Mars history: Mars in the popular imagination

In Gulliver’s Travels, first published in 1727, Jonathan Swift describes the two moons of Mars, 150 years before they were officially discovered and named by astronomer Asaph Hall.  Although many scientists dismiss this as a coincidence, the imagining of Mars by writers, thinkers and movie directors has created a sci-fi folklore that’s both informed and fueled popular interest in the Red Planet.

Of course, much of this “informing” process has involved pure speculation. The suspense and mystery of exploring the unknown makes for good fiction. As does, apparently, mistakes in translation. When Giovanni Schiaperelli, an astronomer from Milan (1835-1910) mapped Mars in the 1870s, noting structures he called “canali” (Italian for channels), English speakers thought he had discovered canal-like structures made by aliens. It didn’t matter that the canals were soon discovered to be an illusion—American astronomer Percival Lowell had already concluded they were real, artificially-made structures, describing Mars as a marginally habitable. Lowell’s work triggered a sci-fi trend in books, movies and stories about Mars, and the funny green aliens that supposedly inhabited it.

War of the Worlds

In 1898 writer H.G. Wells penned a nightmarish depiction of a Martian invasion of Earth. War of the Worlds popularized both the belief in aliens, and dystopian sci-fi, a horror genre that plays on our fear of the unknown universe.  When War of the Worlds was broadcast as a radio play with Orson Welles in 1938, many listeners thought it was real and panicked. While we consider ourselves more media savvy today, Wells’ story is still compelling—over the past 100 years, it’s been reproduced numerous times in multiple media, from music, movies and comics to computer games.

Courtesy NASA-JPL/Caltech

While Mars sci-fi surged in the 1930s-60s, with movies, popular stories and books by such writers as Leigh Brackett and Edgar Rice Burroughs, the imagined Mars, with its extended dream of alien life forms, was dashed in 1976 when two NASA Viking probes landed on the planet. The probes showed a dry, desolate place, and no existence of life. Many believed this was proof that Martians and alien life forms existed in imagination alone.

Mars reality in real-time

As a result of more thorough scientific and geological surveys of Mars in the past two decades, scientists have discovered that the Mars of our popular imagination, the one that is warm, wet and hospitable to life, may have actually existed millions of years ago. And in 1996, NASA research conducted on a Martian meteorite showed some evidence for the existence of microscopic life. While science fiction endures, the popularization of the Internet in the 1990s and 2000s has sparked widespread interest in the real-time exploration of Mars. NASA’s Pathfinder rover mission (1997), for example, remains one of the most popular events in Internet history, watched on the web by millions. Because landing on Mars and exploring it is exceptionally difficult, however, the mysteriousness of the Red Planet continues.

Excerpt from The War of the Worlds radio play with Orson Welles (1938):

I’m speaking from the roof of Broadcasting Building, New York City. The bells you hear are ringing to warn the people to evacuate the city as the Martians approach. Estimated in last two hours three million people have moved out along the roads to the north…
Hutchison River Parkway still kept open for motor traffic. Avoid bridges to Long Island… hopelessly jammed. All communication with Jersey shore closed ten minutes ago.
No more defenses. Our army is… wiped out… artillery, air force, everything wiped out.

This may be the last broadcast. We’ll stay here to the end…

10 popular books about Mars:

  • War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1894)
  • Station X by G. McLeod Windsor (1919)
  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)
  • Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke (1951)
  • David Starr, Space Ranger by Isaac Asimov (1952)
  • Martians Go Home! by Fredric Brown (1955)
  • Martian Time Slip by Phillip K. Dick (1964)
  • John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1964)
  • Mars We Love You by Jane Hipolato and Willis E. McNally eds (1971)
  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)

10 popular Mars movies

  • Rocketship X-M (1950)
  • Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953)
  • Invaders from Mars (1953 & 1986)
  • Angry Red Planet (1959)
  • Mars Needs Women (1966)
  • Mission Mars (1968)
  • The Alpha Incident (1977)
  • Total Recall (1990)
  • Mars Attacks! (1996)
  • Mission to Mars (2000)

Mars History: Exploration

Fueled by the fictions in popular culture and scientific speculation, curiosity led to the direct exploration of the Red Planet using robotic spacecraft.  Beginning in 1960 with a series of mostly unsuccessful Soviet flyby probes, our exploration of Mars, though fraught with failures, challenges and high costs, has slowly resulted in an accumulation of important scientific discoveries. As a result, we’ve begun to find some answers to questions about water and life on Mars, with each mission bringing us one step closer to the reality of sending humans to Mars.

