'There's No Handbook For How to Land on Mars'

Leonard David has reported on space for half a century. He disdains the plausible for the real.

NASA/Artwork by Pat Rawlings (SAIC)

Over the course of his five decades of writing about space, one thing has remained constant for veteran space journalist Leonard David: his sincere belief that we are going to inhabit the Red Planet one day. With last month’s announcement by Elon Musk, calling for a future city-state on Mars, there’s no doubt we’re well on our way.

David’s latest book, Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet, is an exhaustive companion text to National Geographic’s upcoming six-part television series. It covers not just the stark obstacles that lie between us and Mars, but also the implications about what such a journey means in the context of human history and humanity’s future.

Inverse spoke with David to learn more about the book, what he found out during the research and reporting of such an audacious project, and what he thinks the future of humans on the Red Planet will look like in just a few generations’ time. (This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Why write this book now instead of five or 10 years ago? What makes the idea of life on Mars so much more compelling these days than ever before?

Even though it’s still the same distance away from Earth, Mars seems closer nowadays. There’s so much going on. I went to a workshop at the Lunar Planetary Institute last October, in which they brought in all these scientists to Houston, to outline everybody’s favorite location for the first human crew. [The prospect of traveling to Mars] was so palpable in the room. “Okay, here’s my idea about where these people can start exploring, and the safety of the site, and what would be the exploration zone. How far could you get from one point to another?”

Then they charted all that, which is in the book. There’s like fifty different sites that had been selected as the potential areas where humans could have first football on Mars.

The premise of the book was really [to] try to script out a forward looking thing. It’s going to be hard. Is it a global enterprise? Is this going to be Elon Musk? Is it going to be NASA? What’s the world community think about humans on Mars? I tried to get into that in the book.

Artist’s concept depicts NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander using its pulsed rocket engines to make a 2008 touchdown on the arctic plains of Mars.

NASA/JPL-Calech/University of Arizona

Were there any kind of topics related to Mars that you perhaps weren’t familiar with that surprised you as you researched more about the Red Planet?

I think there were moments when I was writing the book, [where] I go, “This is really going to be hard. This is not a slam dunk. This is going to tax everything we’ve ever done in human exploration of space.” We’ve been lucky and fortunate too; we had twelve people stomping around out there [on the moon], but this is a huge leap. When you put together the radiation, the body falling apart in microgravity on the way — I could envision the first person stepping on Mars, one small stumble for humankind, one fall down on his face.

I was worried that the biological toll would be too tough. It would be very hard to get out of the capsule, with five people pushing the sixth one out. That was one physiological challenge ahead. The point of the book was to say, “Hey, we’re not there to survive. We’re there to thrive.” It isn’t a flags and footprint mission. This is something that has to have some longevity to it.

There were days I would wrestle with some of the physiological side effects. Have we ever really mustered enough capability, even in the space station, to really say we got this conquered? There were days I’ve gone, “Man, this is really going to be hard.” Then I get a new paper from somebody that I tagged, and see that may be a way out of that obstacle. The people thinking and working on this are out there.

At the end of the day it’s still going to be — in some ways — [like] flying by the seat of your pants. Mars is always trying to kill you. It’s not going to be like, open arms and come on down.” It’s going to be a rough go there. How do you tame this place? On the engineering side, there’s no handbook on how to land on Mars. There’s a lot of things going on there that we really have to get under control for landing these larger and larger payloads.

The Daedalus crew as they enter the Martian atmosphere on the first crewed mission to Mars -- from National Geographic Channel’s ‘Mars’ Series, premiering November 14.

 National Geographic Channels/ Robert Viglasky

Did you find as you were doing research that there were any big misconceptions about Mars in the public eye, or big divides in how scientists thought about Mars compared to ordinary people?

Every once in a while you’ll get somebody coming up [and asking], “We did land the people on Mars, didn’t we? Did that happen?” You’re going, “Not yet, but it’s coming.”

It’s because there’s something compelling about the imagery that you hear over and over: “That looks like somewhere I’ve been.” There is something that reminds people when you look at some of the Curiosity imagery of either Utah, or New Mexico, or even Iceland. There is a familiarity with Mars that I think is embedded in the public because it looks like something that maybe we’ve been to before.

After having written this book, what do you predict is going to be happening in the next decade or so when it comes to Mars? Do you think there’s a legitimate chance we might find signs of a past or current extraterrestrial life?

I’m fascinated with the potential of the 2020 timeframe. Not only is the U.S. flying a kind of a super-Curiosity rover — the Mars 2020 rover — but also Europe is going to attempt to land their rover on Mars, and so is China. That’s three countries going to Mars with robotic capability, in the same year.

Mars 2020 is going to have mega microphones on it. For the first time we’re going to hear Mars. I want to hear Mars. Mars is going to speak to us in some weird ways and I want to hear wind whipping by.

The big leap for Elon Musk and SpaceX — allotting a hundred people at a time to travel to Mars — is exciting as well. That will play out and he’s got some great vision that I think people saluted. Of course, you need a little bit more engineering detail about how to pull this off.

The dust storm that lasts months confirms that Mars poses physical and psychological dangers.

National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

I do think we’re in a little bit of a race for the search for life. ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter is looking for methane, which could be signs of biology or volcanic discharges from underground. Maybe it’s something totally different that we’ve missed. We’re still asking, “Is there life on Mars? Was it there? Did it die off? Did it come from Earth; are we going to look for a second genesis there if not? What is it that we’re going to run into and how do we find it?”

“Life on Mars” is sort of like a third rail for some people: What are we going to do? Try to move it out of there? Step on it? There’s no answer yet.

There is a sense that for the first time in our civilization on this planet, we are doing something totally unique, never been done, and I can drag historical analogies forward from sea serpents to flat Earth, and all the problems that we always have in exploration. I think we’re at some unique time, and when you also have the ability, and your website is a good example of that. Where you have interactive, you have every way you can be an explorer today. They can ride along on these missions, and they will be that way for the humans on Mars missions. We’ll all be going. Totally unique, never happened before between two planets. We’re making history and it’s going to be monumental. It will be a point in time where others in the future will look back and say that they got it right.

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