Mars or Bust

The sky's no limit for these Colorado scientists. They're heading straight for the Red Planet.

"Yes! Yes!" Robert Zubrin smacks a fist into his open hand as he hunches over a graph showing several spikes. He points to the tallest. "Methane," he shouts gleefully.

Zubrin trots back across the lab to a plumber's twisted nightmare of convoluted tubes, condensers and gauges wired to a board. His assistant, Brian Frankie, kneels beside the apparatus, trying to stuff dry ice into a jerry-rigged foam cone.

"On Mars, we won't need the dry ice," Zubrin explains. "On Mars, we'll have all the cold you can use."

Zubrin is a short, unremarkable-looking 45-year-old...except for his eyes. Green, they shine as though illuminated from behind by his rather remarkable brain and, as Zubrin elucidates his vision of man's future on Mars, they tend to roll or stare off into space. This passable imitation of a mad scientist is complemented by the fact that Zubrin is balding on top, like a tonsured monk, and what remains of his dark, curly hair sticks out at odd angles because he's constantly raking it with his fingers as he brainstorms through each new problem with Frankie.

But Zubrin is no mad scientist. Among his colleagues in the aerospace industry, even his critics won't go further than describing him as brash, egotistical and abrasive; his admirers call him a visionary. "Sometimes you need that out-of-the-box creativity to get things rolling," concedes Linda Shahan, a spokeswoman with the state's largest aerospace company, Lockheed Martin, which Zubrin left in 1996 to pursue his dream free of "restrictions and constrictions."

The crude device that he and Frankie labor over in their cramped, rented lab may well be as important to the exploration of Mars as the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were to Columbus's voyage. Essentially, Zubrin's machine is designed to suck in the Mars atmosphere of carbon dioxide and spit out the ingredients necessary to make water, oxygen and rocket fuel that would support human explorers while they were on the planet and then send them back home again.

Zubrin is not the only Coloradan whose mind is on Mars today. Even as he watches his graphs, Lockheed Martin scientists are following the path of the Mars Global Surveyor--which the company designed and built on a government contract--as it approaches Earth's nearest neighbor on its mission to map the planet.

And this just two months after the July 4 landing of the Mars Pathfinder, with its Tonka-toy-like rover, Sojourner. Perhaps the most appealing space stunt since Neil Armstrong took one small step for a man and a giant leap for mankind, Pathfinder represents just the beginning of a flurry of interplanetary enterprises, most of them aimed at Mars.

Lulled by a decade of nearly routine--and largely ignored--space-shuttle trips, which exemplified the post-Apollo reluctance to cut the apron strings to Mother Earth, the country's imagination again seems ready to blast off for outer space. And standing by to reap the benefits, after ten years of downsizing and layoffs, are Colorado's aerospace companies: from the giant, 10,000-employee Lockheed Martin, to Boulder's Ball Aerospace, with its 2,000 workers, to Zubrin's mouse-that-roared Pioneer Astronautics in Lakewood, with its six-person staff of Zubrinites.

While Sojourner stumbles across the surface of Mars, sending R2D2-cuddly images back to Earth, man is fast approaching the day when he will be right up there alongside machine. Approaching that day, in fact, faster than a speeding rocket.

Depending on whether you subscribe to Zubrin's schedule of events or the more cautious calendar of Lockheed Martin, we are ten to twenty years from stepping off the mother planet--not to some lifeless, airless moon forever dependent on Earth, but to another planet that, with a little American ingenuity, could be the next frontier of human civilization.

Sitting in today's schoolrooms are tomorrow's first Mars explorers and, perhaps, future settlers whose children will be born on Mars.

Man has always looked up at the stars and wondered. The Greeks and Romans believed the characters and creatures of their mythology had been placed in the heavens as warning or reward by capricious gods and goddesses. Native Americans thought the stars were holes poked in a blanket that allowed light in from outside. And then there was the Judeo-Christian version: "And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the Earth."

To question such beliefs was to be labeled insane or even heretical. In 1600, Italian Renaissance humanist Giordano Bruno was burned alive in the Inquisition. "Bruno was murdered for having alleged in debate and in writing that the universe was infinite, that the stars were suns like our own, with other planets comprising inhabited worlds like the Earth orbiting around them," wrote Zubrin in his 1996 book, The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. "Thus, observers on those other worlds would look up and see our Sun with the Earth circling it in their sky, their heavens, and therefore, 'We are in heaven.'"

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