Because it looked to us like humans might finally be on the road to the Red Planet again after decades of mucking around in low earth orbit doing not much of anything.
In 1998, it was clear, of course, that no new space initiatives would happen while Bill Clinton was still in office. Clinton had other fish to fry, and with only two years left in his term, there was no way he’d try to sponsor a grand mission to Mars.
But we knew there would be a new president elected in 2000. Democrat or Republican, the new guy would want to make a splash, and with the economy humming, that splash might actually involve something big and bold and expensive.
Like going to Mars.
So John and I began doing research and laying out a vision for our book. We focused on the ideas of Dr. Robert Zubrin, the feisty and iconoclastic leader of the Mars Society. Zubrin had some very innovative plans for going to Mars.
“Travel light” was Zubrin’s motto. If you can use the natural resources on Mars to help you get home, then you don’t need to take as much stuff with you. The lighter you can travel, the cheaper you can go, and the less risk you’ll run.
What natural resources? Carbon dioxide, for one. The Martian atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide. If you took a bit of hydrogen with you, along with a small nuclear reactor, you could use the nuke to drive a small chemical factory to combine your hydrogen with the native carbon dioxide to produce methane and oxygen — the fuel you’d need to get yourself off the planet and to take you home to earth.
That was a brilliant idea, and Zubrin spelled out the details in his book THE CASE FOR MARS. John and I thought it could work, and we planned the mission for our novel around Zubrin’s ideas.
Within months, we pitched the idea to Steve Laube, then an editor at Bethany House who was interested in starting a line of science fiction and fantasy. Steve had already signed our friend Kathy Tyers to a series of novels, and he told us that he’d be interested in signing us too, IF our writing was good enough.
That was enough for us. John and I spent much of 1999 researching our book. We went to the Mars Society conference in Boulder, Colorado, where we met Robert Zubrin himself, and literally rubbed shoulders with another space nut who was then working on an idea for a Mars movie — director James Cameron.
Knowing that we were competing with Cameron gave us an underdog status that ignited our efforts. We worked furiously through the fall, writing and rewriting our proposal and sample chapters. Finally, a week before Christmas, we sent in our proposal to Steve.
Less than seven weeks later, we had an offer for our novel, OXYGEN, a novel about the first mission to Mars. We worked through most of the year 2000, eventually writing about fifteen drafts. In May of 2001, the book was published.
By that time, there was a shiny new president in the White House, George Bush. There was also a bit of a recession going on, so it was already clear that the road to Mars would be rockier than we had hoped during the prosperous final years of the Clinton administration.
Even so, we thought there was a decent chance that humans could go to Mars on our timetable, which called for a first unmanned mission in late 2011 and a manned mission in 2014. (Flights to Mars require a lot of fuel, and the transit is easiest roughly every two years when the orbits of the two planets are just right.)
In September of 2011, terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers and George Bush found himself in a war on terror. A massively expensive war on terror. A war that dragged on for years and years, sucking all oxygen out of the economy and consuming the attention of politicians.
Near the end of the Bush era, the economy fell off a cliff. There simply isn’t any money for a mission to Mars right now. There may not be for a long time.
The road to Mars remains the road not taken.
That raises the question of whether humans will ever go to Mars. There is never going to be a convenient time. The war on terror may drag on for years or decades, like the Cold War, sapping our money and defocusing our efforts.
The crazy thing is that the main problem in going to Mars is not the money. NASA’s current budget is less than 20 billion dollars,
roughly what the US government spends every 48 hours.
If NASA committed itself to a Mars program, we could probably put humans on Mars in ten to fifteen years, without spending anything extra. We’d have to travel light, which is not the usual NASA way, but we could do it.
The main problem in going to Mars is that nobody is willing or able to commit ten or fifteen years of focused effort to going there. Going to Mars is not a decision NASA is allowed to make. That’s a political decision, and politicians are generally looking to the next election. Depending on the politician, that’s two, four, or six years away, at most.
There’s a risk in going to Mars, of course. When you send humans on a trip to another planet, you run the very real risk that they might not come back alive. Heck, if you send somebody on a trip to Safeway, they might not come back alive. In 2010, more than 32,000 people were killed in America in traffic accidents. In the last thirty years, two space shuttle missions have ended in disaster, killing fourteen astronauts.
As yet, nobody has died on the road to Mars, because nobody has ever set foot on the road to Mars.
In our book OXYGEN, we made the mission dangerous because we think it will be dangerous. But we also think it’s worth going.
Why go to Mars?
Nobody can answer that question completely, because we don’t know what we’ll find there.
It’s extremely likely that planetary scientists will learn a lot more about the geological history of Mars, which will tell us something about the development of the solar system over the last 4.5 billion years. And that will very likely tell us new things about our own planet.
It’s also very likely that we’ll be able to figure out whether Mars might make a suitable second home for humans. It’s not a very hospitable place right now, but with some terraforming, it’s plausible that Mars could be a second home for humanity. There’s no way to know unless we go there and see what it’s like.
It’s also quite possible that Mars might teach us something about life. Is there life now on Mars? Probably not. Was there ever life on Mars? That’s hard to say.
Mars is cold and dry and geologically dead now, with a very thin atmosphere. But it wasn’t always that way, and it’s possible that a few billion years ago, Mars might have been home to life.
What kind of life? That’s anybody’s guess.
It’s possible that it’s the same kind of life that flourished in the past on earth. About 500 pounds of Martian rocks fall onto earth every year, as a result of meteorites that smash into Mars occasionally. Some of these rocks could bring life from Mars to earth. And it’s possible that rocks (with life) could go the other direction, from earth to Mars. So the Martian tree of life might be part of earth’s tree of life.
But not necessarily. The trip to or from Mars is long, and anything that made the trip alive trapped in rocks would need to be incredibly tough. So that’s a long shot.
If you believe that life evolved on earth, then you presumably believe that life might also have evolved on Mars, and so it makes sense to look for it there to test that idea. If you believe that the odds of life evolving on earth are astronomically low, then you presumably also believe that the odds are astronomically low that life might also have evolved on Mars, and so it makes sense to look for it there to test that idea.
Either way, the search for life on Mars would throw some light on the origin-of-life question.
So should we go to Mars? I think we should. It’s a whole new world, waiting to be explored. We have no more idea what value Mars will be to us than Columbus had of the value of the New World when he stumbled across it in 1492. The only way to know is to go.
The main question is how to get there, when no government seems willing to make a commitment to a ten or fifteen year program.
Dr. Robert Zubrin recently published an article in the Washington Times that spells out an idea on how the government might foster private enterprise to open up space in a way that could eventually take mankind to Mars.
I have no idea if any government is going to act on Zubrin’s idea. Mars sounds so far away and so impossible that most people in government just aren’t interested. The road to Mars may remain the road not taken for a very long time.
Final note: Our book OXYGEN won a Christy award in 2002. It was also named to the New York Public Library’s list of “Books for the Teen Age” — a list of books considered by the library to be excellent reading for teens. We’ll be republishing OXYGEN soon as an e-book, and it will also be republished on paper this fall through Marcher Lord Press.
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Randy writes about life at “the intersection of Science Avenue and Faith Boulevard” — a poorly lit section of town where there are plenty of fights and accidents. Randy is best known around the world as “the Snowflake Guy” for his widely used “Snowflake method” of designing a novel. His most recent book is WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES. You can find Randy online at his personal site or Advanced Fiction Writing.