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Review: For the Love of Mars

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For the Love of Mars: A Human History of the Red Planet
by Matthew Shindell
University of Chicago Press, 2023
hardcover, 248 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-226-82189-4

It should be little surprise that humanity’s perceptions of Mars have changed over the years, centuries, and millennia. Our knowledge of the planet has changed, from a wandering red star in the night sky to a world with its own geological history and potential for life. At the same time, humanity’s knowledge of the broader universe, and the place of Mars within it, has changed.

Those evolving perceptions of Mars are at the heart of For the Love of Mars, a new book by Matthew Shindell, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum. The book, he explains in the prologue, had originally planned to focus on the modern Mars as studied by robotic spacecraft. But during the pandemic, he plunged into reading about how Mars was considered in earlier societies, shifting the book’s focus from the “why” of Mars exploration to one of who was interested in Mars in the past and present. “The ‘who’ question—how we understand ourselves, our place in the universe and what we hope to become—will shape why we go to Mars and what we do there,” he writes.

“The ‘who’ question—how we understand ourselves, our place in the universe and what we hope to become—will shape why we go to Mars and what we do there,” Shindell writes.

The book covers that shifting interest in, and perceptions of, Mars over human history. Many early societies associated Mars with war and destruction, but that association was not universal. Shindell notes that the Mayans appear to have linked Mars to tropical weather patterns. In Mesopotamia, Mars could be a good or bad omen, depending on where the sky it reached opposition.

For the Love of Mars leaps ahead to medieval times, the Renaissance, and soon is at “modern” Mars, although those perceptions continue to shift, particularly as telescopic observations and then spacecraft missions cause the prospects of a habitable Mars to rise and fall. Geologist Tim Mutch compared the daily images returned from Mariner 9, the first NASA Mars orbiter, to a field geologist’s traverse across new terrain, eliminating “the ‘old’ Mars as through the countless hours of previous speculation had been little more than science fiction.” (There had, of course, been plenty of science fiction about Mars, which the book also discusses.)

The book, though, comes up a little short near the present day, when examining the prospects of human exploration of Mars. After reviewing the history of robotic exploration, he turns at the end of the book to potential human missions, including the desire to avoid carrying with us to Mars problems (environmental and cultural) from Earth. There is more discussion, though, of science fiction, like The Expanse and The Martian, that of actual planning of human missions and how that has evolved in recent decades. Robert Zubrin, whose Mars Direct architecture reshaped thinking about human Mars missions and helped catalyze new interest in such missions nearly three decades ago, and Elon Musk, who has made human settlement on Mars a central goal of his work at SpaceX, get only brief mentions in the book.

Our thinking of Mars will evolve over time thanks to both scientific and cultural changes, and despite the optimism of advocates like Musk and Zubrin it may still be decades before the first human sets foot on the Red Planet. When that does finally happen, Shindell writes, it will be “such a massive undertaking that it will become one of the largest technical and cultural projects of its time.” That prompts a question he uses to conclude the book: “Who do we want to be when we become Martians?”

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