The Red Planet is Orange (Part 1)

Posted on May 10, 2012


I want to be the first human to go to Mars. I say this not because I think I’m the most qualified, or because I even have anything to offer a space program that’s been hovering close to death since the shuttle missions of the early eighties. Rather, it seems that no one else really wants to go, and I could use a little time away.

Right up front, I’d like to make it clear that I tried to do a lot of research for this project, because learning about a foreign environment is essential for the survival and ultimate success of an explorer. Everyone knows that. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get any of the videos on NASA’s website to work, and most of the books I have about Mars were published in 1996, which wasn’t even in this century.

To make matters worse, my scientific background is limited to a botched earthworm dissection in the ninth grade and hundreds of failed attempts to see snowflakes under a microscope:

•  We were supposed to expose and identify the nephridia, pairs of organs found inside each segment of the worm’s body. With about a hundred segments, an adult specimen should have two hundred nephridia. The problem is, the diagrams in a biology textbook can be misleading. They show the brain in blue, the esophagus in green, and the pharynx in red. But once you cut one of those worms open, you find out that everything in there is the same color.

•  My microscope had a bright light directly beneath the stage where you placed your slide. I’d heard that there were no two snowflakes exactly alike, and I wanted to check it out for myself. But no matter how fast I moved, by the time I looked through the eyepiece and focused the lens, the light bulb had turned the snow into a small puddle of water. I even tried taking the microscope outside where, I correctly hypothesized, it would be much colder. Still, the snow either melted or blew away. Worst of all, I couldn’t wear gloves because they made it too difficult to handle the slides, and I soon felt as though several fingers were about to freeze and snap off. I lost interest and went back to reading my comic books.

Who could have predicted that I’d be here now, preparing for the role of space pioneer?

Skeptics say a voyage to Mars will take too long. It’s true that depending on where the two planets are in their orbits, Earth and Mars are sometimes very far apart — up to 250 million miles. It took us more than three days to reach the Moon, and now we’re talking about a trip that’s a thousand times longer. Will it take three thousand days? No, because sometimes Mars is just 35 million miles away. I would think that would be the best time to go. Not that I’m an expert on efficiency or planning. I can’t seem to pick the right line at the grocery store. Without fail, I choose the cashier who’s either slipped into a hypnotic trance or needs to change her receipt paper, open up a roll of quarters, and call someone to ask if the Lucky Charms are still on sale. Meanwhile, the other lines are suddenly moving at the speed of sound, the customers rushing past in a blur, something like those little canisters that used to zip through pneumatic tubes at the bank. But if someone did ask for my opinion, I’d have to say that we should wait until the path to Mars is more direct. When I find a route that cuts a couple of hundred million miles off a trip, I almost always take it.

There are also critics who point to the incredible expense of sending manned rockets to the planets. Yes, it will cost billions, although if I try to add it up in my head, I can’t begin to guess why that is, unless I’m forgetting about the sales tax, which I usually do. But so what? Everything costs billions of dollars these days. If there are engineers involved, you can’t make a coffee pot for less than that. And besides, does anyone say we shouldn’t build submarines? I don’t have any idea what submarines are good for. They go down to the bottom of the ocean, swim around for a while, and then they come back up to the surface just long enough to allow the crew to go ashore and get some psychotherapy. Other than that, what exactly do they do? Yet every year, countries all over the world build more submarines at a cost of two or three billion dollars apiece. And we never give them a single thought, until a bunch of people get stuck in one, and then we all wonder, “Now what were they doing down there in the first place?”

I understand that a journey to Mars poses even greater risks than a few weeks in a submarine. The most troubling of these is the fact that the astronauts will be subjected to dangerously high levels of radiation. This threat will come from two sources: cosmic rays and solar flares. As you can see, I’ve done a great deal of research in this area, and the truth is, we aren’t sure what the effects will be. We’re familiar only with Earth-based radiation and its potential harm. We’re aware that we shouldn’t stick our heads into a microwave oven. When we go to the dentist for x-rays, we allow ourselves to be pinned to the chair by a forty-pound blanket. In the 1960s, we conducted air raid drills in school, seeking protection from nuclear annihilation by hiding under wooden desks. But again, these are local hazards. The exposure to gamma rays on the way to Mars may not be that bad. And you know what else? We might even discover that they’re good for us. That’s what happened with mold, isn’t it? You wouldn’t eat a piece of bread that’s covered with green fuzz, but at the first sign of a sinus infection you run to the doctor and ask for penicillin. And when you get a little dirt on your face, you immediately go inside and wash it off, yet people with money to burn don’t think twice about visiting an expensive spa and letting a total stranger cover them with mud.

But why go to Mars? What’s the goal? There are several. A lot, actually. Too many to explain right now, and all extremely compelling, too. For one thing, we need to determine, once and for all, what color it is. We’ve been calling it the Red Planet all these years. But it isn’t red — it’s orange. The distinction is important, and if you don’t believe me, try slicing into an earthworm and telling the difference between the cerebral ganglia and the gizzard. See what I mean? And speaking of worms, I’m pretty sure there’s life on Mars. Not just bacteria and viruses, but real creatures we’ll be able to photograph, and make up cute names for. Which will be helpful, because if I have to analyze the Martian soil with a microscope, this whole trip is going to be a big waste of time.

Posted in: In Over My Head