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Notes from an author: Andrew May

Is there life on Mars? For a new generation of privately-funded space exploration programmes, the red planet is the next frontier for exploration

By Andrew May
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:23 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 14:06 BST
Andrew May

Andrew May

Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

I was 11 years old when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in 1969. That's an impressionable age, and a blissfully uncynical one. Space exploration was the in-thing, notching up exciting new feats at a headlong pace, and it never crossed my mind that it might be just a passing fad. Like so many youngsters in those days, I was space mad; it was what drove me to specialise in physics at school and do astronomical research at university. And, like most people back then, I would've found it hard to believe that trips to Mars wouldn't be a routine occurrence in the year 2017.

It wasn't an unreasonable expectation. The same technology, and the same theory, that took Apollo to the Moon could — with a little modification — have taken people futher afield. Wernher von Braun, the brains behind the Apollo missions, worked out a detailed plan that would've done just that. He even pencilled in a landing date: 9 August 1982. The US government could've picked up von Braun's plan and run with it, but it chose instead to focus on Earth-orbital operations using the space shuttle.

Yet there are plenty of good reasons for going to Mars. It may not be the most hospitable planet in the Solar System — that's Earth, of course — but it comes a respectable second. Admittedly the air is thin and unbreathable, and it gets very, very cold at night — but it's warmer during the daytime, when the surface of Mars receives almost half as much sunlight as Earth. And the red planet has plenty of water, in the form of subsurface ice, as well as most of the other natural resources visitors would need to set up sustainable habitats.

Seen through the electronic eyes of NASA's Curiosity rover, Mars looks reassuringly Earth-like. In fact, it could be mistaken for one of the drier, more barren parts of our own planet. There are signs of wind and water erosion, with rounded pebbles, sand dunes, dried-up riverbeds — and relatively few Moon-like impact craters. Mars differs from the dead landscape of the Moon in another way, too — it's in full colour, not just shades of grey. The sand is orangey-brown, some of the rocks are distinctly bluish, and the sky is pale pink — with the occasional puffy white cloud.

Mars ought to be the number one destination for any traveller venturing beyond Earth. Yet no human has visited its surface
— only robotic probes like Curiosity and its predecessors. Why did it take just eight years to get from the first manned spaceflight to a Moon landing, and then another 48 years to get… well, nowhere, to put it bluntly? It all comes down to means and motive.

Until very recently, the only organisations with the means to get into space were government agencies like NASA — and from their point of view, there was just no motive for sending humans to Mars. NASA is fine when it comes to politically driven programmes like the Moon landings and the space shuttle, or unmanned science missions like the Curiosity rover. But, if you're focused on scientific and political achievements, why bother sending people all the way to the red planet? You can do the politics for less money closer to home, and the Mars science using robots, also for less cash.

But real Marsophiles don't want to go there to do science or to score political points. When humans finally travel to Mars, it'll be in the same spirit of exploration and adventure that's seen us visit every corner of our own planet. That's not a job for a plodding government agency, but for a slick and professional private company that understands the law of supply and demand. People will pay to go to Mars — if the price is right — for the same reason they'll pay to visit any other new and exciting destination. A mere decade ago, the idea of a private enterprise spaceflight was pure science fiction. Now, thanks to companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX, it's becoming a viable reality. 

The future of space travel lies not with taxpayer-funded dinosaurs like NASA but with visionary companies like SpaceX and ordinary, fare-paying tourists like you and me. Travelling to Mars has been technologically possible for more than 30 years — all we have to do now is make it happen.

Destination Mars: The Story of Our Quest to Conquer the Red Planet by Andrew May is published by Icon Books. RRP: £7.99.

Follow @drandrewmay

Published in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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