We come in going full chat, perhaps 24,000 miles [38,623 kilometers] per hour, and dive right into the Martian atmosphere. "It's quite a ride, a fiery entry with stuff flying off of us," said Dan McCleese, the chief scientist for Mars at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. We were sitting in his office, which looks over the Angeles National Forest. "Then we dive all the way down, so low that we skim just above the summit of the Olympus Mons volcano, and slip right over that, with the atmosphere slowing us down the whole way." We're flying. Pulling up, we use our remaining speed to head back out into space, and we fire the engines to establish an elliptical orbit, all with minimal use of fuel. Then we switch to the landing craft for the short flight down to the surface.
I had come to JPL to find out what it will be like to take the expedition to end all expeditions, the first trip by humans to the surface of another planet, and to learn what's standing in the way of our making it. In the wake of the announcement this June that there may be liquid water on Mars, sending people to the red planet is a subject that everyonefrom scientists to amateur space enthusiastsseems to be talking about.
"What's it going to be like, trekking Mars?" I asked McCleese.
McCleese's face lit up in a smile. A tall, athletic-looking family man with blondish brown hair, he sat forward, rubbing his hands together. Like knows like: Our mutual enthusiasm for Mars bound us as kindred spirits. "The moon is about as interesting as a billiard ball," he said. "Let's give Mars a chance to tell us what it has to tell us." As he told me of his hunger to be on Mars, I knew I'd struck a chord.
"First of all," McCleese said, "everything is huge on Mars. For example, when you stand in the middle of the floor of the Valles Marineris, which is Mars's Grand Canyon, you cannot see the walls. It's too far." Valles Marineris is up to 400 miles [644 kilometers] wide and nearly 6 miles [9.7 kilometers] deep; that's about 20 times as wide and 6 times as deep as the Grand Canyon. In photographs taken from space, it appears to cut across the belly of the planet like a ragged knife scar.
Then, for climbers there's a mountainthe mountain. "If you were hiking up the slopes of Olympus Mons, you wouldn't know it," he said. "It's too large, and the slope is too gradual." Gradual, yes, but the summit is 75,000 feet [22,860 meters] high, making it the tallest known mountain in our solar system. To climb it, we would first need to scale the 20,000-foot [6,096-meter] cliffs that ring much of the mountain's base.
"So," McCleese said, "it's impractical to think of getting around without some sort of camper, a mobile habitat, outfitted for survival on multiday journeys."
If Mars has water, it may be friendly to some form of life, but not to human life. If I were to step out of the shelter unprotected, I would gasp for breath once and probably never againthe atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide. At night, the 40-below [Fahrenheit and Celsius] temperatures would freeze me rock solid.
Our space suits would protect us from these harsh conditions, but with the camper, which would be pressurized and climate controlled, we could cover extended distances in a shirtsleeve environment.
Closing his eyes and imagining the trip, McCleese said, "It's red, it's rocky, and there are hills in the distance." Our course is slow and erratic over rough terrain. We cross a paradoxical landscape; Mars, despite having a blazing red sun, is as cold as the Arctic. We advance, perhaps for days, through enormous fields of stones cut sharply in shadowfacets and angles that recede to the horizon, exhausting the eye. Rocks litter the surface of Mars everywhere except at the poles. It is a bone-jarring ride as the vehicle lurches on its metal wheels, which make a grinding, popping sound. We notice that the rocks around us have all been pushed about in a distinctive pattern, apparently by flash floods.
Passing out of that landscape, we enter a valley of huge boulders, some the size of houses. As we weave our way around them, the sky is generally pink, but varying weather conditions and dust cause it to change from a deep hue to almost white at times.
As we stop for an evening meal, the sunset is an amazing display of shifting pastel hues; ice clouds form as the night clamps shut around us. Now the stark blackness of mountain peaks contrasts with the baffling light of twin moons. The sky, much darker than Earth's, blazes with constellations we've never been able to see before. As we drift off to sleep, we watch the frozen fog float past the windows.
McCleese made it sound very real, and we had made it through only one leg of our trek. But I needed to know how real it was.
Find out just how real the prospect of life on Marshuman lifeis and get a glimpse of what it might look like in the September/October issue.
ADVENTURE Online Extra
Q&A: Mars Society Founder Robert Zubrin