Thursday, June 13, 2019

A Myth Known as Mars (psst, NASA's not going there, pass it on)

Dear Readers:

Many of you know that I've recently taken NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and other top managers in the agency to task for not being able to talk about plans to go back to the moon (this time to stay) without mentioning Mars in the same breath. My unhappiness over this tendency is pretty simple: Not only do I not like being told a myth as if it were true unless it's by a Tolkien type of myth teller, I don't like young people to be the victim of myths told again and again until even the myth-tellers think they're telling the truth.

Mr. Tolkien, Myth-Teller, whose wonderful books were fiction.

So, children, here is the truth: NASA has no plans now, nor has it ever had plans, nor does it have a plan to have plans to send humans to Mars. As of right now, it isn't going, not with humans, and if you're depending on NASA to get you there, you are going to have a very long wait. Below, I'll list some of the things the agency would have done already if it was going to send humans to Mars (spoiler alert: they've done none of them).

Of course, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is a very nice man and a competent manager and also very smart. I know him and admire and respect him. So why does he and others in NASA and nearly every person who has anything to do with human spaceflight in the federal government keep talking about going to Mars when they have orders to go to the moon?

Sadly, it is because they like so many others are the victims of a Martian illusion promoted by a billionaire astronomer - sort of a star-gazing Bernie Madoff - more than a century ago. It is an illusion that just won't go away even though it is clearly a fantasy. Believe me, I take no joy in pointing this out because it is really kind of sad. So often, it isn't reality that is the most difficult to overcome when we have to face the truth but the fantasies that we carry in our heads.

Here is the story of that billionaire and how he started the entire fantasy about Mars that, even today, so thoroughly infects NASA, space policy wonks, and the public at large about human spaceflight and where people should try to set up shop "out there."



Here is Don Knotts, a fellow West Virginian, playing an astronaut
 that I'm including just because.

Recently, I had cause to research for a screenplay one Clyde Tombaugh, a nerdy but persistent fellow who discovered the dwarf planet Pluto in 1929 (just in time for the Depression but hey).

Clyde Tombaugh
In the process of studying Clyde's experiences, I ran across another interesting story, that of the very wealthy raconteur, author, and erstwhile astronomer who founded the Lowell Observatory, he being Dr. Percival Lowell, and his secretary, assistant, and mistress Miss Wrexi Louise Leonard who would become, against all odds, the first American female professional astronomer.

Percival Lowell at his telescope in his observatory

Wrexi Leonard making her own independent observations
at the Lowell Observatory

Dr. Lowell (an honorary title) was a very rich member of the Lowell family, a bunch of Boston Brahmins who were rumored to only talk to the Cabots who only talked to God. His sister was a cigar-smoking poet and also an avowed Lesbian. This was during the Gilded Age when Victorian mores were still in effect so Ms Lowell truly didn't care what anybody thought about much of anything. His brother was the President of Harvard, his other sister a well-known although somewhat eccentric philanthropist.

Amy Lowell, Percival's sister
With such siblings, I guess you could say that Percival came from interesting stock. On the other hand, when you're as rich as the Lowells were, I suppose being interesting might be somewhat natural.

Anyway, after exploring the sexual mores of the ladies of Asia and writing titillating memoirs about his experiences, Percival decided his next pursuit of the good life was to become an astronomer. He therefore constructed the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, dragged poor Wrexi out there with him, and got to work. Before long, he discovered Mars. Well, not really, as the planet had been known since ancient times but sort of because he saw it in ways nobody had ever seen it before.

One of Percival Lowell's many drawings of Mars

When Dr. Lowell studied Mars from his hilltop observatory above Flagstaff, he saw odd features on the red planet. The more he looked at them and drew them, the more he was convinced he was seeing signs of present or past intelligent life. Night after night, he drew what he saw which were lines that streaked across the planet, some of them intersecting in smudgy places as if on purpose. Before long, he was certain that what he was seeing were canals and the intersections were surely oases where the beings who had dug the canals were living.

Wrexi with Lowell Observatory staff
Since Lowell often left Wrexi alone at the observatory while he travelled hither and yon, she rolled up her sleeves and started to learn astronomy. A coal miner's daughter and therefore extremely intelligent, Wrexi also pretty much ran the facility. She published her observations in several prestigious scientific journals that were so well regarded the Mexican and the French Astronomical societies saw fit to give her awards and induct her into their organizations. This was nearly unprecedented for a female at that time.

