Books: Missions to Mars

A round-up of the literature about a voyage to the Red Planet by Kevin Orrman-Rossiter.

We last stepped on to the Moon 40 years ago, the culmination of the ambitious goals set by US president John Kennedy in 1961. While we still maintain residence on the international space station, until recently there has been little of the big vision that Kennedy used to drive the space program for the last third of the 20th century.

Enthusiasm is building again, however, with Mars as a destination for our next effort coming into sharp focus. There are now three proposals on the table for how we might set up a base on the planet. The plans for this great adventure vary a good deal in both ambition and strategy. First, Dutch company Mars One has begun recruiting people as part of a planned permanent human settlement on Mars by 2023. Then there are the plans by the US company SpaceX with its Red Dragon proposal to send a sample-return mission – collecting specimens and returning with them – to Mars by 2018. The Chinese are taking a view over a longer timescale, with a long-term plan for non-crewed flights to Mars by 2033 and crewed missions to Mars between 2040 and 2060.

Two new books – one a clarion call by former astronaut Buzz Aldrin for humanity to meet its appointment with destiny and several older ones look at the problems of getting there and what we do when we arrive.

Although the three planned missions differ in their funding and motivation, they all draw on one or more ideas from a book first published in 1996 and revised in 2011, The Case for Mars. This meticulous and plausible outline of the way we could settle the planet was written by aerospace engineer and founder of the Mars Society Robert Zubrin. His work attracted huge interest when first published and continues to capture the imagination in its most recent revision.

The enthusiasm lives on with the visionary Mission to Mars by moon-walker and passionate space advocate Aldrin. “Going to Mars would evolve humankind into a two-planet species,” the Gemini 12 and Apollo 11 veteran told an interviewer recently. Aldrin supports robotic missions as prudent preparatory steps to human settlement on Mars. He advocates progressive steps to Mars using Mars’ moon Phobos as a staging post from which to prepare the landing site and habitats with remote-controlled robots.

Regular space travel to Mars would be too expensive with Apollo-style modular expendable components, he says. He favours instead a (mostly) gravity-powered spaceship, cycling permanently between Earth and Mars. Aldrin says the enterprise should be led by the United States, although he sees co-operation, rather than competition, with China, Europe, Russia, India and Japan as the way forward.

Another new book realistically portrays what it takes to get a scientific laboratory roving its way across Mars. Red Rover is a firsthand account written by Roger Wiens, lead scientist for “ChemCam”, the laser-zapping remote chemical analytical instrument on board the rover Curiosity. It covers his rollercoaster involvement in robotic space exploration, from his initiation in 1990 on the NASA Genesis probe project to the joyous moment when Curiosity got to work early this year.


If this piques your curiosity then the earlier Roving Mars: Spirit, opportunity, and the exploration of the red planet is well worth tracking down. It is a passionate account of NASA’s 2004 twin rover mission by Steve Squyres, the mission’s scientific principal investigator. The veteran rover, Opportunity, is surprising us still with its discoveries, more than nine years after the completion of its 90-day primary mission. It is also worth revisiting a book from 2005 to consider what we might do when we get to Mars. Marswalk One: First steps on a new planet by astronautical historian David Shayler and co-authors Andrew Salmon and Michael Shayler.

A second great leap for mankind is in the making.

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