IN THE SUMMER OF 1969, I was a seventeen year old with a few months off from school and working construction. I had already purchased my first car by then and was driving myself to the job every morning at the crack of dawn. As part of a small crew of men building houses in my hometown in Ohio, I definitely had my work cut out for me, for this crew looked after every aspect of the undertaking. We jackhammered down through solid rock to put in the foundations for the homes, carpentered the walls and locked in the ceiling rafters. We put sheetrock on those walls and covered the roofs of the new homes with asphalt shingles. We even jackhammered the holes for putting in the septic systems, spending days on end working our way ever deeper into the ground through solid rock until we were rattled to the very bone.
It wasn’t the famous “Summer of Love”, 1969, but love was still in the air that year, despite the bombings and the carnage going on in Vietnam. The Beatles had a double-sided number 1 hit record with two songs from their Abbey Road album and they were still the top rock band on the planet at that point. Elvis, however, got to enjoy the last number 1 hit of his life that year (Suspicious Minds), which meant that he was still relevant. The Fifth Dimension, meanwhile, were scoring hugely with their ultra-optimistic tune from the play “Hair”, a song that made us all think that a New Age was definitely springing into being. The song? “Aquarius / Let the Sun Shine In”.
That wasn’t all. The festival at Woodstock in August would showcase Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who and numerous other acts. Hendrix, of course, would ultimately be the one to steal the show with his alternative rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”, a supersonic version of the song that had the idea of bombs bursting in air all too real and clearly reminding us all that putting an end to that terrible Asian war was top priority.
Indeed, it was definitely a summer that would go down in history.
The most historic event of all, of course, was the Moon landing that occurred on the 20th of July. On that occasion a fellow Ohioan of mine, Neil Armstrong, became the first man to set foot on our ever faithful orbiting lunar neighbor. Along with two colleagues – Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – he and the crew of Apollo 11 achieved a feat that will stand for all time.
There is only one future event that could possibly rank with it in importance and historical significance at this juncture in history: the first mission to Mars.
That’s decades off yet, though, isn’t it?
Maybe yes, maybe no.
Let us remember that it was President John F Kennedy who announced to the world in 1961 that the government of the United States was committing itself to putting a team of astronauts on the Moon “by the end of the decade and bringing them safely back home again”. A mere nine years later, that is precisely what occurred.
I remember both Kennedy’s speech and that very special day in July of 1969 when Apollo 11 fulfilled the President’s great dream. Like millions of others at the time, I raced off from the job in my car to watch the proceedings on TV. Along the way, I heard the number 1 song of the week: “In the Year 2525”, by Zager & Evans and thought, How flipping space age is all of this?
Joining my workmates at the home of one of the men I worked with that summer, I remember staring at the screen transfixed as I watched the historic mission unfold live on television.
It certainly proved a riveting day in the life for millions of us, especially as we heard one of the most historical utterances of all time at that most memorable of moments: “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
Now, all these years later, there is every reason to believe that even “Baby Boomers” like me will still be alive to witness the first landing on Mars, which I find unspeakably exciting.
Mind you, when the first human steps down onto the Red Planet, it will take fourteen minutes for the televised transmission to reach us here, but if all goes according to plan that is all we will have to wait.
I have no doubt whatsoever that this particular transmission, once it is under way, will be seen right around the globe and become one of the most watched live televised moments in world history. Billions of people will witness that stupendously profound event: the incipience of the first ever interplanetary colony in human history.
If we consider what an astonishing moment that is going to be for those of us who will be viewing the event, imagine what it will be like for those who will actually be there on Mars. Imagine what those on the crew will feel like as they follow their commander onto the Martian surface that day, their space boots sinking into the crimson dust of the Red Planet. Imagine how they will feel as they start forward in their spacesuits in the middle of a desert (in the middle of nowhere actually) and make their way toward the cargo vessels that will have arrived there ahead of them.
Hopefully those vessels will be close at hand or there will be trouble, for these ships will contain the bulk of the colonist’s life-sustaining provisions onboard, including the components for building their first shelter and workstation.
Obviously, the landing and the initial foray onto the Martian surface will be critical moments, indeed. They will be life and death moments, in fact. They will be moments fraught with extreme danger and the ultimate challenge.
Nevertheless, our spacefarers must hit the ground running upon landing for that very reason or they will run the risk of not securing their own safety.
Of course, no astronaut is going to literally hit the ground running on Mars as it is simply impossible to do that in clunky space boots and heavy spacesuits. Factor in the low level of gravity on the Red Planet and we add a dimension of no minor relevance to completing the work, which wouldn’t be easy even under the best of circumstances.
Come to think about it, is there any aspect of this mission that is of minor relevance? I suspect not. Not when you are part of a crew that has just traversed some 35 million miles across space in order to arrive in one piece at your destination. Not when you have set down on a freezing cold expanse of desert and must build your own safe haven there. Not when you look around you and understand for real that there is no way out if things go wrong; that you are left totally to your own devices and resources to make a go of the situation you are in or you will indeed pay with your life.
How daunting: there you are 35 million miles away from everything you have ever known and loved and, suddenly, you must fight tooth and nail to survive.
Sound like a challenge; like an overwhelming challenge?
Apparently not to the thousands of would-be astronauts who have volunteered their services for that first mission. According to those at the helm of enterprises like Mars One, SpaceX and other spacefaring groups around the world, their organizations are inundated with volunteers, with people who are willing to give up absolutely everything for a shot at this Great Adventure, no matter how difficult and dangerous it will surely be.
I find this last fact pretty mind-blowing all by itself. How can such a staggering, life-altering, unbelievably dangerous and complex one-way ticket to Mars be so appealing to so many? And considering the magnitude of what is at stake in this competition, how cutthroat might this rivalry get in the near future?
This last question is precisely what plays into the plot of my novel Crimson Firestorm Mars. It could get bloody, indeed.
Then, again, maybe that’s just a novelist letting his fiction run away with him.
Nevertheless, it is definitely one hell of a competition and it is already under way. It is only going to get hotter as “Mars fever” grows ever more widespread across the globe and the rivalry heats up to a genuinely scalding degree.
Whether there will be real “firestorms” among these groups as in my novel, only time will tell.
In the meantime, there’s plenty of fun to be had in our fiery imaginations as humanity pursues its greatest visionary dream yet: the dream of interplanetary travel.