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A photo of the cover of "Mars Up Close" by Marc Kaufman.

Mars Up Close is the first comprehensive book on the Curiosity mission, published to coincide with the second anniversary of the rover's landing on Mars.

Photograph courtesy of National Geographic Books

Simon Worrall

for National Geographic

Published August 5, 2014

Are we all Martians? Will we one day be taking our vacations there? Is extraterrestrial life not just the stuff of science fiction?

These are some of the questions award-winning science writer Marc Kaufman explores in his new book, Mars Up Close, about Mars and NASA's Curiosity mission, which showed us the red planet as we'd never seen it before.

Here he talks about how PayPal and Mars are connected, why it's important for humanity to send manned space flights there, and how a seemingly barren planet normally associated with war might turn out to be the mother of us all.

Your book opens with a jaw-dropping quote from Elon Musk: "In the next few decades I plan to travel to Mars and make it my home." Is that really feasible?

Let's just say that a lot of things would have to go right in order for that to happen. There are some big challenges. But the architecture for sending humans to Mars is entirely understood. The issue is: Is there money? And is there public support? Though he has the advantage of potentially doing some of that on his own.

Book Talk

Tell us a bit about Elon Musk.

He made his initial money with PayPal. Then, as he explained to me, he thought, "I have all these millions of dollars, how can I be a useful person in this world?" He was still quite young. And there were three things he thought most important. One was an electric car—thus Tesla, often described as the best car ever created. Second was SpaceX, which was a way for the private space industry to really blossom.

Now, against all odds again, he has contracts with NASA to bring cargo up to the International Space Station. He's also building a heavy-lift rocket that could indeed take someone to Mars. He's also the CEO of something called Solar City, a solar panel company, which he felt was needed in terms of new ways of dealing with the energy situation. He's in the process of selecting a site to build a giga-factory, to be the largest battery factory on Earth.

By chance, we're talking a week after NASA announced they've successfully tested an "impossible engine." Could that be significant for humans' flight to Mars?

One of the major issues is that, using current technology, it takes about nine months to get to Mars, and we know that the radiation exposure for that time is probably in the hazardous range. It may not kill you, but it would make you a fairly sick puppy. And so they need to get there quicker. The other obstacle is the life support for human beings when there.

And then, getting away again. It turns out that leaving Mars is very difficult. Even though the atmosphere is quite thin, it still is an atmosphere. So it's not like being on the moon, where they were able to just shoot up, back in the Apollo days. They'd need a fairly sophisticated and powerful rocket to get them out. They don't know how to do that right now.

They also don't know how to land something as big as a space capsule. Curiosity famously landed with a sky crane, which was a huge step forward. They dropped a 1,000-pound vehicle onto the surface of Mars, which was much larger than anything before. But to send humans to Mars, you're talking about 20 to 30 tons.

Tell us about the Curiosity mission.

The main goals were to determine whether or not Mars at one point was habitable, and to locate, if possible, organic material, which are the carbon-based compounds that are the building blocks of life as we know it, and we would assume would be the building blocks of life on Mars, if there was ever life there.

Remarkably, after landing, instead of going to what was planned as their primary destination, Mount Sharp, this three-mile-high mountain in the middle of the crater, they had seen something from orbiting satellites that appeared very interesting. It was the lowest point in Gale Crater.

And there were all kinds of geological signs that said, Look at me, look at me! So they made a pretty dramatic and risky decision to go in the opposite direction soon after landing. They went to what came to be called Yellowknife Bay, and what they found was truly astounding. It was basically ancient mudflats. And that meant there was once a lot of running water there, because they also found a river coming down into it.

The pH of the water that once had been there was neutral. It also had other chemicals in there that bacteria could use as energy sources. So they concluded there had been a lake there at one point—we're talking about three and a half to four billion years ago—and that this region, and probably other places on Mars, had indeed been habitable. Doesn't mean they were inhabited. But they were habitable.

Tell us about some of the "mission makers," the people that made the Curiosity exploration possible. Adam Steltzner is not your typical NASA geek, is he?

No, he's an incredible character, in the best sense. He had a kind of Elvis pompadour at the time, and he wore ear studs. He had played in a rock band for a long time but had been a bit of a lost soul until he had a kind of epiphany driving home one night. He saw something in the sky he didn't understand and wanted to know about. And that led him into astronomy and then into engineering.

