Leaving Home

Terraforming was once solely the province of science fiction. In the 1930’s, Olaf Stapledon wrote of the use of electrolyzing a global sea on Venus in order to prepare it for human habitation in Last and First Men. Jack Williamson coined the term "terraforming" in the 1940s in a series of short stories. And in 1951, Arthur C. Clarke, who is one of the terraforming NASA debate panelists, gave the concept wide exposure with his novel, The Sands of Mars.

Science Fiction Meets Science Fact. ‘What are the real possibilities, as well as the potential ramifications, of transforming Mars?’ Terraform debaters left to right, McKay, Pratt, Rummel, Shirley, Clarke, Robinson, Bear, Kastings
Credit: NASA

When asked during the NASA-sponsored event if we should terraform Mars, Clarke responded succintly, "Perhaps we should ask the Martians first."

In Clarke’s original 1951 novel, The Sands of Mars, science-fiction writer Martin Gibson finally gets a chance to visit the research colony on the Red Planet. It’s a dream come true–until he discovers the difficulties and perils of survival on another world…and the very real terror it holds.

According to Clarke in his new introduction, "Though I have not opened it for decades, I have a special fondness for Sands, as it was my first full-length novel. When I wrote it, we knew practically nothing about Mars–and what we did ‘know’ was completely wrong. The mirage of Percival Lowell’s canals was beginning to fade, though it would not vanish completely until our space probes began arriving in the late 1970’s."

Clarke continues: "It was still generally believed that Mars had a thin but useful atmosphere, and that vegetation flourished–at least in the equatorial regions where the temperature often rose above the freezing point. And where there was vegetation, of course, there might more more interesting forms of life–though nothing remotely human. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian princesses had joined the canals in mythology."

Tracks in the Martian soil made by the Spirit rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/OSU/Cornell

"When I tapped out "The End" on my Remington Noiseless (ha!) Portable in 1951," recalled Clarke, "I could never have imagined that exactly twenty years later I should be sitting on a panel with Ray Bradbury and Carl Sagan at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, waiting for the first news of the real Mars to arrive from the Mariner space probes. But that was only the first trickle of a flood of information: During the next two decades, the Vikings were to give stunning images of the gigantic Mariner Valley and, most awe-inspiring of all, Olympus Monds–an extinct volcano more than twice the height of Everest. (Pause for embarrassed cough. Somewhere in [The Sands of Mars] you’ll find ‘There are no mountains on Mars!’. Well, that’s what even the best observers, straining their eyes to make sense of the tiny disc dancing in the field of their telescopes, believed in the 1950’s).

"Soon after maps of the real Mars became available, I received a generous gift from computer genius John Hinkley–his Vistapro image-processing system. This prompted me to do some desktop terraforming (a word, incidently, invented by science fictions’s Grandest of Grand Masters, Jack Williamson). I must confess that in ‘The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars’ (1995) I frequently allowed artistic considerations to override scientific ones. Thus I couldn’t resist putting a lake in the caldera of Mount Olympus, unlikely though it is that the strenuous efforts of future colonists will produce an atmosphere dense enough to permit liquid water at such an altitude."

"My next encounter with Mars involved a most ambitious but, alas, unsuccessful space project–the Russian MARS96 mission," wrote Clarke. "Besides all its scientific equipment, the payload carried a CD/ROM disc full of sounds and images, including the whole of the famous Orson Welles ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast. (I have a recording of the only encounter between H.G. Wells and Orson, made soon after this historic demonstration of the power of the medium. Listening to the friendly banter between two of the great magicians of our age is like stepping into a time machine)."

Sir Arthur. Arthur C. Clarke has more than 100 million copies of his books in print and is credited as an inventor of satellite communications and other technological innovations. His many achievements include a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, recognition as a Grand Master from the Science Fiction Writers of America, numerous Hugo and Nebula awards, and an Academy Award nomination. Sir. Arthur C. Clarke lives in Sri Lanka.

"It was intended that all these ‘Visions of Mars’ would, some day in the 21st century, serve as greetings to the pioneeers of the next New World. I was privileged to send a video recording, made in the garden of my Colombo home. Here is what I said:

Message to Mars

My name is Arthur Clarke, and I am speaking to you from the island of Sri Lanka, once known as Ceylon, in the Indian Ocean, Planet Earth. It is early spring in the year 1993, but this message is intended for the future.

I am addressing men and women–perhaps some of you already born–who will listen to these words when they are living on Mars.

As we approach the new millenium, there is great interest in the planet that may be the first real home for mankind beyond the mother world. During my lifetime, I have been luck enough to see our knowledge of Mars advance from almost complete ignorance–worse than that, misleading fantasy–to a real understanding of its geography and climate. Certainly we are still ignorant in many areas, and lack knowledge that you take for granted. But now we have accurate maps of your wonderful world, and can imagine how it might be modified–terraformed–to make it nearer to the heart’s desire. Perhaps you are already engaged upon that centuries-long process.

There is a link between Mars and my present home, which I used in what will probably be my last novel, The Hammer of God. At the beginning of this century, an amateur astronomer named Percy Molesworth was living here in Ceylon. He spent much time observing Mars, and now there is a huge crater, 175 kilometers wide, named after him in your southern hemisphere.

The 2003 Mercury transit of the Sun in perspective with sunspot. Could the dot of Earth be seen by future terraformers on Mars?
Credit: ESO

In my book I’ve imagined how a New Martian astronomer might one day look back at his ancestral world, to try and see the little island from which Molesworth–and I–often gazed up at your planet.

There was a time, soon after the first landing on the Moon in 1969, when were optimistic enough to imagine that we might have reached Mars by the 1990s. In another of my stories, I described a survivor of the first ill-fated expedition, watching the Earth in transit across the face of the Sun on May 11, 1984.

Well, there was no one on Mars then to watch the event–but it will happen again on November 10, 2084. By that time I hope that many eyes will be looking back towards the Earth as it slowly crosses the solar disc, looking like a tiny, perfectly circular sunspot. And I’ve suggested that we should signal to you then with powerful lasers, so that you will see a star beaming a message to your from the very face of the Sun.

I too salute you across the gulfs of space–as I send my greetings and good wishes from the closing decade of the century in which mankind first became a space-faring species, and set forth on a journey that can never end, so long as the universe endures.

"Alas, owing to the failure of the launch vehicle, MARS96 ended up at the bottom of the Pacific. But I hope–and fully expect–that one day our descendants on the red planet will be chuckling over this CD/ROM–which is a delightful combination of science, art and fantasy."

"On July 4, 1997, with a little help from the World Wide Web, Mars was news again. Pathfinder had made a bumpy landing in the Ares Vallis region and disgorged the tiny but sophisticated rover, Sojourner, whose cautious exploration of the surrounding rockscape was watched by millions on Earth. This was the moment when, for most people, Mars ceased to be a distant place in the sky and became a real world."

"Shortly afterwards, Donna Shirley–the engineer who had run the program–sent me her autobiography, Managing Martians (1998), with a dedication, "To Arthur Clarke, who inspired my summer vacation on Mars." Reading further, I was delighted to discover how this happened: "At age twelve and searching for my own place in the world, I’d read The Sands of Mars, a book that pointed me towards the sky."

Related Web Pages

NASA Ames Astrobiology
NASA Astrobiology Institute Astrobiology Conference
Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame
Breakpoint Media: For All Mankind
Conference Talks and Agenda
Genesis Project
Mars: Goldilocks’ Oasis?
Squyres, Martian Chronicles, Parts 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5 * 6 * 7 * 8 * 9 * 10 * 11 * 12 * 13
Great Terraforming Debate: Part I
Great Terraforming Debate: Part II
Great Terraforming Debate: Part III
Great Terraforming Debate: Part IV
Great Terraforming Debate: Part V
Great Terraforming Debate: Part VI
Great Terraforming Debate: Part VII