We Are the Martians

Why we've never lost our enthusiasm for space travel.



It was exactly 10 years ago, 1999, that the heat of a rocket ship on its way to Mars turned the dark Ohio winter into summer. The First Expedition landed men on Mars but it would be three expeditions later before the men of Earth would fully inhabit the red planet and make it their own. Eventually, they would come with their families, build homes and cities on the dead Martian sands, and create new histories that would replace their own and those of the Martian lives they destroyed.

The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury. 222 pages. Doubleday.

Or so Ray Bradbury imagined it when he was writing The Martian Chronicles a half-century ago in 1949 (it was published in 1950). Just a few years before, World War II created a lasting, worldwide fear of nuclear apocalypse. While wars of the past had ended one empire or another, Hiroshima and Nagasaki made us believe in the destruction of human civilization itself. Where could we escape? By 1949, most of our own planet had been mapped, and the dreams of explorers past fulfilled. So, the people of Earth directed their hopes skyward. Outer space took on the Utopian qualities once embodied by the Arctic and the deep seas. Space travel was hope. Science fiction its manual.

Just 20 years later, in 1969 — three decades before Bradbury’s “Rocket Summer” of 1999 — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. It wasn’t Mars, but it was close enough. The dream had become real. For a moment, people forgot about the bomb and Vietnam, forgot about hippies and squares and commies and capitalist pigs. The world was captivated, stunned, as the concept of human possibility expanded between commercial breaks. As dramatically as the world—and Americans in particular — trembled with excitement for one special, historic day, the enchantment dissipated. By 1972, the Apollo missions were abandoned. There would be no space colonies, no lunar vacations for civilians. We wouldn’t land on Mars, and the moon hasn’t felt the footsteps of man since.

Really, it’s hubris that we imagine ourselves in space at all. That same hubris led us to the bottom of the oceans, though we lacked fins, and into the clouds with aluminum wings. They say that Nature abhors a vacuum, but human beings really can’t imagine a place that doesn’t need us. Space is there, so it must have something for us, and we must get that thing. Over time, our fantasies of what space could be got all tangled up with what they needed to be. Suddenly, the reasons we were exploring in the first place got confused. This is the fundamental dilemma of all exploration. Human imagination sees possibilities; human necessity seeks to exploit those possibilities. Somewhere along the way, romance fades.

In The Martian Chronicles, the Settlers traveled to Mars for all kinds of reasons. “They came because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or did not feel like Pilgrims. There was a reason for each man…. They were coming to find something or leave something or get something, to dig up something or bury something…. They were coming with small dreams or large dreams or none at all.” The first astronauts came just to be the first and were never heard from again. The second astronauts wanted to solve the mystery. All the black people in the southern United States pooled their money to build their own rockets and leave Earth for a freer life. Old people came for new experience. Young people came to name towns and rivers after themselves. The old Martian names were of “buried sorcerers and obelisks.” The new names were solidly of Earth: Aluminum City, Detroit II, Corn Town. In short, the Settlers came with the same dreams they had on Earth, imagining nothing more or less. Moving to Mars was like moving anywhere new. Space was the receptacle for the same competing human ideals they had on Earth.

   John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.

This story of idealism giving way to realism is mirrored in the actual history of our conquest of the moon. John F. Kennedy tapped into our national romanticism, but sending men to space, American men, was ultimately a matter of national pride and safety. When the Soviet Union blasted Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961, Kennedy was petrified that space would become the home of Russian “Communist” values and not American “Democratic” ones. So he decided to make space travel a government priority, laying out his vision in the now-famous Rice Stadium speech, excerpted here:

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war….

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet…. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard….

Kennedy saw space travel as a venture that would enrich human knowledge. His “new rights to be won” statement could be read as sympathy to the burgeoning civil rights movement as much as for the “right” to conquer space. However, he also makes it clear that space research had become a race, a competition. Kennedy was motivated by war and fear of more war. The idealistic parts of the speech — the ones most remembered, about choosing to do the things because they are hard and climbing the highest mountain — lose their zest when placed in the context of the whole speech. It’s pretty straightforward. America must get to space now, Kennedy was saying, before it can be used against us, rather than for us. Before it succumbs to Communism.

Ray Bradbury thinks there are two camps of people when it comes to space travel: those who see it as a means and those who see it as an end. For him, landing on the moon was an opportunity to imagine greater possibilities, delve into greater mysteries. In this, he told Playboy in 1996, we failed.

BRADBURY: JFK, for a brief moment in his last year, challenged us to go to the moon. But even he wasn’t motivated by astronomical love. He cried, “Watch my dust!” to the Russians, and we were off. But once we reached the moon, the romance started to fade. Without that, dreams don’t last. That’s no surprise — material rewards do last, so the history of exploration on earth is about harvesting rich lodes…We need space for reasons we have not as yet discovered, and I don’t mean Tupperware.

PLAYBOY: Tupperware?