Wrexi Leonard's observations of Mars in 1897

But back to Percival Lowell.

From his observations, Lowell conjured up the idea that Martians were building canals to transport water from the poles in order to sustain their civilization which was facing (or had faced) enormous climate change. Since Earthian scientists were then concerned about our own climate change due to the mini-ice age (hmmm...), this struck a public nerve.  Lowell wrote many books on these amazing lines and what they meant. He even went on the lecture circuit and, before long, Percival Lowell was something of a pop star of his age and Mars grew into a symbol of life on the edge that was eagerly clasped to its bosom by a repressed and somewhat anxious society which was thrilled there were creatures out there besides themselves who were probably equally miserable and scared.

Some books, mostly about Mars, by Percival Lowell

A careful reading of his writing (difficult as it's pretty dense stuff) shows it isn't entirely clear that Lowell believed his own hype. Actually, he saw that Europe was heading pan over skillet for the Great War and it was his hope that his Martian chronicles would demonstrate that people were better off cooperating in the face of disaster than killing one another off. Nonetheless, the Europeans saw fit to kill one another off by the millions which so disappointed Lowell that he died of a stroke at the young age of 61. Well, it may be that his battleaxe of a wife poisoned him since she was so jealous of Wrexi (my own theory completely devoid and utterly absent of any evidence) but nonetheless Lowell went to the great Mars in the sky, leaving his observatory to struggle on while Lowell's widow sued it and tried to destroy it until Clyde showed up and discovered Pluto but that's another story. Wrexi, by the way, was thrown out on the street by Lowell's wife and ended up in the poor house (literally).

Wrexi's tombstone. She died poor and alone.
Other than his failure to see that Miss Leonard was properly rewarded and cared for as a result of her long service to him and his family, Lowell's legacy was Mars, or the misunderstanding of what Mars really was, and his purplish prose about what he thought he saw spawned a vast array of fiction including Wells' War of the Worlds, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, and Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. Mars in the minds of so many readers became sort of a mini-Earth, or a place where another Earth might rise, and where humans should aspire to go because it was, well, Mars which beckoned with open arms. Besides these literate, exciting books, there came thousands and thousands of tales in book or film form set on a fictional Mars, nearly all of it grown straight out of Percival Lowell's imagination while he peered through his telescopes atop an Arizona mountain (the canals, by the by, might have been the reflection of the veins in his eyes). Lowell's prose was so romantic and his lectures so interesting that, over time, in nearly everyone's head Mars became not what it actually was but what everyone wanted it to be.

And there you go!
But then came a violent correction of Lowell's Martian dreams in the form of the truth.

Mariner IV - Dream Slayer
In 1965, NASA' s Mariner IV flew past Mars and took photos and other measurements. What it sent back shocked scientists and lay people still awash with Lowellian dreams of a ruddy but livable world. The photographs revealed only a tortured plain of craters and dirt. Moreover, the flyby confirmed that the Martian atmosphere was only about 1% of Earth's and almost entirely carbon dioxide. The planet also had no magnetic field. In other words, Mars was a dead planet. Dead, dead, dead.
Wait a minute, Mariner IV... Can this be right? This is Mars?
The midget planet (only one third the size of Earth) was now known to be nothing but a battered old red rock located far, far away but NASA (bless its heart for persistence) labored on in its study of the place but sadly now with the dream of a little globe somewhat like Earth totally crushed.

Lowell's dreamy depictions of Mars and all the fiction that had been built up around it, however, proved extremely difficult to suspend and, very soon, the ancient red corpse was being resurrected as a place where humans absolutely needed to go. This time, it was by none other than Dr. Wernher von Braun, something of a dreamer himself, who put Mars back up on its pedestal with a rhetorical stick up its, um, back to hold it up. This, oddly enough, was because of the Apollo moon program which, after an initial rush of excitement after the first landing and the thrill of the Apollo 13 rescue, quickly lapsed below the fold in interest by a bored public.

My cat Wyatt being bored like the American public. I am
including this because he's also cute (so is the American public)
As an aside, what could have happened at this point was that NASA and the American intelligentsia might have said to themselves, "You know, these Apollo flights have been great and we've learned a lot but they've kind of run their course with the present technology. Let's pause, consider what we've learned, and in the meantime slowly and responsibly build more robust systems to go to the lunar surface so that we might prosper from our success..."

Thinking like the Thinker, a somewhat untested process in the
 United States overall space program
But nooooo.

