After returning from expeditions to the Arctic and the jungles of Brazil in the early 1900s, cartoonist turned explorer Anthony Fiala included drawings of life and exploration on Mars—such as this drawing of two daring Mars explorers—in a lantern slideshow.
His humorous intention to describe the story of a fictitious trip to Mars quickly raised eyebrows as his Brooklyn, New York, audience grew curious about what life was like on the red planet.
Throughout the centuries, people indulged their fascination about life on Mars through the imagination of artists and storytellers, as well as through the lens of telescopes that returned imprecise images. (See Mars pictures.)
Russia's Salyut 1, the world's first space station, was launched in April 1971. The first crew members to try to board had to turn back after a hatch failed to open.
A second crew of three spent 22 days on the station, but died on their way back to Earth after their Soyuz capsule depressurized during re-entry. The station entered a decaying orbit and broke up over the Pacific Ocean in October 1971.
The United States' Skylab, launched in 1973, hosted crews over the course of a year before being left to circle the Earth, vacant, until re-entering the atmosphere and breaking up over the Indian Ocean and western Australia in 1979.
The cost and dangers of a manned mission to Mars, including radiation and psychological concerns, have kept the planet beyond the reach of human visitors.
Using the summit pit of the Martian volcano Ulysses Patera as a backdrop, Marilynn Flynn painted her impression of a futuristic park on Mars in the 1982 artwork, "Mars National Monument."
"The slumped wall caused by a meteorite impact at the caldera's [back] edge might make a negotiable ramp allowing sightseeing in the volcanic pit," reads the accompanying caption on her website.
With Tito's bold new mission to send the first people on a flyby of Mars, commercial tourism to the alluring planet—something that once was only possible in science fiction—may not be so far into the future.
"I was nothing but optimistic about going to Mars back then," Flynn said in an email. "I assumed that people would be traveling to and setting colonies on Mars within my lifetime."
Since then, space tourists Tito and South African businessman Mark Shuttleworth have visited the International Space Station. By the mid-2000s, companies like Virgin Galactic began investing in the space-tourism market, prompting U.S. President George W. Bush to sign the Commercial Space Launch Amendment Act into law to regulate human spaceflight.
Illustration by Marilynn Flynn
It only took the mistranslation of the Italian word canali and a determined U.S. astronomer to spark the widespread misconception that there were Martian-made canals on the red planet, as depicted in a drawing from French astronomer Carmille Flammarion's 1884 book, Les Terres du Ciel (The Worlds of the Sky).
The excitement started in 1877 when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed channels, or what he called canali, on Mars's surface. Mistaking the term to mean canal, the English-speaking world—that was still marveling over the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869—became ecstatic over the idea that intelligent life on Mars must have built the apparently intricate system of waterways.
The myth was furthered fueled by the respected U.S. astronomer Percival Lowell, who later observed the same apparent formations and presented them as canals in his 1895 book Mars.
Thirteen years later, he argued his full theory in his second book, Mars as the Abode of Life, which many newspaper editors agreed with at the time.
To the disappointment of many, the idea was debunked in the early 20th-century, when scholars revealed the streaks were merely optical illusions.
Illustration from SSPL/Getty Images
To survive on a planet where the temperature varies from 70°F (20°C) on a typical summer day to about -195°F (-125°C) during the winter, and whose thin atmosphere allows for the bombardment of ultraviolet rays from the sun, space travelers would need to learn from the fictitious Martian waterseeker (pictured) to adapt to the harsh climate.
The waterseeker, featured in National Geographic's 1994 book Picture Atlas of Our Universe and Robert Heinlein's 1949 science fiction novel Red Planet, gets its name from its long snout, used to probe for pockets of ice under the planet's dried up channels. Its parasol-like tail lifts nine feet (three meters) high in Mars's low gravity to shade it from the burning rays.
During the day, its giant ears allow the creature to hear well in Mars's thin atmosphere. Once night falls and the temperature drops, the fictional animal uses its ears as a blanket, clamping them tightly around its body to keep warm.
Illustration by Michael R. Whelan, National Geographic
Portrait of an Alien
When Fiala snuck this image of an alien into his lantern slideshow, it was just for laughs. But his audience quickly became intrigued and wondered if Martians really looked as mean as Fiala had drawn them.
Over the years, a variety of scientific theories and creative imaginings have circled around the appearance and behavior of intelligent Martians.
Celebrated science fiction author Ray Bradbury depicted them as "brown Martian people with gold-coin eyes," giving them human-like qualities in his 1950 book Martian Chronicles.
The colorful swirls and patches reflect the belief of many 20th-century astronomers that some form of vegetation exists on Mars during the spring, which made the scientists optimistic about finding life on the planet.
The white patches on the lower half of the globe depict polar caps that were believed to hold water in the form of ice.
But NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft shattered this belief when it flew by Mars in 1965 and returned photos of a desolate and cratered planet that seemed incapable of harboring any form of life.
Illustration by Charles Bittinger, National Geographic
As one astronaut takes a break in the background, another skips through the vast sand dunes of Mars in Marilynn Flynn's illustration "Sand in Your Suit (Martian Dune)."
"I felt like I was running in a lower gravity—just like it would feel to be on Mars," she said in an email.
Gravity on Mars is only 38 percent that of Earth's, which, when combined with the lower air pressure—seven millibars compared to a thousand millibars on Earth—and the abundance of sand, leaves the planet with some of the biggest sand dunes in our solar system, according to Universe Today.