Artist’s Rendering: Mariner 4 Spacecraft (Image: NASA)

NASA Mariners: 1962-1973
Although the initial Mariner missions failed, missions 4 through 10 provided several groundbreaking firsts in space exploration. Launched in 1964, Mariner 4, NASA’s first successful Mars flyby provided the first close-up images of a planet other than Earth, and its 22 photos revealed a cratered surface.

Mariners 6 and 7, identical spacecraft launched in 1969, were flyby missions with onboard computers capable of transmitting images 2000 times faster than the Mariner 4. They acquired 201 far-range and close-up images of Mars, which effectively disproved the existence of artificial canals on the surface. Experiments detected atmospheric constituents, temperature and surface pressure data.

Launched in 1971, Mariner 9 dramatically altered what we knew about Mars, providing 54 billion pieces of data, including 7329 images of the planet’s surface and the first high resolution photos of the two Mars moons. Although it was delayed on arrival by dust storms, Mariner 9 showed incredible surface variations, including ancient river beds – feasible evidence of historic water.

Viking 1 orbiter (Image: NASA)

Russian Probes: 1969-1973
Although Mars 2 crashed into the Mars surface and Mars 3 only worked for 20 seconds after landing, these Russian probes were the first human artifacts to land on the Red Planet. Of seven flyby, lander and orbiter spacecraft in the series, Mars 5 (1973) succeeded, sending back 60 images of the Martian terrain and information on the temperature, altitude, ozone layer, magnetic field and ionosphere.

 Upcoming planned (or proposed) missions

  • 2007: Phoenix – NASA scout lander
  • 2009: Phobos-Grunt – Russian Federal Space Agency surveyor
  • 2009: Mars Science Lab – NASA rover
  • 2009: Beagle 2: Evolution – European Space Agency lander
  • 2011: ExoMars – European Space Agency rover
  • 2011: 2011 – NASA scout
  • 2011: Mars Science and Telecommunications Orbiter – NASA orbiter
  • (2016: Astrobiology Field Lab – NASA rover)
  • 2016: Mars Sample Return Mission – European Space Agency and NASA mission.

NASA Viking Orbiter/Landers: 1975-1982
Launched separately in 1975, Viking 1 and 2 went into Mars orbit in 1976, first imaging the entire surface for viable landing sites, before the landers detached from the orbiters to successfully touch down. The Viking landers provided 1400 images of the Mars surface around the two landing sites, analyzed surface samples for signs of life, studied the atmosphere and measured seismic waves. The first spacecraft to transmit colour panoramic images of the Martian terrain, the Viking spacecraft provided extensive scientific information, including evidence of historic surface water and data on seasonal dust storms, pressure changes and atmospheric gases. Biological experiments, however, showed no signs of life.

NASA Mars Global Surveyor: 1996-present
Launched in 1996 to recover the mission objectives of the failed Mars Observer, the Mars Global Surveyor mapped the topography of the Martian surface, providing high resolution images and vast amounts of data on gravity, weather, climate, atmosphere and the magnetic field. Its detailed photos of topographical features such as gullies suggested the presence of frozen water. Still in use as a data relay long after it’s mission timeline, the Mars Global Surveyor went into an error condition on November 2, 2006.

NASA Mars Pathfinder: 1996-1998
Launched in 1996, the Pathfinder lander arrived on Mars in 1997, releasing the first Mars rover, the Sojourner, to explore the Martian surface and provide data on the feasibility of low-cost landings. This mission proved the viability of a number of new technologies, including airbag landings, and was able to operate under a much smaller budget than previous missions. It also gained widespread public attention. In addition to more than 17,000  images, the mission’s analysis of the Martian atmosphere, climate, geology, rocks and soil provided further evidence of the Red Planet’s watery past. Contact was lost with the lander and rover in late 1997.