Before we scarcely got there, the moon flights were cancelled along with Dr. von Braun's extremely successful heavy lifting Saturn V rocket. Hurt by this rejection, the doctor latched onto Mars and waxed eloquently on it as a substitute destination. To get there, he conjured up a multi-tiered approach of building a space shuttle, then a space station, and then nuclear rocket engines that would propel twin spacecraft and their landers to the small red planet. He said to anyone who would listen that Mars was the "next moon" and so he prepared his pitch to the powers that be and it was a good one, too.
Dr. von Braun's Hail Mary Pass to Mars
Unfortunately...

The day after Dr. von Braun made his presentation on going to Mars to Vice President Agnew (soon to resign for taking bribes) and Congress (nobody resigned even though, well, you know), Mariner VII swept by Mars and revealed, yep, Mariner IV wasn't kidding. Mars was not only dead but it was really, really dead. Von Braun was therefore summarily dismissed, his presentation tossed in the trash can, and any idea of going to Mars was forgotten.

Thank you, Dr. von Braun.
We will consider your proposal carefully - Congress.

But not really. NASA yet persevered, this time in the 1970's with two Viking spacecraft that actually landed on the dusty little planet's surface, one of the experiments even looking for signs of life. The result of that experiment was no life was found... or was it? There was some uncertainty. Over the next few decades, NASA dispatched increasingly sophisticated spacecraft to the small planet for detailed studies. These probes showed Mars to be a lot more interesting than the Mariner and even the Viking missions predicted. It was a world that had once known flowing water and still had polar ice caps, had deep canyons and giant mountains, and was geologically diverse. Moreover, little American robots with cute names began to roam the Martian surface and as they went along, they began to take on personalities and were praised for being brave and hardy and true pioneers.

Curiosity Rover on Mars keeping it real.

Percival Lowell, in sheer delight at these developments, might have sat bolt upright if he wasn't dead under a concrete slab in a mausoleum his thoroughly irritated widow put him beneath on his observatory mountain which was called, wait for it, Mars Hill. That's right. Mars was in again! Let's go!

Constance Lowell at Percival's Mausoleum
"Hey there! How ya doin'?
I had your concubine Wrexi thrown in the street, just so you know!
I also sued your Observatory for its last dime! Have a nice death!"
And so the Martian myth came alive yet again just as NASA's space shuttle program was shut down for being too expensive and too dangerous, and its International Space Station, otherwise a magnificent construction, was unfortunately, no matter how one looked at it, adding very little to science and essentially nothing to the economy and therefore needed to be pitched just like Apollo was (I will resist putting another photo of The Thinker here).

But when reality fails, dreams can substitute. The Lowellian fantasy floated right back into people's heads. We need to go to Mars! Soon, children picked up on what the adults at NASA were saying and little red planets began to circle their heads. Noticing, NASA public relations folks changed We need to go to Mars! to We're going to Mars! And then after praise came their way for their declaration, there came a shazam! realization within the old agency that, to continue that praise, the leaders there didn't actually have to do the hard work of building anything to go to Mars! It only had to say it was going and people, especially young people, adored them and their agency! So they kept saying it and saying it and pretty soon the highnesses of NASA came to believe it, too. We're going to Mars!

We're going to Mars!

But, while they were saying it, NASA did nothing to make it a reality. Not. A. Thing.

Accepting for the moment that humans need to go to this small, reddish, essentially airless and radiation-washed planet because it's just marvelous there, what is it that needs to be done so that we complex and quite fragile organisms (who get sick and die on Mount Everest which is Disney World compared to Mars) might actually go and live there? Well, let's list some of them and see where we are.

 1. Testing of spacecraft large enough to sustain a crew for two years going and coming.  - Nothing accomplished or even proposed.*
 2. Testing of habitats that would sustain humans on an airless, radiation-washed planet for any length of time - Nothing accomplished or even proposed.
 3. Testing of Martian landers. - Nothing accomplished or even proposed.
 4. Testing of artificial gravity in order to ameliorate the harmful effects of long-term microgravity (use of centrifugal forces?) - Nothing accomplished or even proposed.*
 5. Testing of shielding or medicine to ameliorate the harmful effects of radiation during spaceflight or the Martian surface - Nothing accomplished or even proposed.*
 6. Testing of power sources on the Martian surface (nuclear and solar generators?) - Nothing accomplished but some proposals with minor funding and relaxed schedules.
 7.  Testing of advanced propulsion systems to ameliorate long journey across the nothingness between Earth and Mars (nuclear?) - Nothing accomplished but some proposals with minor funding and relaxed schedules.

