: “When our Apollo astronauts looked back from space, they realized that while their mission was to explore the moon, they had ‘in fact discovered the Earth.’” Let our poets be our astronauts, our intrepid trailblazers into the unknown, our cartographers of dark impossibilities, our architects of bloom.

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