See also: A brief cinematic history of Mars
These days, I know that my childhood dreams of what the red planet might hold were totally naive, but at least I can say I wasn't alone. To the contrary, my own fantasies were fueled by the fantasies of those who had come before me, rendered in both literary and cinematic form. I grew up on a steady diet of the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Ray Bradbury's short fiction took me there many times and showed me many strange and wonderful things lurking in its dusty, red deserts. Films like War of the Worlds (the 1953 George Pal version, of course) and Robinson Crusoe on Mars held me riveted to the screen on Saturday afternoons.
All that Martian entertainment made me crazy for the place. Like most kids my age, I wanted to be an astronaut for a good chunk of my childhood, but I wasn't really content to wait for NASA to help me get there. I drew up notebooks full of elaborate plans for spaceships that would take me and lamented the fact that I lacked the necessary skills to actually build the things.
For me, and untold others, Mars was the perfect intersection of of science fiction and science fact. It was so close and yet so mysterious. I didn't have any real-life pictures of Tatooine, but I could look up those first photos from Viking -- just a few years old at the time! -- in the encyclopedia and know I was gazing on the surface of another world. The reality fueled the fantasy and made it seem like anything was possible. Were there canals up there? Lots of people thought so, and maybe if they were right there were people up there, too. If not people, maybe at least some weird sandworms or other squishy, betentacled things. Surely, some space probe would poke around up there and find them any day, and then we'd have no choice but to mount a manned mission and maybe I'd even be old enough to go...
Of course, now I am too old to go to Mars, even if that theoretical mission was starting tomorrow (I'm way, way behind on my astronaut training, see). And there have been multiple missions sent to the planet, none of which detected anything like a Martian civilization, or even any unintelligent creepy crawlies. Still, the fascination remains, even if it's shifted from the science fiction to the science fact. Two years ago, I was thrilled when we landed an SUV-sized rover named Curiosity on the planet, and I've read every news story that's come out since it started sending back data. Before that, I followed its predecessors with a similar fervor. I still hope to live to see a manned mission, even if it's my great-grandchildren's generation commanding it and I witness the whole thing from my kick-ass cybernetic rocking chair.
My love for Mars didn't inspire me to become an astronaut or engineer or anything useful, but it did inspire me to read a lot, seek out old movies and learn at least enough science to be able to understand the mainstream articles about all those probes and rovers. That's good enough for me. And it's inspired me to pass on the passion to my kids, for both the science and the fiction, in hopes that they will find it equally inspiring. Who knows, maybe they'll take after their mother -- the scientist in the family -- and actually study something that will get them there where I failed to go. That'd be almost as good as meeting a real, live Martian myself.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.