* Could have been tested on the International Space Station but wasn't which tells the tale I'm getting at very well.

Mars Plans? We don't have no stinkin' Mars Plans!

I could go on but I think the point is made. NASA has accomplished essentially nothing to get ready to send humans to Mars and there is virtually nothing in the pipeline. Still and yet, they keep saying We're going to Mars! even while being ordered to instead go to the moon. Well, actually, that command has forced them to modify their battlecry by putting it this way: We're going to the moon so we can go to Mars! Uh huh, right.

By the way, not talking about Elon here. That boy might just give it a go but that's on his dime which probably has the head of Percival Lowell on it rather than President Roosevelt's. Do it, Mr. Musk. I will cheer you on. Glad you liked The Dinosaur Hunter, by the way.

Elon reading The Dinosaur Hunter and being thoroughly amused.

And speaking of me...

Just about everyone who pays the slightest bit of attention to my writing about space (a small percentage of my literary output but still...) knows that I am a hopeless human domiciliary lunaphile (that means I love the idea of people living on the moon and doesn't mean something bad) and believe that we as a civilization have much productive work scientifically and economically to do on the planet that circles us. Just as Mars, the more we look at the moon, the more interesting it becomes. One difference is the moon is accessible by humans while Mars simply isn't. Another is humans have real work to do on the moon, work that will make life on Earth better, its people wealthier and more knowledgable and even spur some of them to actually live and work and raise families there. By the by, I could not possibly care less who the next professional astronaut, regardless of gender, who steps on the moon is. I only care who the next plumber, carpenter, mechanic, miner, or electrician is. The moon may be for scientists but it, like Antarctica and West Virginia, is also for blue collar workers who know how to build things and keep them running. That, to me, is really exciting to contemplate!

My trilogy of moon books, not counting Back to the Moon
My book the Vice President likes.

In fact, I believe the moon is vastly more important to us as a species than Mars will ever be. By utilizing the resources of our nearby neighbor, we can create a spacefaring civilization that, for decades to come, will be mostly back and forth between us and our newly installed lunar brethren and sisteren. But to build what we need on the moon and properly explore it, we're going to have to do a lot of work while not being distracted by that shiny Lowellian myth known as Mars.

Moi and my favorite planet not counting the one I'm presently on.
So, NASA and Mr. Bridenstine, I really regret having to be so pedantic about this entire Mars business but this is the unfortunate truth. You sending astronauts to Mars isn't going to happen because, not only haven't you prepared for it in any way, it probably shouldn't happen. There is absolutely nothing there that needs people. Unless our technology makes a huge leap, or something so extraordinary is discovered on this midget planet that we must go have a look with our real eyeballs, we need to accept the reality (I know it's difficult and I hate it as much as you) that Mars is a hideously awful place, worse than anything you can imagine. It will kill you every which way from Sunday and laugh while it's doing it. And should people go there, they will always be an economic drain, never adding anything back to the Earthians who spent a fortune to send them there except photographs of them desperately waiting for the next supply ship (should it ever come). It will be worse than the colonists on Roanoke Island who at least had air to breathe and water to drink and didn't have to live underground to keep from glowing in the dark but still  disappeared way back when without a trace except for a pathetic word "CROATOAN" on a tree. Maybe the Martian colonists will stamp out a similar message in the dust for any visitors who should happen by to find their remains.

"Hey soldier, do you understand what this means?"
"Not a clue, sir."
"Well, where is everybody?"
"Um, well, perhaps something's amiss, sir."
Again, I'm really sorry for being fussy but let's just stop all this Mars stuff and go to the place where we need to go for economic as well as scientific reasons and please stop saying it's only so we can go to Mars. It's a big fib and an unnecessary one. Don't take me wrong. I absolutely believe Mars should be explored by the federal government's space agency but by robots and AI which every year get better and better and are extensions of we humans, anyway. They'll get us all the information we need and, after all, that's all you're really planning to do so all I'm saying is let's stay real and let Dr. Lowell rest.

Quote from Percival Lowell on his mausoleum
But I'm not as certain we should let Wrexi rest. That woman deserves a medal for putting up with Percival and winning honors for her astronomical work before being shoved into a pauper's grave. How about a Wrexi Leonard Avenue?

Miss Wrexi Leonard,
the first professional female astronomer in the United States


Thank you,

Homer