Our Mars Fixation

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S1: Andrew,

S2: are you

S1: OK? Are you OK with anticipation? What are you going to ask me?

S2: Well, I just I just wonder what you’re looking at this week. I think it’s been a pretty exciting week here on the ground for the future of space.

S1: It has. I just looking down all the things that have happened. You’ve got the Space X inspiration for Mission with its crew, I think complete now. You’ve got a really fantastic looking spaceship coming out of Virgin Galactic. What else has been going on? Well, I

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S2: think that was enough, actually. The helicopter is getting closer and the helicopter is like within inches or I should say centimetres of the surface of Mars.

S1: Yes, you are showing you’re an American. They within inches. But yes.

S2: And that should be, I guess, no, no earlier than April 8th. So that’s pretty exciting to to see. Yeah. But I was really struck by the inspiration for announcement of the rest of the crew and just this mission in general. I think this is really a turning point for human space flight where these are literally four civilians. And I don’t know, I love the fact that basically the person that bought the flight from Space X said, OK, I am going, but I want to bring with me three creative people. Right. That are regular civilians as well, as opposed to I mean, it could it just brought us friends or but, you know, it was a charity to do with charity and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

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S1: These are just ordinary, everyday people. So just how big a deal is this? And we’re looking at fairly short timelines, aren’t we, between them being selected and actually going up into space?

S2: I mean, it’s their selected right now and there they’re going and it’s going to be sometime in the fall,

S1: which is just as crazy short. How long did you train for before going up?

S2: A long time, but I could be slow, you know.

S1: OK, so you’re not the benchmark.

S2: It’s true. But I think about this in a sort of emotional way of they’re going to get to go up there. And I don’t know if the timeline is exactly set. You know, they’re going to be there a few days. They’re not going to the space station. They’re going actually higher than the space station, closer to the orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope.

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S1: Yeah. And of course, we have to shout out because we’re recording this while I’m recording this in Phoenix, Arizona, that we have Sam Proctor, who’s a geoscience professor at South Mountain Community College here. And I love the fact that we’ve got a local going up and I love the fact that she’s associated with a community college. I think that’s just fantastic for those incredible institutions.

S2: And she is an alumni of the School of Earth and Space Exploration right here at ASU.

S1: So many topics for us here.

S2: I’m Cady Coleman.

S1: I’m Andrew Maynard.

S2: Welcome to Mission Interplanetary. So today we are asking, why are we so fascinated with Mars?

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S1: Why are we so fascinated with Mars? We seem to be talking about an awful lot.

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S2: It’s true, partly because it’s just becoming that much more real to us. I mean, I love the fact that it was so close in the sky this summer and it was just something you could just barely miss. But then the perseverance and perseverance just really getting rolling, so to speak, on the surface of Mars. The helicopter flight coming up.

S1: Yeah, I don’t. So what gets me is is being part of our psyche for so long. And I go back to H.G. Wells and the stories that I grew up with. It seems to have been part of our psyche for well over 100 years. But incredibly, we’ve gone from that science fiction stuff to we’re actually now not only on the ground we have been for many years, we’re actually finding out more about the planet and we’re talking about sending people there one day. That’s just unbelievable.

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S2: And I love the emphasis on, you know, why are we so fascinated with Mars where we is just people here on this planet? And the fact that, you know, we talked about inspiration for and the four of them headed for space for civilians, I think it’s because space flight is suddenly so much more real.

S1: Right. To me, it’s a no brainer. Why are we so fascinated by Mars? Why not? Of course. So that’s a that’s obviously one big obsession. But let’s talk about other obsessions. So, Katie, what else have you been obsessing about this week? Relationships mean what sort of relationships?

S2: So I’m thinking about the people that I’m close to. And if I was Chris, some broski who is one of the people that was named to inspiration for Chris, some brewskies friend was actually the person that won the lottery and decided for personal reasons not to go and gave his ticket to Chris. And it made me think if I won the lottery, would you do that? Yes. So that’s so now it’s a question for you, Andrew. If you won the lottery, would you give your ticket to me?

