On Mars… at last…

I’ve been looking at – ok, drooling over – images of Mars for a long time now. A loooong time. My first real martian swoon came when I was taking my A Levels, way back in 19(cough cough!) when I stumbled upon a pile of old National Geographic magazines in a corner of the school art room. One of those magazines was a “Mars special” from 1976, and it had a section of photographs taken by the Viking landers. That image burned itself into my consciousness, as soon as I saw it, and ever since that afternoon I have been in love with Mars. This is that very image…

Compared to what we have now it’s nothing special. Its colours are a bit… strong … it’s not particularly sharp… but oh, the beauty of it! I looked at that magazine for a good half hour that day, and yes, I’ll admit it, I looked at it again that evening, at home, the magazine having somehow fallen into my bag before I left (I know, shameful of me, but I like to think I actually rescued that Nat Geo from being cut up by some spotty A level art student who wanted to make a collage out of other photos inside it, so I did A Good Thing, I think..!), and in the years since ‘ve gone back to it again and again, reliving that moment when I saw Mars, and I mean truly saw Mars, for the first time. The rocks, some jagged, some smooth; the dust, blown into drifts and dunes by the martian wind; the orange-pink sky, alien but familiar-looking at the same time. That was a world, a real place. And it had abducted me.

In the following years lots of Mars images appeared, as we explored Mars with increasingly sophisticated robots. But somehow none of the pictures sent back by those probes captured my imagination, or made me catch my breath, in the same way that Viking 1 picture did. In fact, to the best of my recollection, only one image of Mars wrapped itself around my heart and squeezed as hard as that one from Nat Geo, and it was a painting, not a photograph. Painted by a legendary space artist, it showed a dramatic, dynamic Mars, a world of ancient battered rock and violent dust storms. No, not a Chesley Bonestell painting, but the creation of Ludek Pesek, one of the illustrations from a book on the solar system which he illustrated. That book contained Viking images too, but it was this painting which made me stop flipping the pages and smile, as I was reunited with an old, long lost friend…

And again, after that, nothing. Mars… MY Mars… stayed hidden inside my head. None of the images I saw in any book or magazine showed it.

The next time I encountered “my” Mars was in the pages of a book, a science fiction novel called “Red Mars” by an author I hadn’t previously heard of, Kim Stanley Robinson. I saw it on the shelf in a bookstore, and knew I had to have it. It was martian lust at first sight…

When I started reading the book I was lost in it within minutes. It was like being hit on the head by a large piece of martian basalt. Somehow KSR had looked inside me, seen My Mars, and written about it, described it perfectly in minute, exquisite, faithful detail. He saw the beauty in the rocks, canyons and volcanoes. He saw the beauty in the blushing pink sky. He saw the beauty in the planet’s alien sunrises and sunsets. He Got It.

Two more books in the series followed, as the epic tale of the terraforming and taming of Mars reached its conclusion, but as incredible as the descriptions of Green and Blue Mars were, and they were absolutely beautiful, they never somehow came close to me to capturing the beauty of Red Mars, and certainly didn’t convert me to the terraforming cause! No, for me Mars is, and always will be, the Red Mars explored by John Boone and loved by Ann Clayborne, and eventually, by grumpy old Sax Russell too…

Another gap then until My Mars was seen – when Opportunity finally, after that long drive across the Meridiani desert, pulled up on the edge of Victoria crater and saw – this

Dear… god… look at that… that was almost exactly how I imagined Mars…!


But still the real Mars, My Mars, hid in my head, out of sight of everyone else. It was so frustrating!! By now images were coming back from Mars daily, and I was even able to make my own out of them, tweaking, enhancing and altering them in the hope of capturing “my” Mars and showing it to everyone else so I could shout “LOOK!! THIS IS WHAT I MEAN!!! THIS IS WHY I THINK MARS IS SO BEAUTIFUL!!! DO YOU SEE NOW?!?!?”

As succesful as the Phoenix mission was, not one single image from that mission showed “My” Mars, and since Oppy left Victoria, reaching Endeavour Crater after yet another impossible drive, not even she has sent back an image that showed the planet as I see it. Frankly, I was beginning to give up hope that I would ever see it.

Then last week, Curiosity sent back a stream of images from the dusty, once-wet floor of Gale Crater, that finally took me back to My Mars.