Another amazing person was Jennifer Trosper. She's an engineer, and the whole time this thing was landing, she was also looking after two children, working 24 hours a day, with a family at home.

The moon's association in mythology is overwhelmingly female. Mars has always been associated with masculinity and war: the Greek god, Mars attacks, Martians, etc. Has this warped our understanding of the planet?

Mars has that reddish hue, which seems to connote anger or blood. But what Curiosity has revealed, to some extent, is that at around the same time life was beginning on Earth, Mars was equally hospitable. Indeed, the conditions were probably more conducive to life on Mars at that time than they were here. So some have theorized that life actually began on Mars: that some rock with life in it, like an asteroid, hit the planet, went off into space and then potentially landed on Earth and—boom!—life begins. [Laughs]

In other words, we're maybe all Martians. To me, that's the take-home message of Curiosity—that rather than being this male, violent, harsh place, Mars is potentially our mother. Or at least our cousin. Or sister.

To put humans on Mars would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Why should any government want to spend that money?

[Laughs] Utterly appropriate question. Though that would actually be hundreds of billions over decades, doing a variety of different missions, not just one mission. The logic for it, as many see it in the space world, and I came to see it also, is that it's a challenge that will define us. And by us I mean both the United States and other nations. It's clear that the U.S. itself can't do this alone. It needs—and is increasingly cooperating with other countries—the EU in particular but also Japan and India. Russia has also been a very good partner in the past, but that may have fallen apart because of Ukraine. But putting that aside, this magnificent challenge, like going to the moon in previous generations, could define humankind.

How did work on this book change your perspective on life?

I'd written a book about astrobiology, which is the hunt for life beyond Earth, and that was what led me to this to some extent. One of the things brought home is how we need to think in astronomical time, where a billion years is nothing.

And the amazing thing about Mars is that it has changed much less than the Earth has, where human life has changed everything. Conditions are similar to what they were four billion years ago. So it's quite possible that one day scientists will be able to say: "We've detected remnants that tell us there was once biology here." It's very hard. It requires both the instruments and a leap of the imagination.

So if things continue, if more missions go and more nations get involved, I think it's quite possible they'll discover that there once was life on Mars. And that would be one of those moments, like when Copernicus said the Earth isn't the center of the universe. It changes everything. Because if there was a genesis of life on Earth, and also a separate genesis of life on Mars, it means that it's almost impossible that there aren't a lot of other planets where there's life. We might not be able to see it at any given moment, because astronomical time is so vast. But it would suggest very, very strongly that there's life out there.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

Watch a live-stream event at National Geographic headquarters on Tuesday, August 5, at 7:30 p.m. ET or follow along on Twitter using #OurUniverse.

36 comments
Johnathan Reynolds
Johnathan Reynolds

It's sad seeing what is happening in Gaza and Iraq, but I'm thankful to have lived at such a progressive point in human existence. The possibility of a Martian landing in the next few decades would be remarkable, especially considering we rode horses 120 years ago. 

Alan Henderson
Alan Henderson

If we'd used half the money on space exploration that we've spent on killing one another over the last century we'd be growing mushrooms on Titan by now.

Here's the plan:

First build a space elevator or three on Earth, then build one on Mars.

Problem mostly solved.

Stephen Robinson
Stephen Robinson

Why do Americans use 'headed' when they mean heading??  headed is past tense.  We headed.  We are heading..........

Charles Brown
Charles Brown

Based on delta V and fuel, visiting the asteroids and mining them for materials makes more sense and a better long term investment. Space colonies and solar power satellites offer a better way forward than Mars.

mr peabody
mr peabody

imagine going to mars to settle it, since a round trip is even more impractical: you are living in a sealed box for the rest of your life. very low gravity, only a third of earth's, causes your body to wither away over time. the high amount of cosmic radiation forces you to remain behind shielding almost all the time, and not out strolling around the freezing dusty red lands. the almost zero atmospheric pressure means your life is constantly vulnerable to punctures. you can never have real-time communication with people on earth ever again. your food comes from.. where? nobody knows how to make a greenhouse for mars, at all, and when they do it'll be purely for nutrition, not taste, and every bite or drop of water would be strictly rationed. after a month, any halfway normal person would be missing the lush and wonderful mother earth, as they mope around their airtight prison stuck on a wasteland millions of miles away from all of your favorite things

Pierrette Paradis
Pierrette Paradis

Mankind is truly pathetic! We can't even get along on a comment board! It immediately turns into a religious mud slingling fest. I doubt that we will be able to colonize ANY other planets or Moon without dragging this filth with us. We may invent the technology but we are still infants as far as common sense is concerned. BTW I do not believe in god, but I do believe in a moral code of conduct as simple as do not do to others what you woukd not like done to you. Simple, yet we cannot even manage that! In the mean time...we can console ourselves with dreams of living in harmony on another world...why not? We may achieve it eventually!

Rodger Marjama
Rodger Marjama

A poster below said it all in 3 simple words, "Ignorance is bliss".  This is and has been the goal for all humankind throughout history by those who rule.  Lemmings running to and fro as directed is all this world is about for 99.9% of us.  The .1% that is in control sit back and laugh at us as they play their game of life.  I say we find out exactly who those .1% are and put them in one-way rocket to the moon (Mars is too far).  The the rest of us start living our own lives as we choose to, instead of how we are told (forced) to.

m c
m c

Everyone going to Mars will all have one thing in common among them.

Compulsory sterilization.

Paul Scutts
Paul Scutts

Human spaceflight (HSF) to Mars, at the moment, is just wishful thinking because there are major problems that need to be addressed.
1. Loss of bone density and muscle mass due to micro-gravity. We are yet to experiment and develop (partial) centrifugal force to simulate gravity.
2. Accelerating skin aging and eye deterioration due to cosmic radiation. We are yet to develop passive and active radiation shielding.
3. Long duration fully closed life support systems (LSS). We have yet to develop effective atmospheric scrubbing/sterilization techniques e.g. to control mold/fungus etc. that cause low grade infection effects within crews of the International Space Station.
Forget humans going to the Moon for long stays (beyond 4-6 months), forget humans going to Mars/asteroids or elsewhere within the solar system, period, until these technologies are either developed or their use is made redundant.

Shawn Riddick
Shawn Riddick

Current rocket propulsion systems cause severe damage to our mesosphere/mesopause and our outer atmosphere only has a limited capacity to repair itself. We are nearly 100 launches a year and our limit is about 4 max. Once a point of no return is reached catastrophic failure will occur making Earth like Mars. There is no fixing it. I was asked to sign a secrecy agreement with a writ of order for my execution attached if I violated the terms. Our scientists are forced to sign secrecy agreements. We are nearing the point of no return and I pray we have not passed it. Please read warningfromgod . Please help save our planet. Ignorance and secrecy are not bliss or good science. Can you trust your government? The answer should be clearly NO.

Mike Gieser
Mike Gieser

Sure, going to Mars will define us... like going to the Moon defined us...er, no, wait, it didn't.  Supporting nations who commit war crimes is what is defining us at the moment.

Kjvyn Koldt
Kjvyn Koldt

We've been travelling to Mars for decades now. Curiosity is simply a front to keep the public from realizing what's happening behind the scenes. To the larger population, Mars appears to be a barren wasteland. Of course there are the "hopes that we will travel to it one day soon"; which is simply a guise for funding. The truth is out there; but the government is comforted by the fact that most people are too lazy or unintelligent to uncover it. Yet their disinformation campaign continues. Ignorance is bliss! ANd of course, lump those of us with such a dissenting opinion conveniently as "conspiracists".

Michael L.
Michael L.

The difficulty returning from Mars isn't atmosphere, it's gravity.  The Moon is far easier to leave because only a small rocket is needed to lift off and reach orbit.  It takes a giant rocket to leave Earth, and an almost-as-giant rocket to leave Mars.  Imagine having to launch a Falcon Super-Duper Heavy (4 or 5 cores!?) loaded with an entire unused, fully-fueled Falcon 9 stack, land it on Mars safely, and then launch that Falcon 9 from Mars to get back into orbit, then have enough fuel left over to return to Earth.