BRADBURY: NASA feels it has to justify everything it does in practical terms. And Tupperware was one of the many practical products that came out of space travel. NASA feels it has got to flimflam you to get you to spend the money on space. That’s b.s. We don’t need that. Space travel is life-enhancing, and anything that’s life-enhancing is worth doing. It makes you want to live forever.

Flying saucer, Plan 9 from Outer Space.

We all believe that we are, at heart, defenders of astronomical love and not Tupperware. Promoters of peace and not war. The actual moon landing did effectively replace romance with reality. Bradbury believes new romance can always be generated with more imagination. “In order to colonize in space,” Bradbury told Playboy, “we must imagine the future.” Imagination is Bradbury’s raison d’être. It’s what gives real life its romance. In other words, imagination is love of the journey itself.

But Bradbury is also painfully aware that life is more complicated than that. There will always be a tension between what we imagine life can be and what it is. Wars exist and Tupperware is pretty handy. The Martian Chronicles, then, is a tale not just of space travel’s possibilities but its limits.

Celebrating the 40thh anniversary of the Apollo moon landing this year, space travel in the new millennium still wavers between technological necessity, astronomical love, and international politics. In 2004, less than a year after the United States invaded Iraq, President George Bush announced his vision for a reenergized manned space program. His speech sounded more like the opening credits of Star Trek than a press conference. “We’ll build new ships to carry man forward into the universe,” Bush declared, “to gain a new foothold on the moon and to prepare for new journeys to the worlds beyond our own.”  By 2020, Americans would return to the moon. There, they would build a permanent colony that would act as a “launching point for missions beyond.” Namely, manned travel to Mars. Bradbury thought Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration” speech was great, and welcomed his enthusiasm. But there was a major gap between the rhetoric and the reality. Soon after the speech came major cuts in NASA’s budget for research. In 2005, Bush made Michael Griffin — a key figure in Reagan’s Star Wars program — head administrator of NASA.

How the Obama administration will approach human spaceflight is yet to be decided. As he juggles the recession and the Iraq/Pakistan/Afghanistan runoff from the Bush days, space does seem far away indeed. Space is expensive. Yet the Bradburys of the world may yet be pleased. Obama’s American Recovery Act includes a proposed budget to finish the International Space Station (a Bush directive) and also the return of Americans to the Moon. A committee called the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans is to present a proposal to the Administration by summer’s end. It is chaired by Norman Augustine, the former President of Lockheed Martin. “I can remember how excited people were when Neil and Buzz walked on the moon, and Mike circled the moon, what a shot it gave this nation at a time it really needed it,” Augustine told NPR in July. Though the Cold War is over, he said, space exploration can still inspire.

John Olsen, co-director of NASA’s exploration program in Washington, D.C. agrees that going back to the Moon ASAP is valuable for the obvious reasons like technological development and educating the public. The first reason though, is “our innate desire and yearning to explore the unknown and to expand.” “We’re not going back as a race, we’re not going back for flags and footsteps. We’re going back for really what is the beginning of a journey.”

  Astronaut Deke Slayton embraces cosmonaut
Aleksey Leonov in the Soyuz spacecraft, 1975

The Cold War space race is now an anachronism; competition between the U.S. and Russia is no longer the prime motivator for either country’s programs. These days, space research is an international affair. The number of countries able to conduct basic space activities is considerable (around 60 including a number of developing countries as well as two UN agencies). 24-7, all year ´round, astronauts (American and Russian alike) are orbiting the Earth together in the International Space Station, sharing dehydrated beverages. Of course, when Chinese people celebrated their country’s first space walk last fall, many other countries were horrified. Though the United States may wish to promote space travel as a journey and not a race, the ambitions of other countries’ burgeoning programs may direct otherwise.

“We’ve been busy with war instead of being busy with peace,” Ray Bradbury told Fox News in 2004. “That’s what space travel is all about. It’s all about peace and exploration and wonder and beauty.”

We never lost our enthusiasm for space travel, but we did lose our innocence. We know too much about what it can give us and what it can destroy. Space travel is indeed about exploration and wonder and beauty. But call it fear of war or desire for peace — in the end, rivalry is one of the main reasons rocket ships got built. Even in The Martian Chronicles, it’s threat of global nuclear war that spurs colonization of Mars. Whatever his motivations, Kennedy got men to the Moon — and kept the Cold War cold.

Fox News asked Bradbury, “Do you think that life once existed on Mars?” Bradbury replied, “We just don’t know. It doesn’t matter, because we’re going to become the Martians when we land there. When we explore and build communities, we become the Martians. That’s a wonderful destiny for all of us.”

Bradbury’s point was that, whenever we travel — through the world, through space, and through life — we are alien creatures, on unfamiliar ground, making it up as we go. When we get too cocky or too fearful or too mercenary, we lose our excitement, and we become invaders rather than explorers. As Kennedy himself might have put it, we start to focus more on what the new territory can do for us and less on what we can learn from it. Exploration will always be funded by those with monetary ambitions, and supported by those with nationalistic ambitions. Yet exploration’s spirit, its ideas, its possibilities, will be driven by those who simply want to explore. Whether or not we get to Mars one day, we can still be Martians just the same. • 18 August 2009

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.