by Jeff Foust
Monday 5 June 2023
For the Love of Mars: A Human History of the Red Planet
by Matteo Shindell
University of Chicago Press, 2023
hardcover, 248 pp., illus.
It should come as no surprise that humanity’s perceptions of Mars have changed over the years, centuries, and millennia. Our understanding of the planet has changed, from a wandering red star in the night sky to a world with its own geological history and potential for life. At the same time, humanity’s knowledge of the wider universe and Mars’ place within it has changed.
Those evolving perceptions of Mars are the focus of For the love of Mars, a new book by Matthew Shindell, curator of the National Air and Space Museum. The book, he explains in the prologue, was originally intended to focus on modern Mars as studied by robotic spacecraft. But during the pandemic, he immersed himself in reading about how Mars was viewed in earlier societies, shifting the book’s focus from the “why” of Mars exploration to one who was interested in Mars past and present. “The question ‘who’ – how we understand ourselves, our place in the universe and what we hope to become – will determine why we go to Mars and what we do there,” he writes.
|“The question ‘who’ – how we understand ourselves, our place in the universe and what we hope to become – will determine why we go to Mars and what we do there,” writes Shindell.
The book covers that changing interest and perceptions of Mars on human history. Many early societies associated Mars with war and destruction, but that association was not universal. Shindell notes that the Mayans appear to have linked Mars to tropical weather patterns. In Mesopotamia, Mars could be a good or bad omen, depending on where the sky reached the opposition.
For the love of Mars leap forward to medieval times, the Renaissance, and soon he’s on “modern” Mars, though those perceptions keep changing, particularly as telescopic observations and then spacecraft missions cause the prospects of a habitable Mars to go up and down. Geologist Tim Mutch likened the daily images returned by Mariner 9, NASA’s first Martian orbiter, to a field geologist traversing through new terrain, eliminating “the ‘old’ Mars as in countless hours of prior speculation it had been little more than science fiction. (Of course there had been a lot of science fiction about Mars, which the book is also about.)
The book, however, comes a little short near present day when it examines the prospects for human exploration of Mars. After reviewing the history of robotic exploration, he turns at the end of the book to potential human missions, including the desire to avoid bringing issues (environmental and cultural) with us from Earth to Mars. There’s more discussion, though, than sci-fi, like The Expanse AND The Martian, that of the actual planning of human missions and how this has evolved in recent decades. Robert Zubrin, whose Mars Direct architecture reshaped thinking about human missions to Mars and helped catalyze a new interest in human missions nearly three decades ago; and Elon Musk, who made human settlement on Mars a central goal of the his work at SpaceX, receive only brief mentions in the book.
Our thinking about Mars will evolve over time thanks to both scientific and cultural changes, and despite the optimism of proponents like Musk and Zubrin, it could still be decades before the first human sets foot on the Red Planet. When that finally happens, Shindell writes, it will be “so massive a feat that it will become one of the greatest technical and cultural projects of his time.” This prompts a question he uses to conclude the book: “Who do we want to be when we become Martians?”
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