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.