Mars Is Not a Planet

August 14, 2012

NASA and JPL has landed the Mars Scientific Laboratory “Curiosity” on the Red Planet. “Curiosity” is the most complex robotic mission ever attempted. The entire world watched in real time as the JPL mission control team monitored the progress of the spacecraft during the descent phase. NASA scientists billed those final moments as “seven minutes of terror” and clearly underlined how complex the Mars “Curiosity” landing was.

Mars is arguably the most inspirational of all the planets of the solar system. Award winning writer and visionary Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) wrote “The Martin Chronicles.” Astronomer Percival Lowell (1855-1916) built his Flagstaff, Arizona observatory and speculated about what he saw through his telescope. And H.G. Wells’ (1866-1946) novel was adapted by Orson Wells (1915-1985) into the now infamous program “War of the Worlds” and scared the daylights out of the United States with his now legendary 1938 radio broadcast. And Hollywood has made its contribution with films like “Mars Attacks!” and “Total Recall.” It is amazing that planets of our little solar system evoke artworks subtle, comic, and horrific.

Perhaps the most popular musical work inspired by Mars is the Orchestral Suite “The Planets” by Gustav Holst (1874-1934). First performed in 1918, “The Planets” is Holst’s most important musical composition. And the first movement “Mars, the Bringer of War” is by far the most known to the general public. This work was written in the early part of the 20th Century and was influenced by Stravinsky, Debussy, and Schoenberg. And over fifty years later after that 1918 premier there have been contemporary electronic treatments including composer/synthesist Isao Tomita’s (1932) groundbreaking 1976 recording.

Alas, the relatives of Gustav Holst forced Tomita’s label, RCA, to pull the album from the record store shelves. In spite of these legal problems, Isao Tomita’s “The Planets” is one of the most celebrated synthesizer recordings of the 20th Century.

There have been many unmanned missions to Mars. The United States and the Soviet Union were in the midst of the Cold War and both tried to be the first to land spacecraft on Mars and place satellites into planetary orbit. The USSR succeeded in launching the “Mars 2” and “Mars 3” spacecraft. The “Mars 2” lander crashed on the surface of Mars while the “Mars 3” craft attained a soft landing but failed to transmit any scientific data. The orbiters that accompanied the Russian spacecraft orbited Mars and returned data and pictures.

United States efforts started with the Mariner program in the 1960’s. Mariner 4 flew past Mars and returned data and the first ever photographs from another planet of the solar system. Other Mariner missions followed and Mariner 9 was the first spacecraft to ever orbit Mars. Dust storms were found and the true nature of Percival Lowell’s fanciful canals were discovered.

Many US expeditions followed the Mariner spacecraft missions of the late 1960s. NASA launched and landed upon the Mars surface the “Viking 1” and “Viking 2” spacecrafts in 1975. The first US spacecrafts to land on Mars, Viking 1 and 2 were designed to search for signs of life and perform other scientific studies. Many other NASA missions have followed and many have been successful but many more have failed their robotic missions. Such is the nature of space exploration and scientific discovery.

History will report that in 2012 NASA landed the most complex robotic spacecraft of its time on Mars. The “Curiosity” Rover is just beginning its exploration of the Mars environment after its long journey through interplanetary space. What remains to be seen is will NASA continue to blaze the trail to Mars and eventually send a manned expedition. The Apollo missions during NASA’s golden era should serve as a template for the next generation of astronauts, scientists, and engineers.

The space explorations of our past are recorded in our history books. The dreams of our imagination are the keys to humanity’s survival as a species here on Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. Tonight I will take out my treasured copy of Tomita’s “The Planets” album and listen to the rocket countdown that heralds the entrance of Mars as imagined by Holst while looking at full color images of Gale crater transmitted by a robot that a radio era Orson Wells could hardly imagine. Space science and music combines in an extraordinary way and “Curiosity” is truly a stranger in a strange land in the second decade of the 21st century.

With apologies to Robert Heinlein. - Mike Dawson