Are things generally getting better or worse? We routinely hear that the environment is going to hell, that inequality is damaging people’s lives, that the next disaster is just around the bend. But does such doom-and-gloom handwringing have any connection to reality?
It is entirely possible that my son will be among the first Martians. I was therefore delighted to pick up a copy of Buzz Aldrin’s new guide for young Earthlings who aspire to visit Mars someday, move there, or at least learn more about our neighbor in the solar system. Aldrin wrote the book—Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet, published this year by National Geographic Kids—with the help of physicist and children’s author Marianne J. Dyson.
Aldrin invites young readers to join him on a visionary journey to travel to Mars and help build the first colony there. Colonists first rocket to the red planet on a six-month journey.
Then the crew lands on the new world. Aldrin stirs the imagination:
The jets kicked up a cloud of dust just like on the moon, too. [Remember, Aldrin walked on the moon on the same trip as Neil Armstrong.) It settled down faster here because there is more gravity here than on the moon. But the real difference is the sky. On the moon, the sky was black, even in the daytime. Here, the rosy color is like the dawning of a new day. (p. 53)
Colonists join their associates who arrived earlier to set up camp, then set off to explore Mars to find an ideal place for a new home. Finally everyone settles in and contemplates plans for building larger living areas and, eventually, for terraforming the surface.
Around this simply told story, Aldrin weaves substantial background information about the history of Martian study, the science of getting to Mars and eventually living there, and the nature of the planet itself.
Because of this material, Aldrin’s book makes an excellent primer for busy adults, too. One thing I learned about was the “Aldrin Cycler,” a specialized spaceship that permanently orbits around the sun, passing close both to Mars and to Earth. Aldrin’s idea is to hop aboard a Cycler, which passes by Earth every twenty-six months, to ferry people and supplies to Mars. Although I’m not convinced that a Cycler is necessarily the way to go for the first colonists to Mars—Robert Zubrin has other ideas—it seems like an obviously good idea at least in the long-term.
I especially enjoyed one of Aldrin’s historical tidbits. In 1966, Carl Sagan coauthored a book claiming (Aldrin summarizes) that Mars’s moons “Phobos and Deimos might be artificial satellites left from an extinct Martian civilization” (p. 36). Fantasies about advanced life on Mars have died hard—but reasonable hope that we may eventually find simple life there, or at least evidence of simple life from the past, remains.
On a few points, the book seems wildly unrealistic, as with its speculation that people might someday ski down Martian gullies (p. 59). Given Aldrin’s own description of the horrific death anyone would face on Mars without the benefit of protective habitats or suits (p. 74), I doubt anyone would risk a cracked helmet for a joyride.
I was disappointed that Aldrin pays so little attention to the possibility of nuclear power on Mars (he does mention it in a paragraph on p. 69) and so much attention to politically popular but less reliable solar and wind energies (pp. 64, 68). Aldrin emphasizes solar and wind even while discussing the facts that the sun shines less brightly on Mars, sunlight varies substantially by season, dust storms obscure the sun for weeks at a time, and the atmosphere is very thin on Mars (p. 68). Given the thin atmosphere and seasonality of storms, Aldrin’s suggestion for mountaintop wind turbines seems particularly ridiculous. By contrast, Aldrin’s suggestion for a geothermal plant is intriguing, and it seems to be much more realistic if suitable conditions can be found (p. 69).
Despite its very minor flaws, I greatly enjoyed reading through Aldrin’s book. I look forward to reading it to my son in the coming years. But suddenly I’m struck by the thought that, if my son does go to Mars someday, he might stay there forever. As sad as that would be, maybe it’s about time we said goodbye to humanity’s next wave of pioneers.