The first close-up images of Mars made it back to earth only days after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft did a flyby in July, 1965 and sent vacation photos. Since then, the red planet has become home to a population of roving robots. Anyone with an internet connection can view video from the planet’s surface, and multiple projects are underway with the goal of sending human colonists to join their mechanical forebears. How did we get this far?
Part of the answer is flex time. Women have played a key role in the space program from the beginning, as documented in two recent books. “Rise of the Rocket Girls” (Little, Brown, 2016) by Nathalia Holt is an account of the female ”human computers” who helped make the Jet Propulsion Lab what it is. The first women in the door did their utmost to recruit and retain other talented women, including pushing for family-friendly policies. By the 1990s, a woman, Sylvia Miller, was in charge of the Mars program. Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, “Hidden Figures” (Morrow, 2016), the basis for the movie of the same title, tells the stories of several African-American women who broke new ground as mathematicians at the Langley Aeronautical Lab. The first few were hired in the 1940s, when wartime demand for qualified workers broke down color and gender barriers, though not all of them immediately. Lunch rooms and bathrooms within Langley remained segregated for many years.
Now that humanity has progressed to the point where people are applying for the job of Mars colonist, it’s important to consider what the career might entail. Mary Roach examines the needs, details and potential pitfalls of space travel in “Packing for Mars” (Norton, 2010.) She traveled around the world, investigating how astronauts are selected and trained in different countries, as well as the effects of the work on the body and mind. In addition to awe-inspiring views and the fun of chasing your toothpaste through a gravity-free room, there are also challenges such as cramped quarters and tedious maintenance tasks. “Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human,” she concludes.
As past chief engineer for NASA’s Mars Science Lab, Rob Manning has a pretty good idea of the technology needed for interplanetary travel. In the book, “Mars Rover Curiosity” (Smithsonian, 2014), he teams with William L. Simon to give readers an inside look at the work involved in landing a functioning exploratory craft safely. The authors explain the technology for lay people, while including plenty of human drama.
“How We’ll Live on Mars” (Simon & Schuster, 2015) is a slim book that addresses a lot of questions. Author Stephen Petranek gives a run-down of current Mars projects and the players involved, both private enterprise and government organizations. Then he explains, with optimism and concision, how he believes we can solve some of the biggest challenges likely to be encountered in establishing a colony – oxygen, water supply, food, human nature, etc.
The prospect of life on Mars has captured the human imagination for generations, manifesting in many works of fiction. In the now-classic “The War of the Worlds” (1898), H.G. Wells envisioned a race of Martians who shared some of our disturbing traits, depleting all of their natural resources and setting out to conquer other planets in a search for new supplies. More recent titles explore the idea of earthlings on Mars. Andy Weir’s “The Martian” (Broadway Books, 2014) has the main character stranded, alone on the desolate planet, using every ounce of ingenuity he can muster in order to survive. “Red Rising” (Del Ray, 2014) by Pierce Brown is set in the distant future, where class divisions are prevalent. Mine workers on Mars lead a grueling, subsistence existence, sacrificing themselves for later generations who will inhabit the surface. But a few of the miners discover their lives are a lie – the wealthy have thrived in relative luxury up top for a long time.
For readers who are interested in undertaking some armchair travel to Mars, the coffee table book, “Mars Up Close” by Marc Kaufman (National Geographic, 2014), is full of photos, charts and information, including topographical maps of the entire planet. The forward was written by Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, and the conclusion of the book is forward-looking, filled with speculation and plans about the future of humanity on our neighboring world. Those who are itching to leave the comfort of their living rooms and explore via telescope will find the guidance they need in “The Total Skywatcher’s Manual” by Linda Shore (Weldon Owen, 2015), a user-friendly volume with tips on equipment, planets and constellations, and a list of famous observatories around the world. If that’s not enough adventure, both NASA and Mars One are taking applications.