rocket in space

Next Stop-Mars

Would you put on a space suit, strap yourself into a rocket ship, launch out of Earth’s orbit and head to the red planet? Why do I ask? Because that trip has moved out the realm of science fiction and into near reality.

Don’t ask me how it will come to fruition. I’m a curious onlooker not an expert. As a member of the Pacific Science Center, I attend some of their monthly lectures and planetarium shows. You can read my previous post about the center here. What I can tell you is that we are on the brink of sending humans to Mars.

During a recent lecture David A. Weintraub, Professor of Astronomy at Vanderbilt University, said the question is no longer if we go to Mars, but when. He also said it would happen during the lifetime of some in the audience. Of course, he may not have meant me, there were young children present.

Someday our descendants might laugh at my question. Not so long-ago people doubted we’d walk on the moon, live in a space station, or launch exploratory missions into the galaxy-let alone carry phones in our pockets. Space travel only existed in vivid imaginations. Even when it shone brightly in the night sky, Mars was shrouded by mystery and speculation. Now it appears answers are within our grasp.

Since I don’t follow space news that closely, I’ve been surprised by the amount of ongoing research. Unmanned rovers already traverse the Martian surface. Their robotic capabilities allow them to test soil and atmospheric samples and even take selfies. More research vessels are scheduled to arrive by November 2018 and various commercial space companies are testing rockets meant to land on Mars and possibly establish habitable settlements. Do you suppose they’ve watched The Martian? I wonder if Matt Damon would volunteer to go.

After the lecture, I read Weintraub’s book, Life on Mars: What to Know Before We Go. (You can read my post about the book here.) It’s not about what to pack but rather a comprehensive analysis of scientific Mars studies from the earliest recorded observations through the present day. Although Weintraub’s book focuses on the technical scientific methods used, he points out many researchers fell prey to prevailing romantic notions about Mars. Evidently scientists aren’t immune to the human desire to tell tales. Throughout the years, incorrect scientific conclusions and creative speculation resulted in fanciful books, movies, and aliens that were often more entertaining than accurate. They also fueled an ongoing fascination with the red planet.

Have you had the experience of learning about something and then seeing it pop up everywhere? In recent days, Mars has popped up on my Facebook feed several times. I guess they could be spying on me, but I think it really means I’m not the only person interested in Mars.

Here are some recent Mars reports:

  • Water discovered on Mars-After reading the book, I would want a complete explanation of the accuracy of the methods used to come to this conclusion, but please don’t ask me to check the math!
  • Mars Close Approach-Due to elliptical orbits, Mars is closer to Earth about every two years.
  • A CNN story about NASA’s Mars mission-The Pacific Science center even plans to have a party when the next mission lands. I haven’t even touched on the ethical debate about how our arrival may contaminate any form of (probably primitive) life on Mars. Will we spoil our chance to understand how life might have evolved on Earth or in other parts of the solar system? Scientists don’t know.

Will I board a ship to Mars? No. My feet will remain planted on Earth. Although, I’ll admit my curiosity is piqued. If you go, I’d love to hear about it. I’ll follow your Twitter feed. In the meantime, I’ll space travel the old-fashioned way-by book. I’m reading a Mars Trilogy recommended by Weintraub and written by Kim Stanley Robinson in the 1990’s. What’s your favorite Mars story? Share in the comments.

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