Artist’s rendering: Mars Express
(Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA Mars Odyssey
Originally planned as an orbiter/lander, the Mars Odyssey was launched as an orbiter-only mission in 2001 to analyze Martian mineral, climate and geological data and study radiation hazards. It served as a communications relay and source of information on atmospheric conditions for other missions such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and its mission had been extended through 1998 for further observation of seasonal changes in polar ice, clouds and dust storms.

European Space Agency Mars Express
Although contact with its lander, the Beagle 2 was lost, the Mars Express Orbiter, launched in 2003 to obtain high resolution imagery for geological analysis and conduct mineralogical and atmospheric mapping, has discovered the presence of hydrated sulphates, silicates and rock-forming minerals on Mars. In addition to detecting methane in the atmosphere, suggesting volcanic or hydrothermal activity or perhaps even the presence of subsurface microorganisms, it discovered buried impact craters and confirmed the presence of underground water-ice.

Artist’s rendering: Airbags used to land Spirit and Opportunity safely on Mars (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA Mars Exploration Rovers (MER)
Spirit and Opportunity, the two Mars Exploration rovers launched in 2003 have analyzed Martian rocks and soil in the search for geological clues and measurable data about water on Mars, as well as information about future landing sites. Equipped with advanced instrumentation, including cameras for panoramic photos, navigation and hazard-avoidance, as well as X-ray spectometers, the rovers have provided evidence of historic water, including rock stratification and the distribution of chlorine and bromine along what must have been a former salty sea. The mission has been extended through to September 2007.

NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Designed to orbit Mars for more than a Martian year, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched in 2005 and has been in orbit since spring 2006. This multifunction spacecraft is gathering data on Martian landforms, weather and surface conditions with six advanced technologies, including a high resolution imager. In addition to collecting information on possible landing sites, the orbiter is testing an improved telecommunications system that will become a relay station for future missions.

The Mars Curse:
Despite these achievements, to date almost half of Mars missions have failed, a phenomenon Time magazine journalist Donald Neff described as the Mars Curse. Although this has fueled some far-fetched speculations, including one involving a galactic probe-eating ghoul, scientists have conducted detailed investigations as to why each mission failed.

Mission Name Mission type Date How it failed
Marsnik 1 and 2 (aka Mars 1960A/1960B) Flybys 1960 Launch failure.
Sputnik 22 Flyby 1962 Broke up in Earth orbit.
Mars 1 Flyby 1962 Contact lost.
Sputnik 24 Lander 1962 Broke up during transfer to Mars trajectory.
Mariner 3 Flyby 1964 Protective shield failed; solar batteries died.
Zond 2 Flyby 1964 Contact lost.
Mars 1969A and Mars 1969B Orbiters 1969 Launch failure.
Mariner 8 Flyby 1971 Launch failure.
Cosmos 419 Orbiter/lander 1971 Bad ignition timer setting.
Mars 7 Lander 1973 Lander separated early and missed the planet.
Phobos 1 Orbiter/lander 1988 Software error resulted in deactivation of solar paneled thrusters; batteries died.
Mars Observer Orbiter 1992 Contact lost.
Mars 96 Orbiter/lander 1996 Failed in Mars trajectory; re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.
Nozomi Orbiter 1998 Mars orbit insertion burn failed; flew past Mars.
Mars Climate Orbiter Orbiter 1998 Destroyed due to navigation error during Mars orbit insertion.
Mars Polar Lander Lander 1999 Contact lost.
Deep Space 2 (DS2) Penetrators 1999 Unknown: contact lost after landing.
Beagle 2 (part of Mars Express) Lander 2003 Contact lost.


Mars History: Why this is a hard thing to do?

The failure rate of Mars Missions is high. Many things can go wrong, and the smallest overlooked detail can result in disaster. In 1998, a miscalculation as a result of a mix up of metric and standard measurement units cost NASA its Mars Surveyor Climate Orbiter. The most common cause of failure has been lost communications.

These failures can be very expensive. Billions of dollars have been spent on Mars exploration, triggering some to question whether or not the scientific payoff of space programs is worth their funding and support from tax dollars.

