Making Mars

Tim Corballis - need permission editDSC_1044-3-1
Tim Corballis

This summer the Science in Society Group added a new module on going to Mars as part of their ‘Science in Everyday Life’ course. Tim Corballis found himself in charge of the mission. He reflects on the experience here.

NASAElon MuskDonald Trump. They all want to go to Mars – or at least send other people there. Jeff Bezos from Amazon too, and countless other tech entrepreneurs and enthusiasts, people with money and lots more without. They all seem drawn to the allure, the image of the red planet, the fantasy of setting foot on its soil.

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Mars. Photo credit: NASA

For the last module of our first year summer course ‘Science in Everyday Life’ we decided to follow them there – or at least least try to work out how to get there, why to go there, and what it might be like if we do.

To be sure, going to Mars might not be what you’d call ‘everyday life’. The bus doesn’t go, and if it does finally start up you won’t be able to afford it. But, then, perhaps, that was the point of putting Mars right there in amongst the (other) scientific issues of concern for us here and now.


On the one hand, maybe, it can give us a perspective on our own planet to think about it from an external point of view. On the other – well, is Mars really so far away? Hasn’t it been with us for years? For centuries?

For many civilisations and cultures, Mars, like the other objects in the sky, was and is something very much part of everyday life. People had, and have, relationships with celestial objects. Their movements around the sky – regular and erratic – would reflect our own movements in the world. They would be like gods, and they would tell us about ourselves. Or perhaps they would be used to navigate or to tell the seasons. They were and are the clocks and compasses for many many people.

So, when I was reading and talking to people about the new module, I became interested in is how these celestial companions and tools became something else. How they were taken out of our world to become worlds in their own right.
Payson Ridge, Erebus Crater, Mars Opportunity Rover courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Photo Credit: NASA

I came across this story often: in the opening pages of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, in Carl Sagan’s 1980 television series Cosmos, and in anthropologist Lisa Messeri’s book Placing Outer Space (send my way by a colleague from Victoria’s School of Social and Cultural Studies, Nayantara Sheoran Appleton). The story of how Mars became a place – for a few of us, then many of us, over the last 2000 or so years. It’s a story that involved orreries and telescopes and maps and spaceships – unmanned – that have orbited, landed and sent back images, all of which transformed Mars from a point in the sky into a landscape.

Pauline Harris from our group, and Elf Eldridge from Engineering, gave a lectures on the physics and technology of Mars – where it is, what it is, how to get a spaceship there, what efforts are currently underway. People would have to cope with an 8 month trip, with the problems of getting along in cramped conditions, with landing safely, and with the temperature and low air pressure – Mars is cold and doesn’t have much of an atmosphere. What is more, the planet doesn’t have much of a magnetic field either to deflect solar radiation, so life might well have to be lived largely underground or inside other shielding structures. It won’t be a holiday.

Pauline also brought another perspective. If I was beginning to wonder if the desire to go to Mars is just all another great colonial enterprise – science in the aid of conquest, like the 19th century all over again – Pauline was imagining different voyages. Not the colonial ships of empire, but the oceangoing waka that are right now navigating the Pacific and the coast of Aotearoa. Space starts to seem like the great ocean, and all the skills and attitudes of the waka voyagers – preparation, navigation, coping with all that time at sea, kaitiakitanga towards what they encounter – become of use for the next voyage to other planets.

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Haunui Waka. Taken at the Festival of Sail, 2011 in San Diego, California by Michael R Perry. Courtesy Wikimedia commons.

What was the upshot of all this? I hope students will make up their own minds, but I came away wondering whether, despite all the promises, the trip to Mars was possible and what it might mean for us. If it happens, it seems clear to me that it should be done with great care, not only for us but for Mars itself, and not with any cowboy attitude.


But I also wondered if the idea is something that most importantly puts our own life on Earth in a different light. The tiny spaceship in the middle of nowhere, having to survive in the midst of radiation and nothingness; the struggle for life on a hostile planet – they seem to tell us, like all that old Buckminster Fuller stuff about ‘spaceship Earth’, something about the precarious and easily forgotten balance of our own lives, huddled inside our thin atmosphere, under the umbrella of the Earth’s magnetic field, and not heading anywhere else in a hurry.


For more information check out SCIS 101:Science in everyday life.



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