Reading my newspaper, the LA Times, which I have delivered right to my front door (well, to the foot of the stairs of my building – like they can’t just chuck it up over the 1st floor balcony), I discovered that this week is the 80th anniversary of Jet Propulsion Laboratories. These are the guys that land things on Mars. The only guys that have done it. From rockets to robots to remote-controlled rovers, JPL has done it all: gone the farthest, been the best, are the best. If they brought your newspaper in the morning, they would also bring coffee and read the first few stories out loud to you as you showered. They’re that good. And it’s their birthday, so here’s a Mars-themed party.
Getting into the coolness and inspiration of the red planet is Old Mars, an anthology of Mars adventure/sci-fi in the style of the classic stories, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois. Liz Williams, Moorcock, Lansdale and other current hot shots write the kinda tales they read as kids. These are what got kids into Star Trek and got them into science and got them jobs building robots to send to Mars. See how that works? It’s not nuts-n-boltsy sci-fi; it’s the kind with lazers-n-shit. Nothing wrong with that.
For longform Mars stories, the obvious choice – and maybe it’s time you read this – is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Yeah, they’re doing a TV show of it, but you won’t be able to bitch about what they get wrong if you haven’t read the books. Follow it up with the related short stories in The Martians. If you’re not familiar with this series – because you’ve actually been on Mars since the 90s – they are the story of the development of the 4th planet, from the dry, empty, red dirt clod we know and love (Red Mars), thru a terraforming phase (Green Mars), to a period where it becomes the Solar System’s dominant planet (Blue Mars), all over several hundred years.
You won’t believe this one – unless you already knew about it and are just, therefore, way way cooler than me – but there’s an epic POEM about terraforming Mars. Published in the 80s, it was out of print for awhile. Genesis from Frederick Turner was one of the first works to talk about terraforming Mars. At one point, it was even on the NASA reading list. It is in verse. A poem about terraforming Mars. I can’t wrap my head around that.
Get the latest edition of The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must from Robert Zubrin and Richard Wagner. This book is a how-why argument for settlement, and argues that we could establish a colony there with current technology. It is ambitious, and since its first edition publication in the 90s, it has had respect and support. If we get there soonish, this book will be one reason why.
Also from Robert Zubrin, is the handy How to Live on Mars: A Trusty Guidebook to Surviving and Thriving on the Red Planet. Keep this in your bathroom and stash it in your carry-on when on the move; you will refer to it often as unexpected situations arise: How to pick a spacesuit? How to choose members for an explorations team? And, of course, pickup lines. Just cuz you think you a playa on Earth, doesn’t mean you da shit on Mars.
What about landing a small car on the red planet? Adam Steltzner’s The Right Kind of Crazy ranges from personal memoir to play-by-play of the overwhelmingly complex achievement of landing the Curiosity rover, starting in the 60s, before he was even a science guy. This is the life and times of someone currently on the cutting edge of exploration.
Pick up your Haynes Manual for NASA Mars Rovers. Yeah, I know you know what you’re doing, but Murphy’s Law is a law everywhere, so keep this damn thing in your bag just in case. It’s a long way from there to Pasadena, so you better have what you need with you.
And if all that math is somehow not butch enough for you, take Buzz Aldrin’s Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration for a ride. Actual astronaut, actual explorer, actual human (not a robot or rover – I know, cuz I met him once). He also knows we can and should get our fannies up there on that red dot in the sky, and this is his persuasive boot to the tush as to how and why. Same deal, but with steelier eyes and squarer shoulders. And learn your calculus, ya pansy.
According to folks interviewed in Ashlee Vance’s book, Elon Musk is not a cool guy. His bio, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, covers the genius, billionaire, playboy, kind-of-a-philanthropist-but-not-in-a-conventional-way, and is on this list only because Musk has a decent chance of getting to Mars. He seems fine with crushing a lot of folks along the way, and that’s terrible, full stop – and he is pretty damn smart and determined and it’s cool that he wants to go to Mars and I bet he’ll pull it off. That’s a conflict you see happening right there in my admiration for this dude. I’m more of a JPL/NASA “Let’s pull together and do it as a nation – no, as a species” kinda guy, but Elon Musk is damn inspiring. Maybe when he achieves everything he ever dreamed of and is looking across the terraformed valley of his Martian estate in his old age, a single tear will slide down his cheek, and he – now all alone – will think, “I was a dick.” But we’ll still name candy bars after him, and dress up like him on Mars Independence Day.
And on to the red SOB its own damn self: Mars from Giles Sparrow. Its formation and geography, the icecaps, the towering volcanoes, the deep craggy gorges and vast, ancient floodplains; its ancient pyramids, covered in alien hieroglyphics and swarming herds of chartreuse antelope and swooping snake-birds —- ah, kidding – but wouldn’t it be cool? My silliness aside, this book is a portrait of the planet and everything we know about it, collecting decades of study and all we’ve learned from our robotic scouts. Flip through this collection and tell me with a straight face it wouldn’t be worth the risk of sitting on a few tons of rocket fuel for just a chance. Don’t bring Matt Damon.
One more portrait of the planet and our possibilities on it is National Geographic’s Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet from Leonard Davis. This is the companion to the series (from Ron Howard), and is part fictional Mars mission – part talking expert heads. It’s sort of the perfect storm for sci-fi fans who also obsess over the educational channels. (Like me.)
Obviously, don’t neglect the classic Ray Bradbury The Martian Chronicles or the more recent The Martian from Andy Weir (yes, the one from the movie) which is good on the science. I don’t mention them because maybe everyone knows them(?) And also: John Carter of Mars, which goes right up there at the top of this list, with the adventure stories.
That’s what it’s all about, even if there is a metric-shit-ton of math and you have to pee in your space suit: adventure. We’re all down here on the blue planet, and while this planet is excellent – even way way better than that red one up there, there is no damn reason in the universe we should not be up there, too. It’s not greedy, it’s not arrogant, it’s not avoidant of our local problems: it is fully human, and it is (at least partly) what we are meant for.
And JPL has kept the flame alive when the rest of us had lost our way. Mothballed rocket boosters, up-on-blocks Space Shuttles — but there’s JPL, tinkering with its remote-controlled cars in the garage, being ready for when we get serious again.
God bless you, JPL, and happy birthday.
If you remain unconvinced of the joys of Mars, check out this little bit from our man George RR.