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S1: No, of course, I wouldn’t give it to you bid up to space already?

S2: I wouldn’t give it to believe, Kitty, but I have done a pretty some pretty deep thinking. And as much as I really, actually really care about you guys on the podcast crew, I’m going to tell you that I would give my ticket to you. It just would be right after my husband and my two sons. But what about you, Andrew? What are what are you obsessed about this week?

S1: So I know this is going to be just as geeky as last week, but leading on from bio preservation last week, I’ve actually been thinking a lot about gene edited astronauts.

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S2: Anyone in particular, or is someone like up for getting Gene edited or is this a gentle way of breaking this to me that I’ve got like some.

S1: Yeah, you know, those little pills that they gave you in the injections? No, it’s it’s nothing like that. But it actually ties in with this idea of Mars. And it’s something I’ve been fascinated with for, again, a long time because it ties in with a lot of my other work around emerging technologies. But you think about how difficult it’s going to be to send people to Mars. And what we sometimes forget about is space is incredibly harsh. You’re just bathed in radiation that is just trying to strip the nuclei out of your cells as you’re outside. So when you up on the International Space Station, you were still pretty much protected by the systems around the earth. But you get out into deep space and it’s nasty. And one of the challenges we face is how do we ensure that people aren’t just killed by the radiation before we get somewhere like Mars? And one of the really intriguing suggestions here is can we somehow genetically modified people so that more radiation resistant and of course, we know you can do that. You take something like cockroaches and they seem to be able to survive almost anything. But that takes you down a really dark road saying can we somehow take the genetic make up of cockroaches and inject it into future astronauts? So the ethics are really dodgy, but it does make me think this is the sort of thing I grapple with one day. Are we going to be genetically modifying our astronauts so they’re more likely to survive a trip to Mars? I don’t know. What do you think, Katie?

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S2: I think you’re right. I mean, I don’t. But I want to say that we really have a lot more to learn before we start doing that and even understanding what are looking like a lot. But so even before we simulating what would that radiation look like? What would it what would it do to people is actually very hard to simulate here on the Earth. And we would actually learn quite a bit by sort of two or three week mission just way out into space and back.

S1: Yes. And I think that’s so important. And actually, I’m already imagining a set of crash dummies on this space. You sort of fill them up with these gel things that they put in dummies. So when they come back, you can see what the radiation damage is like.

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S2: Well, I said we bring some people and the crash dummies, OK?

S1: Oh, you want you want real people as well. So if we can dissect them and see what happened to them as well. No, maybe not that far.

S2: I think for a few weeks we could do it. But seriously, there’s a lot to learn.

S1: There is a lot to learn. We should probably get on from dissecting people after they’ve been into deep space. And get to our guest for this week. So we have David Barron as our guest, David Barron is an award winning journalist, author and broadcaster. He’s a former science correspondent for NPR and now serves as the Baruch Lumberg, NASA’s Library of Congress chair in Astrobiology Exploration and Scientific Innovation. David’s most recent book is called American Eclipse. It tells the true story of a total solar eclipse across the Wild West in 1878 and helped inspire America’s rise as a scientific power. He’s working on a new book about Mars and its place in our collective imagination. David Barron, welcome to Interplanetary.

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S3: Thank you, Andrew. And hello, Katie.

S2: Hey, so nice to meet you. So I want to know how this project started and what was the spark?

S3: Well, so it started with my previous book. So my book, American Eclipse, which came out in Twenty Seventeen, is a work of science history, but that makes it sound a little dry. It’s really, as you say, it’s a human story. So having completed that book, I thought I really want to stick with history of astronomy. And I was looking around for the right story to tell. And the story I’ve I’ve come upon and I’m now committed to is essentially a story of American astronomy. One generation later, it’s now. So in the 1878, astronomy was very young. That is American astronomy, where we were just starting to compete with Europe by around nineteen hundred, American astronomy was getting quite strong. And that was a time when Mars was just what everyone wanted to talk about. There was really a kind of Mars mania. You could open up the newspapers in the late 90s, in the first decade of the nineteen hundreds, and Mars was constantly in the news because there was widespread belief that the planet was inhabited. Now we know in hindsight it was incorrect science. But back at that time, there was very there were serious astronomers seriously believing that Mars was home to an advanced civilization more advanced than human beings. Folks, a serious scientist, Nikola Tesla, the great inventor, he believed in 1899 that he was receiving radio signals from Mars. And he was he was making plans to communicate back. And the public was talking about what should we ask the Martians? What can they teach us? So so I just the more I’ve looked into this, you know, this is the story of what inspired the science fiction. Right. That that made us think of Mars as something different from the other planets.

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S1: So as you work on this, is this where the story begins, the late eighteen hundreds in America, or does it extend back before?

S3: Well, so so you and and your listeners may well know parts of this story. And I knew little bits of it because even back when I was a young kid in the 1960s, there was still. People would sometimes talk about the canals on right? The canal, and I’d be I would suspect that younger folks today would think, what are you talking about, Canal?

S1: I remember this. I mean, it was just part of the mythology growing up. There were canals on Mars.

S3: Exactly. And the mythology of the mid 20th century was the science of the late 19th century. So it all starts in 1877 in Italy, actually in Milan, where the astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, during a time when Mars was making a very close approach to Earth, he, through his telescope, decided he was going to make a really detailed map of the planet surface. And he saw these lines on Mars, these really straight lines like this kind of network of of like a spider web pattern kind of. And he called these lines Canali, which in Italian channels, they are not necessarily artificial canals, but it was translated into English as canals. And so people started talking about the canals on Mars, but they didn’t really mean canals. That was just a name that were given just like there’s the Sea of Tranquility on the moon, which is not a sea. But it a dark area that people saw through the telescope. Well. The idea of the the canals of Mars became real canals when an American astronomer, Percival Lowell, came along like he was independently wealthy Bostonian who spent his early years of adulthood as a writer and traveling into to Asia writing for The Atlantic Monthly. He was sort of a self-made anthropologist, but in 1894, he got the idea he was going to become an astronomer and he had all the money in the world. And so he decided to found an observatory, which is the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, specifically to study Mars. And Lowell studied Mars. Lowell started mapping Mars. Lowell saw the canali, and he came up with a theory that explained that they really were canals. They were irrigation canals that the Martians used to survive on a dying planet. So the only water that seemed to exist on Mars was probably in the polar caps because astronomers could see the ice caps. They would grow in the winter and shrink in the spring. But the rest of the planet seemed to be a desert. And so and the and the canals seemed to emerge. They darken in the spring and then they would fade in the fall in each hemisphere. So what was happening? Well, what you’re seeing, he said, is the vegetation growing along the canals when the water’s flowing and that’s why they darken and then in the fall, they go away. And it became this whole elaborate theory that Lowell pushed and he had others who believed him, that there were these intelligent Martians who were using technology to survive and they were more advanced than we were. And people started dreaming about what life must be on Mars.

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S1: Right. It’s such a romantic idea. And I saw the scientist to me is conflicted here because there’s the the science side that says this is crazy. But then there’s the romantic, imaginative side that thinks this is really cool. And it’s also cool because it’s storytelling that then presumably spurred on generations to get more excited about Mars. I’m more interested and actually find out the truth.

S3: Exactly. I mean, it is both. You could tell the tale in two completely different ways, right? One is this is a story of how science can go terribly wrong and how someone who can misinterpret the evidence. Many have argued to try to fit a vision that Lowell wanted to be true on. Others, including the public, wanted to be true. People really liked this idea of the Martians. And we can talk about H.G. Wells in the War of the Worlds. But for the most part, people like the idea of the Martians existing. So it can be told as a cautionary tale. But on the other hand. Why is why was Mars such an inspiration for the for the early pioneers of space exploration? Robert Goddard, the American father of rocketry, was inspired to build rockets because he read about Mars when he was a kid. And he said, I wonder if we could actually go there. And that’s the same Verner von Braun who came over from Germany and help NASA in the 50s. And later he, too, was inspired in Germany reading Mars fiction as a kid that was written because of Percival Lowell’s view of Mars.

S1: So to what extent do you think that this vision of Mars as somewhere that’s exciting and different, somewhere that we want to visit still persists? I mean, have you seen a progression here?

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S3: Well, you can certainly you know, one can connect the dots very clearly because you’ve got Percival Lowell and the others who were saying in the beginning of the 20th century that this is this is not science fiction fact. But that inspired a whole lot of fiction. Right. H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who’s most famous for his Tarzan books, but he wrote a whole series of books about Mars and about barsoum. What is the what the Martians called their home planet? Right. And John Carter famously went to Mars in the first book. And there was even a Disney movie that came out about 10 years ago about John Carter. Anyway, so we’ve got the. But then those writers inspired later writers. So Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke say they were inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs to write. So that’s why they wrote about Mars. Carl Sagan said he got into astronomy and wanted to explore the planets because he, when he was eight years old, was reading the Barsoum books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He wanted to go to Mars. So we went to Mars, you know, robotically because of the imagination, the imagination of Percival Lowell. And what he inspired

S2: was there when the first images came of different planets, maybe especially Mars. I mean, so now people are looking at literally a picture. Do you see a sort of a bump in the curve there of the way people thought? Ratnam did it turn a corner?

S3: We’ve been taking pictures of Mars now for over 100 years. So Percival, low point. In fact, when people were questioning whether his canals were really there, he thought, well, I’ve got a way to prove that they’re there. I’m going to take pictures of Mars. And that wasn’t so easy. Back in the early nineteen hundreds, planetary photography was very difficult for a lot of reasons. And both the technical side and also just getting a clear view of Mars close up through a telescope that will sit still and not jiggle it because of atmospheric distortion. Right. But Lowell came up with ways to actually take pictures of Mars. So he in nineteen oh seven and even before was taking these pictures of Mars that he said prove that the canals were real. And then over time we took better and better pictures. And then we were able to fly by Mars in the 1960s and take pictures of the surface. And every time we get closer and closer and closer to that view of Mars changes.

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S2: Well, so speaking of aliens, I mean, have any of the things you found out surprised you?

S3: A lot, but I would say the kind of the biggest thing is, you know, growing up, I I heard vaguely about the canals on Mars that there were these mythical canals on Mars. I really wasn’t sure where they came from. I’d heard about Percival Lowell, but I didn’t know the details. But what surprised me, the huge thing that surprised me was how seriously the idea was taken and how excited the public was. So in 1997, 1998, you could open up The New York Times and read an article about the Martians. In all seriousness, Alexander Graham Bell, there’s this wonderful letter I found at the Library of Congress. He was writing to his wife in 1988, not entirely sure why he was writing. He’d heard this letter about he was excited about the latest findings in astronomy, but he writes to her about how it appears the Percival Lowell is right. And there’s no question that there is intelligent life on Mars. So this I’m not I don’t mean to suggest there wasn’t controversy. There was. But this was a very serious scientific proposal that a number of serious people believed was true.

S1: Yeah, I do have a sense, looking at that period, how laypeople, the general population were thinking about this without lapping it up, where people worried. Did it really butt up against their religious beliefs, for instance?

S3: Excellent questions. And that’s something I’m exploring and have already explored and will continue to explore. But a few things. So. So first of all. I mean, there was a lot there were people who occasionally would write letters to the editor or certainly opinion writers and stuff about this, but the regarding how the public responded now, I said H.G. Wells know he wrote a classic of science fiction in the War of the Worlds. And yet I have found, other than that, very almost no evidence that people were actually afraid of the Martians. Almost all of the discussion of the Martians was that almost like they were gods or angels? I mean, then there was this sense of them as being guardian angels that they were so much more advanced than we were. It was thought that under Lowell’s theory, Mars was kind of a more advanced planet than Earth, that Mars is smaller than Earth. And that meant that he said that it cooled more quickly than Earth, like a small pot of water on the stove will cool more quickly than a large part of hot water. And that meant that as Mars went through, it got into a period where it could sustain life before the Earth did. And now it was going into a period where it was not going to be able to sustain life, which is why the Martians needed to dig the canals to bring the irrigation water to their farms. So but that meant, he said, they were at least a million years ahead of us in evolution. So they were more technologically savvy than we were. It was also believe that they were wiser than we were because. In order for the Martians to survive on a planet that was soon to be an unlivable place, they had to all band together as a planet to manage this global irrigation network or else they were doomed. Climate change, right? No, I mean, that’s exactly right. I mean, they weren’t responsible for no, no. For it, but they were in that predicament. Right. And so, in fact, this gets to the religious question. I found these sermons by. Wow. Yeah. Where preachers were talking about how we should emulate the Martians, that the Martians are our morally superior

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S1: to us is clearly what we need. Now, we need Martian sermons about climate change. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt, but I find that so interesting because if you look at the conversation these days about the impacts or potential impact of the discovery of life of Earth, it feels very different. People seem to be very worried about how this is going to undermine their beliefs. And yet I don’t get that sense from you.

S3: Well, there was there was a lot of debate about what it meant for religion. And so you did have some religious leaders and some scientists who were themselves highly religious, who fought against Lowell from a religious standpoint, not a scientific standpoint. But they said, oh, well, it’s clear that the earth was created as that. I mean, you had you had quite eminent scientists who were arguing that, yeah, OK, even though the earth revolves around the sun, we know that. But still, the earth was created specially by God as the only it is essentially the center of the universe, and it is the place where God decided to put life. That’s the end of the story, they said, and so they are coming from that standpoint, fought against Lowell. But on the other hand, you had a number of religious leaders who said they didn’t see a problem. I mean, there was this atheist newspaper I found that was making the argument that they loved the fact that they, the Martians existed and that we would be able to get in touch with the Martians, because what is what are the odds that the Martians would have a story about a savior that gave his life for them? Right. That this would undermine. All right. Traditional religion. But you had other folks, you know, in traditional churches who said, no, we don’t see any problem with that.

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S1: Yeah. So then you’re going along this journey looking at a past relationship with with Mars, looking to the future. How do you see this in forming where things go next over the next decade, more than a decade in terms of, I guess, our individual and corporate relationship with this planet

S2: or even where I’d say now,

S1: right? Yes. Yes. Because this is such an interesting time when it comes to thinking about Mars again.

S3: Well, I guess I would come at this. From a larger perspective, which is what the story teaches me is the importance of imagination in driving exploration. And now it’s certainly not the first person to say this, but what was it that got our astronauts to the moon? It wasn’t just rocket fuel and billions of dollars. It was imagination. I mean, it really right? I mean, Wernher von Braun. Built the rockets because he was inspired to do so and in fact, his goal was really to go to Mars and I think that is still true today. Will we actually send people to Mars that we’ve been taught? We have been talking about this since the 1950s. NASA is still talking about it.

S1: Is there still a need to use Mars as the stimulants of the imagination to get people excited so we can then go further afield or maybe other other things out there?

S2: Well, I’ll be interested to know what David thinks. I think so, because it is the planet that is the most likely habitat habitable right by us. Yes. And it’s about you know, it’s about the person in the story.