I stitched them all together to make a long, sweeping panorama, which I thought was pretty beautiful. Click on it to enlarge it and see it properly…

But when I looked at that image, one section of it really jumped out at me. There, over 4 of the dozen or so frames I’d stitched together, was My Mars, clear as day, right there on the screen…

…and with a bit of work, I finally, finally, was able to see My Mars on my computer screen…

When I see that image, I’m there. On Mars. I can believe that I’m standing on that dusty ground, with rocks both jagged and smooth scattered all around, stretching as far as the eye can see. I can feel my boots crumping into the dusty ground as I walk across it to that low ridge, then step up it, to stand on its top and survey the landscape around me. And out there, on the far horizon, dimmed by the dust hanging in the air, are hills, too many of them to count, each one beautiful in its own right. And although the image itself doesn’t show it, I can imagine tilting my head back and staring up, up into an enormous, open, empty, lemon-pink sky, feeling as small as a dust mite staring up at the ceiling of a vast cathedral from its cold, stone floor…

That, my friends, is the Mars the first human explorers will be faced with when they set foot on the Red Planet, following in the imaginary footsteps of John Carter, John Boone, and Ann Clayborne. That is the Mars I grew up wanting to see for real, through the curved visor of a spacesuit helmet, but know now I will never see. That is the Mars which waits for us, as a species, if we can just grow up and start working together on something epic, noble and bold, instead of fighting among ourselves over scraps of land and barrels of oil on this fragile little world of stone and water.

That image, then, links me to the past – to that already-faded, slightly tattered, paint-spattered National Geographic I nicked borrowed from my school art room all those years ago – and connects me to the future, to a future I might not live to see myself, when men and women from Earth step off their spacecraft and lift their eyes to see the beauty of Barsoom.

It’s a dreadful cliche, I know, but beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is a very personal, subjective thing. I know people who see beauty in the colours of the feathers on a pigeon’s chest, or the flash of light off a caught fish’s scales. I know people who see beauty in the profile of a skyscraper, or the petals of a flower, just as  I know people who look at Formula 1 cars, or tractors, or the stripped down engine of an airliner and think they’re the most beautiful, most elegant things they’ve ever seen, when all I can see are shaped metal panels, oily gear mechanisms and rivets. I can’t see the beauty they see, just as they can’t see the beauty I see when I look at the landscapes of Mars. And for years I’ve struggled to find an image that might help me show people who don’t “get it” just why Mars is so beautiful in my eyes.

I’ve known that beauty was there all along. Now, thanks to Curiosity – her drivers, her engineers, her image takers, her scientists and everyone else on the team – everyone else can see it, too.

* Thanks to everyone who’s already looked at and shared this image with others; it’s been fantastic to show the “real” Mars to so many people already.


7 thoughts on “On Mars… at last…

  1. […] erklärt! NACHTRAG 6: Curiosity hat wieder zugelangt. NACHTRAG 7: Noch mehr Panorama – und Gedanken dazu. Gefällt mir:Gefällt mirSei der Erste dem dies […]

  2. Heimdall says:

    Well put! You’re the only one feeling this way… thank you and keep up the good work!

  3. ted says:

    fantastic! Really well written and stunning panorama. Good for you pal. Your passion is a thing to behold. God bless you for it!

  4. Freda says:

    Wow! Not quite the way ,but almost. I imagine it could be. I have not doubt whatsoever, that we, the people of this earth, or rather our descendants,will leave this planet,to colonise others. In fact, I firmly believe, that there are other species, who already live on other planets;
    It does not feel feasable that we are the only beings in the whole of the universe. That just cannot be. they may not look exactly like us, but I just ‘feel’ there are other others. They are enjoying living on the planet that is home to them, and thinking ‘how beautiful it is’.
    Much in the same way as the author of the above letter ‘feels’ about Mars.
    Thank you for the lovely inspirational insight!

  5. Nick says:

    On Mars… On Mars… On Mars… 😉

    Nice article. My Mars will be a few shades more blue than Annes was, but even I don’t get to set foot there in my life time (that in itself, a crime), I certainly hope we as humanity get to experience those horizons by a living proxy, in my lifetime.

  6. Denny says:

    I feel much the same! Great work. Here is my take on Sol 50:
    Curious Mountains

    I like to do anaglyphs with the nav cam data as well:


    I feel pretty honored to actually have my name etched into a chip on curiosity as well. Part of the MSL outreach program from a few years back:


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