The flight to Mars should take about six months, but depending on how the planets are lined up, it could take seven or eight. When you consider how much planning will be involved, that’s a pretty cloudy estimate. It sounds a little like the response you get from a teenager who’s fleeing the house:
“Where are you going?”
“When will you be back?”
“In a few hours. Or maybe the end of October. Or whatever.”
Clearly, we’re not used to such extended trips. Six-month excursions are rare in history. I think that’s because the unknown regions of the globe were widely imagined to be inhabited by sea monsters, giants, and people selling home security systems. Also, the longer we’re gone, the more newspapers we find piled up around the front door, and the more likely we’ll discover something in the refrigerator that shouldn’t have been left there.
Lewis and Clark’s expedition into the northwestern corner of the United States lasted more than two years, but they walked much of the way and for the most part had no idea where they were going. On the other hand, their destination — the Pacific Ocean — was sitting relatively still, while Mars orbits the sun at an average speed of fifty-four thousand miles an hour. The Earth moves even faster than that. Someone will have to do the calculations, but it won’t be me, because I’ll forget to carry the one and end up in the asteroid belt. And believe me, that is not where you want to be, especially if you’re alone and planning to arrive in the middle of the night.
Friends have asked how I’ll deal with boredom during the journey to Mars. That isn’t what I’m worried about. I have plenty of reading to catch up on; I could take a bus to Neptune and still wouldn’t get to all of the books I’ve bought. Plus, I really like looking out the window. What troubles me is the possibility of getting a bad toothache two weeks into a six-month flight. Then what? I hadn’t considered it before, but I guess we’ll have to include a dentist in the crew. Which leads to the next logical question: What if the dentist dies shortly after launch, and then I get a toothache? Do we add a second dentist? The ship is beginning to get crowded, and one of the goals of this trip was having a chance to be alone, at least some of the time. Traveling to Mars with two dentists might prove difficult, especially if they insist on teaching me proper brushing techniques. I’ll need a therapist to help with moments of irritability and depression. Again, following this line of reasoning to its obvious conclusion: What if the therapist dies, and then I start to feel irritable and depressed?
Once on the surface of Mars, there will be additional discomforts to overcome. For example, the average temperature there is minus eighty-one degrees. When I first learned this, I checked to see whether that was in Celsius or Fahrenheit, because I wanted to know exactly how many seconds it would take for my blood to freeze and my eyes to fall out. In December 1804, while in North Dakota, Lewis and Clark recorded weather conditions in their journal:
“The murkery this morning stood at 40° below 0 which is 72° below freesing point.”
I realize these guys were brave explorers who didn’t have the advantages of space-age materials to protect them from the elements. Secretly, though, I think they were wimps. For sure, they couldn’t spell to save their lives.
A few scientists worry about finding enough drinking water on Mars. There’s ice at the poles, but everywhere else things look pretty dry. I’m not concerned. I plan to take a tent and some camping equipment with me, which should guarantee plenty of rain. It will also attract any insects that may be within flying or crawling range, so I can pretend I’m at the beach or relaxing in my room at a fancy Caribbean hotel.
Will I encounter other wildlife? It’s very likely. This is just a theory, but I suspect those craters on Mars were formed not by the impact of falling comets, but rather by burrowing creatures similar to prairie dogs or rabbits. I admit the theory isn’t flawless. One problem is that the largest crater is five thousand miles across. That’s a big rabbit. What are these animals eating? Then I recalled the strange fruits I’ve noticed at the supermarket — some of them almost have to be from another planet. But if these plants come from Mars, where are they growing? The landscape appears to be barren. The only rational explanation is that there must be underground trees. Is that possible?
Such questions will surely lead to a few answers, and even more intriguing questions. Who knows what mysteries await? Humans will eventually colonize our neighbor in space. We’ll figure out how to create a breathable atmosphere, tap into the water supply, and grow our own food. We may even decide that the Red Planet really is red, after all.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot to do, many details to be worked out. I eagerly anticipate my mission, much as Lewis and Clark anticipated theirs. Mostly, I look forward to the response I yell back to my teenage son as I’m fleeing the house:
“Where are you going, Dad?”
“When will you be back?”
“In twelve months. Or maybe three years. Or whatever.”