The Greeks called it the star of Ares. For the Egyptians, it was the Horus of the Horizon. Across many Asian cultures, it was called the Fire Star. Mars has been surrounded by mystery from the time of ancient civilizations to the recent discovery of water on the planet’s surface.1 But why have humans around the world and throughout history been so obsessed with the tiny red planet?

Human fascination with Mars began in the late 19th century, when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli first observed canali, or lines, on the planet’s surface. Yet canali was mistakenly translated as “canals” instead of “lines.”2 This led many to believe that some sort of intelligent life existed on Mars and these canals were engineered for their survival. While these lines were later found to be optical illusions, the canali revolutionized the way people viewed Mars. For perhaps the first time in history, it seemed that humans might not be alone in the universe. Schiaparelli had unintentionally sparked what became known as “Mars fever,” and indirectly influenced our desire to study, travel to, and even colonize Mars for more than 100 years. In Cosmos, Carl Sagan memorably described this odd fascination, “Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.”

He was right.

After the canali misunderstanding, people began to believe that not only was there life on Mars, but intelligent life. The Mars craze escalated with the rise of science fiction, especially the publication of H.G. Wells’s classic Martian takeover novel War of the Worlds.2,3 In 1938, the novel was adapted for a radio broadcast narrated by actor Orson Welles. The broadcast incited mass terror, as millions of listeners mistook the fictional broadcast for news of an impending alien Armageddon. Surprisingly, this is just one of the many instances where random events have been mistaken for extraterrestrial interaction. The public image of Mars quickly evolved to reflect a mystical red landscape inhabited by intelligent, antagonistic, green creatures. Mars fever was becoming contagious.

As decades passed, it became increasingly clear that Mars contained no tiny green men and that there were no flying saucers coming to colonize the Earth. The Mariner missions found no evidence of life on Mars, and as a result, Mars fever took on a new form: without the threat of intelligent, alien life forms, who was to stop us from colonizing the Red Planet? After all, perhaps the destruction of Earth wouldn’t be caused by invaders, but by earthlings themselves. Many contemporary science fiction writers focus on this idea of a second Earth in their stories. Award-winning novelist Michael Swanwick says, "We all are running out of a lot of different minerals, some of which our civilization depends on … There is a science-fiction idea for you."4 With natural resources dwindling and pollution on the rise, Earth might need a replacement.5 Mars’ relative similarity and proximity to Earth make it a strong candidate.

Rocket scientist Werner Von Braun even wrote The Mars Project, a book outlining a Martian colonization fleet that would be assembled in earth orbit.6 It was a proposition of massive proportions, calling for $500 million in rocket fuel alone and human explorers rather than rovers such as NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity.6 However, these colonization efforts are not simply fictional. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and creator of the privately funded space agency SpaceX, has put intense effort into interplanetary travel, particularly in the case of Mars, but his methods remain abstract.7 Mars One has a similar goal: establishing a Martian colony. While not an aerospace company, Mars One is a logistical center for carrying out such a mission. They focus primarily on funding and organization, leaving systems construction up to more established aerospace companies.8 While both SpaceX and Mars One are dedicated to the cause of Martian colonization, it is evident that neither company will be able to accomplish such a mission any time soon.

The possible mechanisms for colonizing Mars are endless, ranging from pioneering the landscape with 3D printable habitats to harvesting remnants of water from the Martian soil. But the challenges arguably outweigh current technologies. In order to survive, humans would need space suits that could protect against extreme temperature differentials.5 Once on the surface, astronauts would need to establish food sources that were both sustainable and suitable for long term missions.9 Scientists would need to consider accommodations for the mental health of astronauts spending more time in space than any other human in history. Beyond these basic necessities, factors like harmful cosmic rays and the sheer cost of such a mission must also be considered.10

The highly improbable nature of Mars exploration and colonization only seems to add fuel to the fire of humanity’s obsession. In spite of the challenges associated with colonization, Mars fever persists. Though Mars is 225 million kilometers away from Earth, it has piqued human curiosity throughout civilizations. Schiaparelli and his contemporaries could only dream of the possibilities that dwelled in Mars’s “canali.” However, exploration of Mars is no longer the stuff of science-fiction. This is a new era of making the impossible possible, from Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” to the establishment of the International Space Station. We are closer to Mars than ever before, and in the coming years we might just unveil the mystery behind the Red Planet.


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