Mars Beckons

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

This book is part history, part popular science, and part advocate for future manned exploration of Mars. Wilford begins with an episodic review of thousands of years of human curiosity about and study of the planet Mars. His presentation is concise and insightful, but limited in depth and detail. There is no original research evident in his discussion, but he has read some of the more significant contemporary historians of astronomy and summarized their views accurately. His examination of Mars in popular culture is confined primarily to Orson Welles’s version of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) and the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Surprisingly, he shows little interest in the images of travel to Mars that appeared in television and film. All in all, the historical chapters are the least important of the book. They contribute nothing to the literature. Wilford could easily have deleted or reduced the historical background even further without an adverse impact upon his book. History of this sort is irrelevant for his main purpose.

His review of more contemporary research is qualitatively another matter. Wilford has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his science reporting, so it is not surprising that both his account of the exploration of Mars by spacecraft and his precis of the state of scientific knowledge of the planet are outstanding. Here he is dealing with material with which he is intimately familiar and has already written about: the scientific achievements of the American and Russian space programs. Mission after mission, whether success or failure, is sketched out with a sure hand. Unlike other histories of the unmanned space program, Wilford is not concerned with celebrating technological accomplishments. Engineers are not his heroes. Instead, he focuses on the scientific knowledge gained, underscoring the unexpected or puzzling fact and the impermanent nature of scientific theories. He scrutinizes the work of the planetologists, geologists, biologists, and astronomers, balancing discussion of the geology of Mars with interest in the question of the existence of Martian life. The second section ends with a chapter summarizing the state of scientific knowledge of Mars at the conclusion of the Viking missions (approximately 1980). It is a chapter recommended to anyone without technical expertise who wishes to understand what scientists know and do not know about Mars. This is popular science writing and science journalism at its best, written by a man who understands and appreciates the excitement of scientific discovery. It establishes his credentials in a way that the first section of the book does not. At the same time, the chapter provides a sense of urgency for further exploration of Mars by emphasizing that there is no consensus yet on the question of whether life exists, or at least existed at one time on Mars. He quotes both Russian and Western scientists as insisting that the results of the Viking missions did not settle the issue once and for all.

The history and the review of science are but a prologue, however, for the final half of the book: a justification for future human expeditions to Mars and a subtle effort to influence American space and foreign policy for the next two to three decades. As the subtitle proclaims, Wilford believes that Mars will be the next great adventure in space. It is human destiny to walk on the surface of that planet. If that is so, then he believes that it would be a grave mistake on the part of American political leaders and policymakers not to have the United States take part in the exploration. This book is an effort to gain support for American participation in an international space adventure.

Wilford lays out three possible paths that humankind could follow to fulfill its destiny on Mars. Perhaps most likely is a landing by the Russians, who are already publicly committed to exploring the planet. Slowly,...

(The entire section is 1599 words.)