You’ve thought about living on Mars, right? If you haven’t, you’re not in the majority. People are obsessed with going to Mars, and it’s not a new phenomenon. NASA has been working on research and plans to get the first humans to the red planet within the next few decades, and new information comes up all the time.
So when did our curiosity start, and what is this obsession’s probable outcome?
The History of Our Fixation on Mars
For the last 50 to 60 years, scientists and civilians alike have been obsessed with Mars and curious enough to come up with a wide range of theories and rumors about the red planet. Some of them make us laugh today. Some we haven’t let go of. In the 1950s and 60s, before the Mariner flybys proved us wrong, scientists believed both water and life existed on the planet. The main reason for the belief was the fact that Mars’ spectrum mimics the color of vegetation, which seemed to be evidence of chlorophyll.
The next logical leap from the idea of plants on the planet is that of aliens who could invade Earth at any moment to further their agenda, whatever that may be. Next comes Mars’ invasion of pop culture as we know it.
Mars and Pop Culture
It’s nearly impossible for anyone reading this to have avoided references to space in their daily entertainment. All the exciting theories and rumors about Mars throughout the years led to countless pop culture references that thrive to this day. We fear — but also love — the idea of aliens and Martians, which is why they show up in so much of our content. Movies like “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” have terrified and excited viewers for decades.
Today, some of our favorite science fiction shows, books and movies have been catching people’s attention with a twist. An interesting change in our mindset is beginning to surface in our popular culture: Aliens aren’t invading Earth in media as much as we’re exploring and inhabiting other planets — think “The Martian.”
Following the lead of LEGO and Barbie, the new American Girl doll is even space-themed: an 11-year-old girl named Luciana Vega aspiring to be the first astronaut to reach Mars. The doll, her backstory and her gear took collaboration between the company, NASA and a panel of scientists and astronauts.
What We Actually Know
Scientists’ recent and ongoing research and discoveries about the red planet will help in future missions to Mars, which is part of the reason we’ve been gathering data for so long. The following are the crafts we’ve sent to the red planet so far:
- Mariner 3 and 4: These spacecraft, deployed in 1964, were identical — created to complete the first Mars flybys. Mariner 3 did not make it, and 4 successfully embarked on an eight-month trip.
- Mariner 6 and 7: In 1969, these spacecraft completed the first ever dual mission to Mars. They analyzed the planet’s surface and atmosphere with remote sensors. They also recorded and relayed hundreds of pictures to us.
- Mariner 8 and 9: The third and final pair of Mars missions in the Mariner series from NASA in the 1960s and early 70s, these two spacecraft had opposite fates. Mariner 8 failed during launch, whereas 9 became the first artificial Mars satellite when it arrived and entered orbit.
- Viking: Launched in 1976, NASA’s Viking Project will forever be remembered as a historic mission that resulted in the first safe landing of any spacecraft on another planet’s surface. Two identical spacecraft with lander and orbiter were built, and both descended to the surface of Mars.
- Mars Observer: This mission began in 1992. The United States sent Mars Observer, which was based on an Earth-orbiting, commercial communications satellite that had been adapted into an orbiter meant for Mars. The mission was to study the geophysics, climate and geology of the planet, but we lost contact with the spacecraft soon before its predicted date to enter Mars’ orbit.
- Mars Pathfinder: Made of a lander and the Sojourner rover, the Mars Pathfinder gave us unprecedented amounts of new data after its 1996 launch during exploration of an ancient flood plain in the northern hemisphere of Mars — Ares Vallis.
- Mars Climate Orbiter: This piece, launched in 1998, was supposed to function as a communications relay for the Mars Polar Lander and an interplanetary weather satellite. It was lost on arrival, and engineers concluded that it burned up.
- Mars Polar Lander/Deep Space 2: This mission was to set a spacecraft in the frigid terrain close to the edge of Mars’ south polar cap. The craft was supposed to dig for water ice using a robotic arm. Both spacecraft were lost at arrival.
- Mars Global Surveyor: After launch in 1996 and arrival in 1997, this spacecraft operated at Mars longer than any other in history. It lasted more than four times longer than planned and returned detailed information that has completely changed our understanding of the red planet.
- Phoenix: This spacecraft landed successfully on the north polar region of Mars with a mission to dig up and then analyze icy soil. Its launch was in 2007, and its arrival was in 2008. It carries a suite of improved instruments for its purposes.
Plans to Get Further Into Space?
The International Space Station undoubtedly puts its inhabitants farther away from our beloved Earth than most would ever feel comfortable with — 240 miles above our surface, to be exact. But it’s slated for retirement in 2028, and the new proposed mission, dubbed the Deep Space Gateway, will work more like a home away from home…away from home. It will orbit the moon a quarter of a million miles from Earth, which is a thousand times further away than the ISS.
From that far away, instead of seeing the lights of our looming cities like astronauts in the ISS do now, inhabitants of the DSG would see only a thumbs-width planet from afar. Additionally, the DSG’s proposed distance away from Earth comes with a unique set of challenges humanity hasn’t faced before, even in the realm of space travel. It’s bound to have psychological effects on passengers due to loneliness and isolation. It’s also a more dangerous mission, as it would take much longer for help to arrive if something went wrong.
So why do it? Different people have different theories, but many believe that it’s an attempt to prepare ourselves to reach deep space and the red planet. We’ll be able to gain experience from the cis-lunar space near the moon for missions that push farther into the solar system, eventually to Mars. Many people believe we’ll be ready to send people to Mars within the next 15 years.
It looks like all this obsession might just pay off when we see the first group of people touch down on the red planet. Have your own theories about our space-traveling future? Let us in on your ideas!