“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”
—H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
As opening lines go, this passage from The War of the Worlds is still one of my absolute favorites. Even today, I get chills when I read those last few words, despite the fact that I have always known them to be complete fantasy.
I was nine or ten years old the first time I read Wells’ classic novel of otherworldly conquest. I picked up a dime-store paperback copy of it (which I still have) at a school book fair for all of 95¢ and burned through it in a single sitting. As I read of Martian cylinders landing on Earth, I was keenly aware that in the real world, the Viking landers had set down on the martian surface and were busy digging small furrows in the dust while sending back images of a bleak and forbidding environment.
I was too young to truly appreciate the irony of Wells’ story: an invasion of the Earth thwarted by microscopic organisms very much like the ones we were (and still are) hoping to find on the martian surface. There would be no images of tripodal fighting machines striding across the Martian dunes, instead, all the careful study and scrutinizing were being done by humans here on Earth, myself among them.
Those were the days that I spent every evening I could manage outside, looking at the heavens through my telescope. As a child, I was fascinated with astronomy, obsessed really. I absorbed the original PBS broadcast of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series as well as the accompanying book. I read everything I could find on the topic in any book or magazine I could lay my hands on.
Somewhere, there is an old spiral bound notebook with my carefully drawn diagrams replicating Galileo’s observations of the phases of Venus as well as the nightly orbital positions of Jupiter’s moons.
Or maybe it’s lost, like so many other things from childhood.
I remember that each of these entries was noted with the date and time. I remember that sometimes, due to weather or the necessity of homework, I would be unable to make an observation for days at a time. On these occasions I would try to extrapolate the positions I would find when the next opportunity for direct observation came. I was wrong as often as I was right but I seem to recall that my predictions became more accurate as time passed.
I can not tell you exactly when I stopped making those nightly trips outside, telescope in hand. The answer to that question is in that lost notebook as well. All I know is that somewhere along the way, my obsession with astronomy began to waver.
Did it ever go away completely?
I remember a chilly winter night spent with high-school friends, gazing through our mismatched collection of telescopes at a particular star which was due to blink out as an asteroid passed between it and the Earth.
In college I took Astronomy classes to satisfy the Physical Science requirements for my Degree. I dozed through the lectures and aced the weekly quizzes over facts and figures that I’d known by heart since my early teens. The payoff came on those rare nights when we all went out and looked at the sky through the University’s big scopes. I remember the excitement I felt from my fellow students and feeling like it was all coming alive for me again.
Time passes and life pulls us in many unexpected directions.
When I was ten years old I wanted nothing more than to spend my life exploring the mysteries of the universe through a good telescope. I would have given anything to go into space myself, even if it was a one-way trip, for just the opportunity to see for myself, close up, the things I could otherwise only look at from afar.
And thirty-five years later…?
Last week I heard about a program called Mars-One. A European based not-for-profit group which has announced that they plan to settle humans on Mars by the year 2023. The key word here is “settle”. This is not a ‘moon-landing’ type of operation where you go, collect a few rocks and come back. If you go, you go. That’s it. There is no coming back.
Having read through their website, I have to say that on the surface, the whole thing sounds very far-fetched. Using existing technology they plan to land a habitable base on Mars and then populate it with a group of four people, in the space of ten years. That original crew would then be augmented by four more every two years thereafter. Financing for this venture is supposed to come from private donations and revenue generated by a big-brother style broadcast of both the training and selection of the prospective astronauts and an ongoing live-feed of their activities once they are settled on Mars.
It’s an ambitious plan. “Insane” might be a better word.
Yet, I am forced to wonder if it doesn’t have a real chance of success where more traditional, government sponsored endeavors, based on pure scientific exploration, can’t even hope to get funding.
I also wonder, if I were younger, would I think about applying for the program myself?
If something like this had come along twenty years ago, or even ten, would I have given up my life here on Earth, for the opportunity to walk upon the surface of another world?
As I ponder that question I feel the ache of a certain little boy, standing hunched over his telescope in the crisp night air.
He had so many questions, that kid, and I sometimes feel like I’ve let him down.
Or maybe he let me down.
I don’t know.
I do still wonder what would it be like to gaze into the heavens and see the Earth as one more bright star against the firmament. Am I truly loner enough to live on a world with a total population I could count on my fingers or would I despair in the isolation? Do our gods travel with us into the void, or will we lose that spiritual connection when we finally venture into interplanetary space and settle on worlds where we have no true connection to the land?
These are not scientific questions. Maybe that means that I would be ill suited for such a mission even if I were still in my prime. Or maybe it means exactly the opposite.
I suppose I will never know in this life, and that pains me more than a little.
“The Men of Earth came to Mars. They came because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or did not feel like Pilgrims. There was a reason for each man. They were leaving bad wives or bad towns; they were coming to find something or leave something or get something, to dig up something or bury something or leave something alone. They were coming with small dreams or large dreams or none at all…it was not unusual that the first men were few. The numbers grew steadily in proportion to the census of Earth Men already on Mars. There was comfort in numbers. But the first Lonely Ones had to stand by themselves.”
—Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles