Red, Green, and Blue Mars

RGB Mars

Swooping in over Olympus Mons, the largest volcano on Mars, you see lava flows and the Pangboche Crater. Opening your traveler’s guide, you find that Olympus Mons is not only the highest mountain on Mars, but the largest volcanic cone in the whole solar system. You hover briefly over the crater and then zoom in on Guzev, where the cute little Mars Explorer Rover (MER) Spirit is busily taking pictures of the very red, desert-like landscape. Yes, little Spirit is still alive!

Is this the “Red Mars” of 2061 from science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s famous Mars Trilogy? Where thousands of Earth colonists from completing political and religious groups attempt to implement their visions of utopia? Where megacorporations invest heavily in terraforming and mining, using an orbital space elevator to shuffle settlers out of low orbit to the Martian surface from a resource-depleted, overpopulated, hothouse Earth?

Well, no, not exactly. You can travel to Olympus Mons or Vallis Marineris (the Grand Canyon of Mars) today – from the comfort of your home PC or Macintosh computer using the latest free Google Earth software. Don your 3D gasses and view the latest anaglyph images of Mars recently released by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) or simply fly around where Phoenix, Beagle, and the MER rovers are exploring today.

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter continues to send astonishing photos back to Earth. Although other Mars missions have taken 3D images, HiRISE is the most powerful camera to ever orbit another planet. It resolves features as small as one meter across – roughly the scale of a person. "I am very happy!" says principal investigator Alfred McEwen of the "sharp, clear and beautiful" images it produces. Another HiRISE team member says: "If you’re not jazzed by this, you’re not alive!"

A recent April 1st spoof has President Obama supporting a “personned” (crewed) mission to the Red Planet, defending the expenditure as “a stimulus that will provide jobs in the aeronautics and astrophysics sector.” In fact, Mr. Obama has stated that he believes that NASA needs an inspirational vision for the 21st Century: “My vision will build on the great goals set forth in recent years, to maintain a robust program of human space exploration and ensure the fulfillment of NASA’s mission.”

Blue MarsSo, what exactly is NASA up to on Mars these days? Much of the mainstream media has focused on “the big science question” for the MER Spirit rover and its sister MER Opportunity: how past water activity on Mars has influenced the red planet’s rocks, minerals, and geologic landforms over time. The Eureka "We have water" news came from the Phoenix Mars Lander in 2008. It was announced by William Boynton of the University of Arizona, lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA), "We’ve seen evidence for this water ice before in observations by the Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks observed by Phoenix last month, but this is the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted."

Take a quick visit to NASA’s web site, and you can read about the vision for post-2011 Mars exploration. This includes additional "Scout" missions, such as the Phoenix lander, or with airborne vehicles such as airplanes or balloons. One proposal would use robotic systems and a Mars ascent rocket to collect and send samples of rocks, soils, and atmosphere to Earth for detailed chemical and physical analysis, while another proposal is for an Astrobiology Field Lab that would conduct a robotic search for life.

The NASA site does not mention a crewed mission to Mars. The successor to the Space Shuttle program, the Constellation program – including the Ares launch vehicle, the Orion crew vehicle, and the Altair lunar lander – is targeting March 2015 for the first crewed flight to the International Space Station, with Orion aboard an Ares I rocket.

There is considerable debate about a crewed moon mission as a “stepping stone” to Mars. A group of former mission managers, planetary scientists, and astronauts gathered last year at a meeting of the Planetary Society at Stanford University to argue against a crewed moon mission as a way to get to Mars. They propose sending astronauts to an asteroid as a better preparation for a Martian landing.

If a crewed US mission to the moon in the near future is somewhat controversial and the first Constellation mission isn’t scheduled until 2015, then President Bush’s 2004 proposal to send astronauts to the moon by 2015 is a nonstarter. Remember astronaut Alan Shepard’s famous six iron? No one’s going to whack golf balls around the lunar surface anytime soon, but moon exploration continues. The Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter mission was launched from India in 2008, and the Chang’e 1 orbiter was the first of a series of Chinese missions to the moon.

The Russians’ Phobos-Grunt mission will send to Mars the Earth’s "hardiest" or "toughest" organisms sealed in a bio-container. The 30 small tubes of microbe samples are intended to demonstrate that live organisms can make the journey from Earth to Mars and return. The mission is scheduled to launch in October 2009.

Not surprisingly, a deep-drill US Mars lander is on the drawing board in the next decade. NASA plans to invest in advanced capabilities such as miniaturized surface science instruments and deep drilling systems that can reach hundreds of meters beneath the surface. This is where reality starts to merge with fiction – the “lifeboat” mission of Martian mineral extraction for the benefit of Earth described in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars.

Red Mars, the first book in Robinson’s Mars trilogy, starts in the late 2020s with the launching of an expedition to Mars – not entirely infeasible if mineral wealth is discovered by a deep-drill NASA Mars lander in the 2010s. American astronaut John Boone, the first man on Mars, joins a second expedition to establish a permanent base and colony on Mars. The First Hundred colonists include men and women from the US, Russia, various western European countries, and Japan.

After initial settlement of Underhill, the first permanent habitation on Mars, using automated robots to construct air-tight shelters, a debate develops between “the Greens” – those that favor terraforming Mars to make it more Earth-like – and “the Reds” – those who argue that Mars should be left in a more pristine, wilderness state. The Greens eventually win out, and the first steps to terraforming Mars begin.

The oldest of the First Hundred, a Russian biological scientist named Vlad Taneev, nearly sixty when arriving on Mars, becomes famous as the creator of a gerontological treatment to stave off old age that extends the maximum human lifespan to 200 years or more. Like h+ contributor Aubrey de Grey, whose mitochondrial free-radical theory of aging and regenerative medicine may one day thwart the aging process, Taneev’s discovery is not entirely infeasible in the coming decades.

After an intricate and mesmerizing series of plot developments and a host of fascinating, terrorism and sabotage on Mars coupled with riots and WMD back on Earth result in violent Martian revolution in 2061. Many of the First Hundred are killed, and much of Mars’ infrastructure, including the space elevator, is destroyed. Most of the surviving members of the First Hundred are forced into hiding in an underground shelter under the Martian South Pole.

Green MarsThe second book of the Trilogy, Green Mars, picks up after the first Martian rebellion. The megacorporations are back in control and the Martian atmosphere is sufficiently modified so that plant life can survive. Ultimately, a coalition of resistance movements ends up drafting the Dorsa Brevia agreement, a Martian declaration of independence and constitution. You can use Google Earth to fly to Dorsa Brevia to visit this future historic location if you want.

A sudden, catastrophic rise in Earth’s global sea levels – not caused by a greenhouse effect, but by the eruption of a chain of volcanoes underneath the ice of West Antarctica – sets the scene for Blue Mars, the final book of the trilogy. Back on Mars, atmospheric pressure and temperature increase so that liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface, forming rivers and seas. The plot spans an entire century after the Dorsa Brevia agreement. Because of the longevity treatments, several of the First Hundred are around to bask in the Martian sun and go sailing on the Martian sea on a democratically-controlled, independent Mars.

The conflict between the Greens and the Reds is never fully resolved in the trilogy, and Robinson’s vision becomes increasingly speculative and utopian – but nevertheless inspiring, scary, scientifically realistic, and stimulating at the same time – in the latter two books. The books are both a warning about the use of precious resources here on terra firma and a masterwork of scientific speculation about the entirely probable colonization and terraforming of Mars into a human-habitable planet, independent of Earth.

Fellow science fiction writer Bruce Sterling captures Robinson’s vision in a recent blog post entitled “Kim Stanley Robinson: Postcapitalist:”

  • "Believe in science.”
  • "Believe in government, remembering always that it is of the people, by the people, and for the people, and crucial in the current situation.”
  • "Support a really strong follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol.”
  • "Institute carbon cap-and-trade systems.”
  • "Impose a carbon tax designed to charge for the real costs of burning carbon.”
  • "Follow the full ‘Green New Deal’ program now coming together in discussions by the Obama administration.”
  • "Structure global economic policy to reward rapid transitions from carbon-burning to carbon-neutral technologies.”
  • "Support the full slate of human rights everywhere, even in countries that claim such justice is not part of their tradition.”
  • "Support global universal education as part of human-rights advocacy.”
  • "Dispense with all magical, talismanic phrases such as ‘free markets’ and promote a larger systems analysis that is more empirical, without fundamentalist biases.”
  • "Encourage all business schools to include foundational classes in ecology, environmental economics, biology, and history.”
  • "Start programs at these same schools in postcapitalist studies.”

RGB Mars

Ultimately, Kim Stanley Robinson is saying that we should be on the road to a red, green, and blue Earth, not just a red, green, and blue Mars. President Obama, please take note.


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