Are We Going To Mars Because of Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 24, 2015

The new movie, The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s book of the same name, is generating tremendous buzz, for the movie, for science fiction fans who love books that inspire space travel, and for NASA types who feel Mars is the place to go next. Last year I wrote a review of the novel, “When I Was Martian” where I gushed about the book but wondered if I really wanted to go to Mars. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I thought Mars must be a wonderful place from all the science fiction I read. However, over the decades, all those robotic missions have convinced me Mars is only a suitable destination for robots and geologists.


Millions of people still want to go to Mars, and NASA recently released gargantuan plans to visit Mars by 2039. On the other hand, yesterday I read three essays questioning our desire to go to Mars. The first, by Ed Regis in the New York Times, “Let’s Not Move to Mars” is probably the most critical. Regis wonders why anyone would be willing to live in a capsule with the living space of a SUV for seven to nine months, only to get to a destination with little atmosphere, the scenery all rocks, and far colder than any place on Earth.

Over at The Guardian, Chris Chambers writes about the psychological impact of travel to Mars. He makes going to prison an appealing alternative to traveling to Mars. And this blogger compares colonizing Mars to going to Hell. I’m not sure how many people have The Right Stuff to get to Mars—to actually enjoy the experience. I doubts its many.

I have to wonder if most people who dream of going to Mars do so because of science fiction. I’ll admit I wanted to go to Mars because I pictured Mars like the novels of Robert A. Heinlein (Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, Podkayne of Mars, Stranger in a Strange Land). I’ve known guys older than myself who dreamed of Barsoom, the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But is even the Mars of Kim Stanley Robinson and Ben Bova any less romantic? Compared to reports sent back by NASA robots, can any work of fiction convey the true brutality of living on the Red planet without being escapist?

Mars can get as cold as -225F, and the surface air is as thin as being four times the height of Mt. Everest here on Earth. Why would anyone want to live there—or even visit? My best guess is science fiction. How can stories make us so irrational? Fiction is appealing. Fiction is an alternative to reality. If we analyze ourselves, does reading reveal a desire for adventure and travel? Or does reading reveal we’re bored with our lives and just want to go somewhere different? Or even want to be different people? Kids used to want to be astronauts when they were famous and legendary, but now all the people who fly up into space are mostly nameless. If I was young I might still want to go to Mars, even knowing what I know now. It’s appeal is that strong. Why?

Like I said at the beginning of this essay, The Martian is creating a lot of excitement, both for the movie and the desire see manned missions actually go to the Red planet. Since the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomy has been going through a renaissance larger than what it went through in the time of Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo. I think space exploration gives some people a sense that existence has great meaning. Does that sense of purpose come from a love of science, or science fiction?

Aurora KSM

Yet, even science fiction is becoming more realistic about the possibilities of space travel. In his new book Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson questions the wisdom of leaving Earth. If science fiction is guilty of overselling space travel should it now be responsible for removing the false romanticism its given the final frontier? How many people would remove their names from the Mars One mission if they read Aurora?

I still think it’s possible that some humans will want to colonize the Moon and Mars. Whether they are thrill seekers or final frontier missionaries is another issue. To live on the Moon or Mars will require living mostly underground, in highly controlled environments that are always one technological failure from extinction. All the science fiction stories we now read about cities on the Moon and Mars are 99.99% unrealistic fantasies. Too much of science fiction is about transferring Earth living to space life, and it won’t be like that. Should science fiction be held responsible for false advertising?

I must admit, even my hopes for the realistic possibilities of space travel are still driven by the science fiction I read. My guess is anyone who hasn’t been enchanted by the genre would see that space is only suited for robots. 


13 thoughts on “Are We Going To Mars Because of Science Fiction?”

  1. Pretty sure on any Mars trips the crew will transfer out of “a capsule with the living space of a SUV” to a larger habitat module. Not huge, but rather like a portion of the ISS.

    I don’t want to go to Mars. Crummy climate and no coffee shops. But, I think it’s important that we build that capability and that someone goes.

    We do need propulsion tech that could get us there in a few weeks, not the better part of a year.

    1. It definitely would help if we could get to Mars in weeks. I’m not sure if the Mars habitat modules will offer greater total space than the ISS, which has gotten pretty big. However, once on Mars, people will be able to get out and go places. But it will be cold. I get uncomfortable when my house has to strain to keep warm when it gets down in the teens. Imagine living in a habitat that struggles to keep warm when it’s 100 or 200 below outside.

      I do think there are people who are suited for such missions. They are the kind of people who climb rock faces or sail around the world nonstop solo or stay the winter in Antarctica. I’m not one of them.

  2. I think anyone who is going to go would be subjected to extensive semi-realistic simulation before they went? A last chance to pull out perhaps. Personally, I would not want to go. My husband thinks he would, and I think he would cope with small spaces and cold weather, but I don’t think he can possibly imagine the emotional effect of the dreary looking planet

    1. The Mars One group might not do that, but I doubt they will succeed. But NASA and any other space agency would spend years selecting the right people. I was mainly speaking to all the people who’d want to go themselves, including myself. Why do we have that desire? Why is Mars so alluring?

  3. I think we’re going to Mars because many of us do not want to stay here. The Earth is full of…humans and we pretty much suck. A new planet would give us perhaps a new start or at least allow for us to mess up a new world given enough time. Happy Friday! 🙂

  4. I love science fiction… cut my teeth on the John Carter of Mars books, later devoured stories by HG Wells, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert etc, and am a huge fan of Star Wars, Star Trek, the Alien movies, and so on. One of my earliest exposures to space in film was Silent Running (I found the story more compelling than 2001: A Space Odyssey).

    While I still greatly enjoy these stories, none of it makes me want to go live on Mars, or on a moon colony, or an asteroid somewhere. I’m evolved for Earth, so I don’t generally need a spacesuit or a pressurized pod to live in. I can go outside and luxuriate in the sun and the breeze without ending up freeze-dried or crisped into a piece of People Jerky.

    And then, oy, the small-group dynamics. I love how, on Earth, I can go into my house and close the door and be alone for a while.

    1. I like going into my house and being alone at times too. Yes, I’m adapted for Earth. It’s a shame we can’t treat the place better, and respect one another. Earth could be heaven.

  5. You are definitely right. Travelling to Mars will never be a walk in the park. No matter what it will always be very extreme conditions (or maybe until 2300 or something). However I have always dreamed of going to space. Not because of science fiction. I have always been fascinated in space travel, but it is a pretty bad time to have such an interest. I try to get all the news I can get. From the NASA newsletter, to watching different conferences online. But it still isn’t much. So a lot of the space travel you can get is purely science fiction. That is how I became to be such a sci-fi fan and now I have a whole blog about it. However I am always aware that what they show isn’t actually what space travel is like. This post really makes you think about whether sending people to Mars would be humane. However to be honest, if given the chance, I would still go to Mars.
    BTW if you got the chance, would you take it?

    1. And yes, I know. Landing on Mars and just space travel are very different. Even though space travel without landing on actual planets (e.g. staying on the ISS) is still very tiring and extreme, it is much more realistic to actually make it comfortable. For example Space Ships One and the one that they’recurrently making Space Ship Two. Travelling to Mars would be very extreme and hard, however people pay millions of dollars to take a flight in space.

    2. That’s an interesting question. The older I get, the more suited I am to living alone. I could even imagine dying on Mars. If I didn’t have many years left, I could imagine being a hermit on Mars. I bet the low-gravity would be great for an aging body. But as long as I can do stuff, I think I’d prefer to stay on Earth.

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