Skip to main content

Why I love Mars

By Greg Bear, Special to CNN
August 9, 2012 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Water-ice clouds, polar ice and other geographic features can be seen in this full-disk image of Mars from 2011. NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover touched down on the planet on August 6, 2012. Take a look at stunning photographs of Mars over the years. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/14/tech/gallery/mars-curiosity-rover/index.html' target='_blank'>Check out images from the Mars rover Curiosity</a>. Water-ice clouds, polar ice and other geographic features can be seen in this full-disk image of Mars from 2011. NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover touched down on the planet on August 6, 2012. Take a look at stunning photographs of Mars over the years. Check out images from the Mars rover Curiosity.
HIDE CAPTION
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Greg Bear: I like to imagine taking a vacation on Mars
  • He says the thin atmosphere and frigid temperatures make it a harsh environment
  • After Earth, it's considered the most hospitable planet for life in the solar system, he says
  • Bear: Scientists, writers and nerds have all been fascinated by the story of Mars

Editor's note: Greg Bear is an internationally bestselling science-fiction author of many books, including "Moving Mars," "Darwin's Radio" and "Hull Zero Three." As a freelance journalist, he covered 10 years of the Voyager missions at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

(CNN) -- Every now and then, I spend time on Mars. I dig my naked toes into the fine, red-orange soil, watch how it clings to my skin -- and feel an incipient itch. The iron-rich dust is pretty alkaline. The air -- or lack of it -- also makes me itch. Pretty soon, I'll break out in what the locals call "vacuum rose," as the blood boils in capillaries beneath my skin, because the air on Mars is pretty nearly a vacuum.

That doesn't mean the atmosphere can't kick up a planet-girdling storm when the weather is just right. Right now, as evening approaches, the sky is a dusty pink, tending to brown-black in the east. The sun is a brilliant disk in the west, one-third smaller than I'm used to on Earth and not nearly as warming. Feathery layers of dust fan out around the lowering sun, and a few smeared-out ice-crystal clouds glint silvery gray, but the rest of the sky is clear, and the stars above stand out brighter and sharper than night on Mauna Kea.

One of Mars' two moons, Phobos, or "Panic," named after one of the war-god's dogs, is little more than a big, tumbling rock. The second dog or moon is Deimos, "Terror." Phobos is blacker than sin, blacker than soot, but still visible to my naked, freezing eye. It's cold out right now, about -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Martians call this a balmy summer evening.

Tech: Internet explodes with joy over Curiosity

Of all the planets apart from Earth in our solar system, Mars is the most hospitable. Yeah. Right. Better keep my visit short. And yet, despite the discomfort, the danger, I love it here. I love coming back for these imaginary vacations. The sights are amazing.

Greg Bear
Greg Bear

Trudging up the slope of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, you'll hardly notice the climb, it's so gradual. But by the time you've finished the 180-mile journey, you're about 14 miles higher than the datum -- what passes for sea level here. Fourteen miles. Mount Everest is about 5½ miles.

There are no seas. But once very likely there were seas, possibly big ones. Mostly shallow, basic and even fizzy, especially around out-gassing volcanic vents, all just right for potential extremophiles. Extremophiles are life forms that adore conditions we find harsh. For them, Mars could have been heaven.

And here's where the romance of Mars gets really good.

New images from 'Curiosity' rover
Is the Mars rover vain?
Rover images of Curiosity landing site

I'm going back in time. ... Can't stop myself. Jonathan Swift somehow guessed the correct number of Mars' moons (two). Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli saw what he described as "channels," or canali. Arizonan Percival Lowell, knowing a good PR move, then made "canali" into "canals."

H.G. Wells had us invaded by octopoid, blood-drinking Martians tired of living on their old, worn-out world.

Edgar Rice Burroughs upped the ante on Lowell's canals by populating the ancient red planet with gorgeous, oviparous princesses and warlike, four-armed green Martians.

In a few decades, Mars heated up.

News: Rover captures nearby rocket footprint

Ray Bradbury sealed the deal by making us all Martians. He sent us there; we stared into the water in the canals -- and our reflections, the faces of new Martians, stared back.

But not even Ray, back when he wrote "The Martian Chronicles," could have imagined how the real story might play out.

The "canals" aren't there any more. We can't find them, don't see them. But if evidence of Martian lakes and oceans pans out, Mars might have been hospitable to life hundreds of millions of years earlier than Earth. Earth was still cooling down from its natal heat, still barraged by asteroids, and life, if it developed at all here, was probably getting the crap kicked out of it on a regular basis. Starting over again and again from scratch, or not starting at all.

Until -- and this is just speculation, but it may have a foundation in fact -- until something big hit Mars and sprayed the seeds of Martian life across the gulf of space to land on Earth. Backwash. Martian spitballs.

We've analyzed small meteorites knocked loose from Mars. They fell onto Antarctica, and some scientists have taken the very controversial view that there is evidence of life in them. Not proven, not certain, but ...

Light Years: 5 reasons to be excited about Curiosity

My vacation on Mars could really be a homecoming. We may all be Martians. Wouldn't that be utterly cool to know? Scientists need to know. But you don't have to be a scientist to find the science of Mars compelling. Maybe an interest in genealogy will do.

The challenge of getting to Mars is extreme. It's close as planets go, every now and then approaching less than 40 million miles to Earth -- but missions to Mars can spend months or years in space, depending on the economics and fuel load. Landing is tricky because aero-braking and parachutes are far less effective than in Earth's thicker atmosphere.

In the 1970s, the Viking landers came down on their own rockets, but they didn't carry rovers and looked around from a fixed position. Still, they sent us our first clear pictures of Mars from the surface.

Engineers like making tough jobs look impossible, sometimes. In 1997, Pathfinder bounced down, literally, within a big cluster of very tough beach balls, which then deflated and released Sojourner, a cute-as-a-bug wandering robot. In 2004, Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, both came down bouncing as well.

News: Unmanned versus manned exploration

Curiosity, too large for that kind of landing, made its final descent winched from a Rube Goldberg, rocket-powered flying crane. But doubtless you know that story. The animation and videos are astonishing. And they're only going to get better.

Why do we capital-N Nerds love Mars so much?

Because it's beautiful, it's tough, it's buried in our mythic, childhood memories. It's covered with human triumphs but also with sad stories of failure. This time, the engineers and scientists are jubilant.

We're back, baby. Earth is definitely our mother, but maybe, just maybe, we're going to learn who's our papa.

It would be fun to be a Martian.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

Complete coverage on Mars

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Greg Bear.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT