A Once and Future Mars
I remember it well... the day I realized that the Martian empire of Percival Lowell, Edgar Rice Burroughs and so many others vanished into the red sands of Mars. It was late July of 1965, I was a tender nine-years of age, and had spent countless hours devouring any and all books about Mars in our meager elementary school library. The jury was still out... was there life? Were there beings there? Was the "Wave of Darkening" really plant life waxing and waning with the seasons? Did the canals of late 19th Century fame exist?
Then from CalTech and JPL the results were made public. Mariner 4 had flown past the planet, snapping 22 images and revealing the truth. Mars was an arid desert: dry, desolate and cold beyond imagining. Via incredibly ingenious techniques, most unappreciated by this allegedly precocious lad, the scientists had seen Mars for what it really was... a dead world. It would be years before the dynamics of wind and water there would be observed; many more before they would be understood. The important thing was this: science had robbed me of a beloved (and adolescent) vision of our neighboring planet.
But there were holdouts. The popular press still circulated ideas that there might be life- even beings-
holed up underground and beyond observation! Hope, though sputtering like a flame in a stiff breeze, remained.
But before long, other probes flew into the Great Darkness and journeyed past, then orbited, Mars; finally landing there in 1976. While the resulting data was intensely exciting to scientists and mature readers, to a young man, the news just got worse. Mars was dead.
Fortunately, this was the golden era of Apollo. Soon the adventures of a few select men who traveled to, then trod upon the lunar surface supplanted the news from the Red Planet. The moon was deader than Mars would ever be, but America had done it, and the laurels of accomplishment could never be taken from us. Humanity had visited another world. And surely, Mars would not be far behind.
As I grew into adolescence, I read the plans of North American Rockwell and others for follow-on missions to my favorite planet with breathless glee. Surely the amazing hardware of the Apollo program would be utilized for the Next Logical Step, to visit the next logical destination. No sane government would throw away such grand accomplishments. Mars was in our future.
Well, it still is. We all know what happened after Apollo wound down with the orbital linkup between an Apollo Command Module and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft. That was it. The remaining boosters rusted outside NASA's space-age facilities in Florida, Houston and Huntsville. The Lunar Modules and other hardware remaining from the canceled flights of Apollos 18, 19 and 20 were relegated to various museums.
Now we have NASA's SLS/Orion combo which, after a detour to an asteroid mission sometime in the 2020's, is intended to make a human mission to Mars a reality. At least that's the current plan... we'll have to wait to see what the 6-8 Presidential administrations and various tenures in Congress will accomplish. It's far from a done deal.
And then there is Mr. Wildcard, Elon Musk. From humble beginnings a decade ago, Musk's SpaceX has emerged as a major force in spaceflight – in many ways, behind only NASA and Europe's ESA. And Mr. Musk has made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that colonizing Mars is his eventual goal. His own big rocket, the Falcon Heavy (something of a hybrid of the SLS, Saturn V and the USSR's failed N-1 rocket of the 1960's) should fly in the next 18 months. It's a brash, daring and somewhat impractical goal... and something to be deeply admired.
So the question remains: who will go, and when. With China on an aggressive course toward a space station of their own, India and Japan angling for crewed spaceflight and other nations dreaming of joining the game, it is an open query.
But for now Mars remains the domain of robots, primarily of US origins, orbiting along silent paths above its arid plains and roving its dusty surface. We may yet find some form of life there; frozen water has been found in copious quantities and where there is water, life may well follow. Tantalizing hints of methane (possibly of biological origins) and organic carbon (ditto, but neither is conclusive as of now) have been found by the Curiosity rover. It will not likely be bipedal or humanoid; if extant, it will likely be mere lowly bacteria. But if it is there, we will find it, eventually. And if we find it, we will visit in person. Someday.
The dream lives on.