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A space historian explores the human fascination with Mars

Humans have long been fascinated by Mars — and that includes Matt Shindell.

Shindell says his fascination started about two decades ago as an Arizona State University student, when he met the team of geologists that was working on instruments that’d be used to explore the red planet.

Shindell is a space historian and a space history curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. His book, "For the Love of Mars: A Human History of the Red Planet," came out last year. 

He says he’s especially interested in the story of how we came to ask the questions we ask now about Mars — and what those questions say about who we are and what we want for our future.

Full interview

MATT SHINDELL: Yeah. So, I mean, we know that people for a very, very long time since, well before humans started keeping records, were, were fascinated by the planets in general and their ability to move through the sky in a way that was different from everything else. And Mars is a very unique object among those planets in that, you know, not only does it move against the fixed stars, but it does some very interesting things that the other planets either don't do or don't do as noticeably. So, you know, Mars is this object that seems kind of unpredictable and almost seems to have a will of its own in the way that it moves through the sky.

MARK BRODIE: Is its proximity to earth a factor here as well? I mean, you don't really hear kids talking about little green men from Jupiter or Neptune coming to earth. But certainly you hear about, you know, Martians, you know, as, as potential alien life forms out there.

SHINDELL: Yeah, I mean, you know, we have two planets that are nearby neighbors. We have Venus and we have Mars. And, you know, Mars has in, you know, the last 100 or more years been the more popular site to imagine where the aliens might come from. And partly that's because Venus is just this incredibly hot and, uninhabitable and hostile place. So, you know, while people did one at one time think that Venus might have life and Venus might be more earthlike than any other planet. At this point, you know, Mars is not only our near neighbor, but it's also the planet that we kind of think of as being most similar to earth. Like if you look at the images that come back from the rovers and Landers that have been on Mars, they look very recognizable, right? They look a lot like what you might be used to seeing in, in the American Southwest, in the deserts of the Southwest. So I think it's kind of like this, this natural leap that the imagination makes, that says I can imagine life on this place.

BRODIE: Yeah, I'm curious about how some of the images coming back from Mars and, you know, as humans explore that planet more, what does that do to how we think about Mars and maybe what we think are the possibilities about Mars?

SHINDELL: Yeah. So, you know, over the last 20 years, we have essentially had robotic boots on the ground on Mars. So, you know, we've been seeing thousands upon thousands of images come back from Mars over this last couple of decades and Mars has become incredibly familiar to us. And so I think that, you know, we've started to think more and more of Mars as a place that we know, as a place that we understand and that a place, a place that we might one day send people and start new lives. So I do think that this familiarity has kind of brought us to the point right now of being able to very easily imagine ourselves there in the future.

Although that's not new, entirely either because we've been imagining sending humans to Mars, you know, ever since the success of the Apollo program and, and honestly, even before that when people were just dreaming up the, the technologies of space flight, so it's an old dream, but right now it feels more realistic than it ever had.

BRODIE: Right. Well, so there have obviously been movies about either, you know, alien life forms coming from Mars to earth or people going to Mars, but sort of beyond, you know, what we've seen on the big screen over the last number of years. How does our interest in and sort of fascination with Mars manifest itself in popular culture?

SHINDELL: So I think our fascination with Mars does manifest itself a lot in popular culture. You see it, you know, in a lot of science fiction television. And, you know, the great example I always like to, to bring up when I talk about science fiction and Mars in sort of the recent years is the, the, the series "The Expanse" that started out on the SyFy Network and then moved over to Amazon Prime. That show imagined a human future in which, you know, we kind of got past that point of sending the first humans to Mars. We had at that point been on Mars for long enough that the humans that live there really considered themselves Martian as opposed to Earthling, you know, and so I think, you know, there's a lot of popular culture like that series that imagines that far future moment or, you know, if you think about, you know, franchises, the larger franchises like "Star Trek," you know, that's a future where we've gotten even further past Mars. We've started exploring the, the planetary systems beyond our solar system and finding planets that are a little bit more like earth.

So I do think that in popular culture, we see a discussion happening in movies and television in, you know, LEGO sets even, and other forms of, of, of toys. This discussion happening about when will we go to Mars? What will we do when we get there? And you know, what will that mean to our future and who we are as humans if we ever do become a interplanetary species?

BRODIE: What is the significance, do you think, of the fact that Mars is so distinctive? You know, we think about a planet like Saturn with the rings. Everybody knows Saturn. Everybody knows Mars with its very distinctive red, you know, sort of red geology there. And, you know, even if you're standing on earth and stargazing, if you see sort of a red, you know, red dot in the sky, you know, there's a reasonable chance that what you're looking at is Mars, like it's recognizable. Does that play a role in sort of people's thinking about it and, and fascination with this planet?

SHINDELL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, for, for centuries, Mars has had the nickname of the red planet. And, you know, that is because it is so so recognizable. But then at the same time, it is also, or at least for many years was cloaked in mystery because nobody could get a clear view of what the surface of Mars actually looked like.

BRODIE: Do you think that eventually we will have people land on Mars and maybe even have humans live there?

SHINDELL: I mean, I can't imagine that we won't, at one point, in our, in our future, maybe it's gonna be in the next 20 years or maybe it's further on down the road. I think there will be a human mission to Mars. It might start out with a, a mission that's sent to orbit Mars and study it from orbit. It might lead to a, a mission then that puts boots on the ground where, you know, a scientific expedition is gonna study the surface, in situ, as opposed to the way we do now back on earth using robots. And, you know, that will probably lead to a lot of new discoveries.

But then when you get to the question of whether we'll actually live on Mars, whether we might build a settlement on Mars, I'm a little more hesitant to, to give an optimistic answer to that. Because I think it could happen. But there are a lot of technological challenges to making it happen, and it's also not really clear what the purpose would be of getting beyond, say, a scientific mission or an exploratory mission. You know, what would we get out of living on Mars?

When it is a planet that is, you know, as we've been learning over the last decades, very inhospitable. You know, it's not gonna be an easy place for people to make a life and it's gonna take a lot of resources and a lot of new technologies to make that work.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.