S3: Well, and, you know, part of what got everyone excited about Mars even before Schiaparelli saw the canals was that Mars, more than any other planet, looked like Earth, that looking through the telescope back in the mid 19th century, people could see the surface that you can’t do that with Venus and Mars. I mean, it had dark areas and light areas. So at first it was thought there were continents and seas. You could see the ice caps that grew and shrank with the seasons. Mars is tilted almost exactly the same amount as the Earth. So it has and it revolves on about a twenty four hour, a little more than 24 hours. But it has a day length about like Earth. So it seemed again, it it seemed like our kind of our little brother. And I still think there’s that feeling more than any of the other planets. That’s the planet that, yeah, there are a lot of differences between Earth and Mars. But we can see we can see our own planet there.

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S1: Right. It can still pull our imagination.

S3: Yeah. I mean, and you and Andrew and you mentioned seeing those images from the early Lanse. You know, it looks like the American West,

S1: right, right, and you can imagine yourself there. Oh, yeah, of course it’s incredibly difficult. But in your mind’s eye, you can see yourself standing in that landscape.

S2: And I think in the same way that, you know, in in history, real people started to have telescopes. I mean, it made them operators in space. Right. And one theory, it’s not original to me, but some other astronauts we’re talking about it is that if you really want to explore the moon and Mars, you need to have people on Earth, regular people on Earth, be able to drive those rovers around and do some of the work that needs done there from here so that they are on Mars.

S3: Oh, I’ll I’ll sign up.

S1: And on that note, David, thank you so much for joining us. Oh, it

S3: was it was great fun.

S2: Thank you, Miss. Marvellous to talk about this stuff with you. I can’t wait to read the book.

S1: On mission interplanetary, we can’t show you pictures of space. Instead, we bring you the sounds of space.

S2: OK, Andrew, what was that,

S1: celestial wind chimes So I don’t know, but what a beautiful piece. And it does remind me of wind chimes and I saw it my head. I can actually imagine a space cruiser with these set of wind chimes in the windshield just sort of dangling there and playing this little tune away. I’ve no idea. It’s got to be something to do with space. And it’s obviously a I guess, a sonification of something. But wind chimes is what I can’t get out of my head.

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S2: So what was it that is actually the sound of the center of our galaxy. So what you just heard is the sonification, just like you said, you are such a good physics guesser, but it’s the sonification of an image of the galactic center and sonification is literally for those of you and Andrew clearly knows. But I didn’t is sonification means translating data into sound and you basically sweep the image from right to left. And the sounds represent the position and the brightness of everything in the image. And the stars are converted into individual notes and the clouds of gas and dust particles. They produce that sort of evolving tone. So this particular recording is a composite put together of data from x ray infrared and optical from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which of course I am partial to because our crew deployed that telescope in nineteen ninety nine, along with the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope. So the certification was created by visualisations scientist Kimberly Arcand, astrophysicist Matt Rousso and musician Andrews’ sent Geita of the System Sound Project. And this is the sound of the center of the Milky Way galaxy. And it’s a region that is about four hundred light years across. And instead of just seeing it now, we can hear it.

S1: And I love that’s what amazes me is, hey, we are a species that is evolved on Earth and yet we’ve developed this ability to translate the universe around us into harmonic sound. Isn’t that just mind blowing?

S2: Let’s listen again.

S1: That’s our show for this week. Thank you so much for joining us.

S2: Mission Interplanetary is produced by Lance Garraty, our sound designer and engineer is Stephen Christensen. Our music was composed by Mario Energous.

S1: Remember to subscribe to our podcast, Spotify. Wherever you get your podcasts, leave as a review. Please do email us at interplanetary podcast at RSU dot edu. Recommend us to your friends and just pull everybody into what is the coolest podcast in space around.

S2: We are kind of prejudiced in our mission. Interplanetary is a production of Arizona State University’s Interplanetary Initiative and Slate.

S1: We’ll be back next week asking the big questions about space exploration and

S2: the future of interplanetary.

S1: We’ll see you there.