But recent, successful missions such as Mars Pathfinder, the Mars Exploration Rovers and the ESA’s Mars Express have garnered worldwide attention and interest. New discoveries providing evidence that Mars was once a watery planet, perhaps more like Earth, together with the looming possibility that forms of life could exist on the Red Planet have fueled the impetus to further explore this distant frontier.

A human mission, such as that depicted in the Race to Mars mini-series, is even more complex.  Not only does the mission need to bring supplies and fuel for a return-trip, as well as launching living quarters, vehicles and equipment…but the cost of failure is incredibly high in human terms, economic terms, and for the very future of the space-program.

 The Mars Curse and the Galactic Ghoul

Because of the high rate of failure in reaching and landing on the Red Planet, some have suggested, although often in jest, that there is a Mars Curse plaguing missions to Mars. Time Magazine journalist Donald Neff imagined that the curse is a result of the Galactic Ghoul, a fictional space monster that consumes Mars probes.

By the numbers
Number of successful Mars missions
1960-2005: 14
Number of failed Mars missions
1960-2005: 27

Failed missions to Mars
1960: Marsnik 1. Flyby. Launch failure.
1960: Marsnik 2. Flyby. Launch failure.
1962: Sputnik 22. Flyby. Broke up in Earth’s atmosphere.
1962: Mars 1. Flyby. Contact lost.
1962: Sputnik 24. Lander. Broke up en route to Mars.
1964: Mariner 3. Flyby. Mechanical failure. Lost in orbit.
1964: Zond 2.  Mars flyby. Contact lost.
1969: Mars 1969A. Orbiter. Launch failure. 1969: Mars 1969B. Orbiter. Launch failure.

1971: Mariner 8. Orbiter. Launch failure.
1971: Cosmos 419. Obiter/lander. Failed en route.
1971: Mars 2. Orbiter/lander. Failed en route.
1971: Mars 3. Orbiter/lander. Contact lost after landing.
1973: Mars 4. Flyby. Failed to slow and flew past Mars orbit.
1973: Mars 6. Lander. Contact lost.
1973: Mars 7. Lander.  Landing probe separated early, missed planet.

1988: Phobos 1. Orbiter/lander. Contact lost.
1988: Phobos 2. Orbiter/lander. Contact lost.

1992: Mars Observer. Orbiter. Contact lost.
1996: Mars 96. Orbiter/lander. Trajectory failed. Broke up in Earth’s atmosphere.
1998: Nozomi . Orbiter. Into orbit then failure. Abandoned in space.
1998: Mars Climate Orbiter. Navigation error. Destroyed in Mars atmosphere.
1999: Mars Polar Lander. Contact lost.
1999: Deep Space 2. Penetrators. Contact lost after landing.

2003: Mars Express. Orbiter and lander. Contact lost with Beagle 2 lander.

The following discussion uses the Race to Mars mission-plan as an example.

What can go wrong:


  • Possible equipment or systems failure, including guidance system, seals or valves, rocket boosters can cause crashes, gas leaks and explosions.
  • Structural failure can break up the rocket.
  • Decompression can suffocate the crew

36-48 hours into flight:

  • Docking with the crew transit vehicle. This is a slow and methodical process. Dangers include possible collision and pressure failure.  If computerized process fails, a manual override is available, but risky.
  • Ship spun up to provide Artificial gravity to protect astronauts’ health. Spining too fast would make the crew sick and cause structural damage to the ship.

2-5 months, traveling to Mars

  • Elevated radiation from a solar flare could harm crew and damage electronics.
  • Loss of communication (here or at any other phase of the mission): would make the mission much more difficult, with the crew reliant on their own skills and equipment
  • Astronauts could be harmed by cosmic radiation and excess carbon dioxide in the air.
  • Puncture from a micrometeorite could cause partial decompression.

5 months, arriving in orbit

  • Critical navigation moment. No margin for error.
  • Astronauts must transfer to the MADV lander already orbiting Mars. Docking is always dangerous.

