*Nominated for the Ontario Library Association’s Red Maple Non-Fiction Award, 2011*
You have wanted to travel to Mars ever since you were a child. For years you worked to make it happen. And now you’re here! In a minute you will plant your feet in Martian soil. And you still can’t believe it.
You feel awkward in your hard-shell spacesuit. It has been months since you last wore it. Your helmet is heavy and the visor cuts of what you can see on either side of your head. The chamber you are standing in – the airlock – is short and narrow. Your elbows rub the walls and the ceiling is low. If you jumped just a little you would bang your head. You step carefully towards the exit hatch. You reach for the handle and turn it. The metal pins that have kept the hatch locked for nine long months are released one by one. And then you’re ready. All you have to do is push…
Sometimes, in dreams, you imagine yourself pursuing something. It might be chocolate cake that is always out of reach or it might be, say, a fast-moving car. Plans to send astronauts on a mission to Mars are a bit like that dream. We can imagine it happening. We can make plans for it to happen. We can even train astronauts for the mission. (We are training astronauts for the mission!) But, somehow, the mission to Mars stays tantalizingly out of reach.
In Journey to Mars, Jonathan Webb describes what we have learned about Mars from earliest times to the present. He tells how the ancient Romans and Greeks were fascinated by its erratic path and blood-red color. Later observers noticed what looked like canals on the Martian surface. An American astronomer, Percival Lowell, speculated that there was a shortage of water on the planet, so the Martians built canals to carry water from the Martian poles to irrigate farms in more temperate regions. In the twentieth century, writers, filmmakers and dramatists contributed books, movies and even a famous radio play that together convinced a lot of people about the reality of alien life on the Red Planet. But, as engineers constructed better telescopes and astronomers took a closer look, the notion was debunked. There were no canals on Mars. No farms. No bug-eyed, green-scaled Martians!
Beginning in the 1960s, NASA started sending missions to Mars. The Mariner missions took sketchy, black-and-white photographs of the Martian surface. The Viking missions put small landers on Mars itself. And then there followed a series of attempts to put robot landers that could move around Mars, dig into the soil, examine the atmosphere, and stream detailed images back to Earth.
The rovers overall were wonderfully successful. They yielded an enormous amount of information. The most significant, perhaps, was that there is moisture on Mars. And where there is moisture, there may be life. The dream of discovering life on Mars was made new all over again! The dream lives on. But the possibility of our getting there is still – tantalizingly – just out of reach.
Read Journey to Mars to learn more about the people who have devoted their lives to exploring Mars. Read it to learn some of the history and science. Read it for something to dream about. One day, men and women will walk on Mars.