x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

We got to Mars before the Red Planet got to us. Didn't we?

Mars has long been the subject of fantasy and science fiction, but now our planet has invaded the red one, rather than the other way around.

'Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, strange beings who landed in New Jersey tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from Mars."

So realistic was the 1938 radio transmission of War of the Worlds by Orson Welles that it spread panic among listeners who believed an alien invasion from Mars was genuinely under way.

Humans, in keeping with Earthly traditions, haven't always shown Mars the respect it deserves. Obsession? Sure. But respect? No, sorry, we don't do respect on this planet.

Belatedly though, thanks to Nasa's latest Mars mission, Curiosity, we're starting to get it.

For too long pop culture, rather than science, informed the public's perception of Mars. The Red Planet, tantalisingly just out of reach, lent itself perfectly to satire, cartoons, science fiction and out and out fantasy.

Beginning in the 1950s, with the onset of the space exploration age, the Mars legend grew, especially in comic books and B movies. A trading card series released in 1962, called Mars Attacks, showed the Martians as a race hellbent on destroying Earth. David Bowie thought Mars had giant spiders. And Capricorn One, the 1978 sci-fi film about a Mars landing hoax, starred OJ Simpson. Tim Burton's film adaptation of Mars Attacks played it for laughs, with Martians declaring "we come in peace" as they set about annihilating humankind. And, frankly, who can blame them? We're not a very loveable race.

To Earthlings, Martians are fat, ugly and green. And evil, of course.

Nasa's Viking programme in the 1970s, and the Pathfinder rover in 1997, brought serious exploration of Mars's "canals", and the possibility they once contained water. Popular culture's attempts at more serious efforts to portray Mars, however, fell flat: Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars; the Val Kilmar-starring Red Planet and John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars. Don't expect the Martians to come in peace if they've seen these.

As it turns out, we got to Mars before it got to us.

Now, the first high-resolution images from Nasa's Curiosity rover have been beamed back to Earth, and - to borrow Buzz Aldrin's first words from the moon - they capture a terrain of "magnificent desolation": canals, layered buttes and cobbles and pebbles strewn across red desert terrain. And a distinct absence of little green men.

Looking at these images, it's hard to wrap your head around the notion that this is another world, such is the likeness it has with Earth. Nasa had likened the terrain to certain areas of the southwestern United States. But it could just as well be the African Sahara. Or Al Ain.

It is the sheer ordinariness of the scene that makes it fascinating to many. And, inevitably, anti-climatic to others. Science, far too often, is no match for science fiction.

But make no mistake, a discovery of even the most primitive of microscopic life on Mars, or that it once existed, would be, like a Martian attack, earth-shattering.

Pop culture, already in warp drive thanks to the internet, has embraced Curiosity. Science geeks celebrated, cynics grumbled about costs, and the tin-foil-hat brigade said it was a hoax. Curiosity also got the better of cartoonists. "We don't have oil, do we?" a Martian asked another, in one. And an online meme showed an American eagle framed by the words "Sees Britain is hosting the Olympic Games ... Lands on Mars". (Why America would want to one-up the UK of all countries remains a mystery.)

In truth, such triumphalism was unnecessary. Curiosity's mission, like the first Moon landing in 1969, highlights the power that America still has to explore new frontiers, and capture the imagination.

It is only right that we all cheer Nasa's efforts to find life on Mars. Considering the way we treat our planet, we may one day need to move there. Show some respect.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AliKhaled_