Landing on Mars

  • Known as the most dangerous 6 minutes in the mission.  Everything from parachutes to retro rockets to LIDAR equipment to Terminal Descent Engines must work precisely in order to slow the lander down. Any variation in the timing or function and the lander can end up kilometers out of place.  And with the vehicles, supplies and surface-habitat already in position on Mars, ending up too far off course could compromise the mission.

On Mars: 60 days

  • Astronauts are under threat from dust devils (static-electrical discharge), Martian dust storms (poor visibility, long duration) and radiation (a risk due to the thin protective atmosphere of Mars). If their space suits malfunction or rip, depressurization and extreme cold can cause loss of limbs or death.

Ascent from Mars

  • The ascent from Mars and docking with the crew transit vehicle again requires split-second timing.

Leaving Mars and re-entry

  • The return trip is as risky as the initial journey. Re-entry once the crew reach Earth is always dangerous.

Mars History: Famous Astronomers and Mars Discovery

Astronomer Tycho Brahe

BC: The Mythologized Mars

Visible as the red planet in the night sky, Mars was recognized by Ancient Babylonians as an aggressive force. They called Mars Nergal, the star of death, and on its day (Tuesday) performed ceremonies to ward off this planet’s hostile influences.

While Ancient Egyptians called Mars Har Decher, the Red One, and the Greeks named it Ares after their god of war, Mars got its moniker from the Romans. In Roman mythology, Mars was a mighty warrior, the god of spring who ushered in the season of empire-expanding battle.

1500s: Eyeball observations and radical theories

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) presented the blasphemous theory that the planets in the solar system orbit around the sun instead of the earth. Prior to the invention of the telescope, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) calculated the position of Mars.

1600s: A difficult time for science

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), a student of Tycho Brahe, proposed that Mars had an elliptical orbit. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who was tried in the Inquisition for subscribing to Copernicus’ controversial theory, observed Mars with a primitive telescope. Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens (1629-1696) studied Mars with a more advanced telescope, observing the planet’s south pole and speculating about Martian life.

One of Schiaperelli’s maps of Mars (1888)

1700s: Research data begins

Continued improvements in telescope design allowed astronomers, such as Brit Sir William Herschel (1738-1822) to make important, and surprisingly accurate observations of the Red Planet, including that of its axial tilt (estimated then at 30 degrees; now thought to be 25.19 degrees), the position of its poles and its thin atmosphere.

1800s: The Canal Craze

Milan astronomer Giovanni Schiaperelli (1835-1910) created early maps of Mars, naming more than 300 landscape features he viewed through his telescope. In 1877, his announcement of the existence of Martian  “caneli,” or channels in Italian, was misinterpreted by English-speakers, who believed he had discovered alien-made canals.

1900s: Martians invade pop culture

American Percival Lowell (1855-1916) wrote that the canals on Mars were artificially-made and promoted the belief in life forms on the Red Planet. Although this idea was questioned by other scientists, who showed canals to be an illusion, Martians and alien folklore permeated 20th century pop culture. Beginning in the 1960s, with flyby missions, the US and Russia spent billions studying Mars and trying to land space probes on the Red Planet, which proved to be very difficult.]. In 1976 two NASA Viking probes showed Mars to be a dry, uninhabitable planet. In 1996 NASA published evidence for ancient microscopic life on Mars, a claim later discounted by some of the same scientists.

Mars Phoenix Lander (Courtesy Nasa/LMSS)

2000s: The exploration of Mars

NASA’s Mars Odyssey conducted the a large-scale geological survey of Mars, beginning in 2001. In 2002, data from Odyssey showed evidence of vast ice beneath the surface of Mars. The European Space Agency’s Mars Express set off in 2003 with its Mars Express Orbiter and Beagle Lander. Although contact with the lander was lost, the orbiter confirmed the presence of ice on Mars. NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, launched in 2003 and 2004, began a long geological survey of the planet, relaying evidence that the planet was once drenched in water. NASA launched a two-year science study in 2005 with its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Its Phoenix Mars Lander (2007), subsequent rover missions (2009-2011), Russia’s Phobos-Grunt probe (2009) and Europe’s ExoMars (2011) will provide valuable data in preparation for the first human mission to Mars.