Richard Ah Sam
Richard Ah Sam

Don't believe this society will last another twenty years. We will end up killing one another be see who is the big chief. Hope and pray I am wrong.

R. Archer
R. Archer

Going to Mars like we went to the Moon won't do much for mankind.

One day our environment will no longer support us.

If we want to define mankind we need to learn to live off the land off of earth.

The best place to establish our first off-earth settlement is the Moon.

It will be a new generation when mankind has a self sufficient settlement off-planet.

Morrison Bonpasse
Morrison Bonpasse

The most reasonable plan is to make a trip to Mars a one-way emigration, just as our ancestors traveled from old worlds to the New World in the western hemisphere.  Last week, I published the book, "2121" about a wrongful conviction exoneration AND a Mars Colony later named UtopiaDos.  In 2121, five children are born on Mars, and they are the first extra-terrestrial children. They are citizens of Mars and there is no provision for them to ever come to Earth.  The companion book is "Jesus and Jesusa."  See www.amazon.com for paperback and Kindle editions.

Jakob Stagg
Jakob Stagg

I'd expect the design of the spas, hotels, and shops are already done. They are probably selling tickets.


How about solving some problems on this planet before exporting them to another.

Christopher Wulfers
Christopher Wulfers

@Charles Brown I'm sure it comes hand in hand.  If we're able to make round trips to mars and back I'm sure we will be able to start mining the asteroids with autonomous units as well.

Kamal Ali
Kamal Ali

@mr peabody : if they can survive with dignity, then i think it'd be different: the first humans to live on mars (that will never be taken away from them). it takes a different type of person to essentially sacrifice their life. Plus, they wouldn't just be living in a sealed box. look at zubrin's studies of radiation going to mars. its not necessarily as bad as some make it out to be. they could explore mars , and especially caverns that are more protected from radiation. they may find the first fossil on mars (even if its a bacteria; that would be earth shattering)


anne boad
anne boad

@Kjvyn Koldt You don't say what is "happening behind the scenes." So we lazy, less intelligent beings don't have a clue what you're talking about. 

m c
m c

@Michael L. Considering that the gravity on Mars is approximately one-third that of Earth, and the escape velocity required to leave is less than half that (and only twice that of the moon)  of Earth....
Do you really know what you're writing about???

Do you really think that people would be landing using you're 1950's sci-fi movie vision of landing giant craft? Or maybe small shuttles to ferry people back and forth from the surface to orbit might be a bit more feasible?

Robert Lee
Robert Lee

@R. Archer No, we need to keep the Earth habitable. A significant population living off-world is just a fantasy.

Brian Wagner
Brian Wagner

@Jakob Stagg 


Good insights, Jason... but it is more fun to spend billons trying to prove that there is no God than to even postulate for free the possibility that He exists and that He has provided some wise solutions for many of the main problems on this planet.

mr peabody
mr peabody

@Kamal Ali @mr peabody - well, i dont consider zubrin reliable for one thing, and besides once theyre on mars, there is no magnetic field, so radiation will still be constant even after landing. a solar storm would fry any living tissues. living the rest of ones life at the very bottom of the ocean would literally be a million times easier. the dignity you speak of i consider more of an illusion. to me there is nothing dignified about being made to suffer for merely imagined glory at a monumentally vast cost that robs more worthwhile causes here on earth

Kamal Ali
Kamal Ali

@m c @Michael L. what impressed me watching HBO's series about our travels to the moon was the plan: each apollo flight built on something previous and achieved a milestone in its own right.


if we need to prove a rocket that can take 20T to the mars surface and blast off again, then that should be a great intermediate goal. ie land it, release a rover take off again as proof of concept. do it w/o humans and attendant risk.


at least that would be huge step forward.


also: i dont understand why we dont take significant steps such as learning how to spin spacecraft to make microG, or experimenting with various types of shielding on the vessels that transport the rovers to mars. ie the trip to mars is itself a good learning opportunity for shielding data and results.


Michael L.
Michael L.

@m c @Michael L. Well sure, there would be a CM in orbit, but even at 1/3 Earth's gravity you still need a pretty big rocket to lift a small lander back into orbit, and then the fuel to reach escape velocity (2x that of the Moon, as you stated) and leave orbit to return to Earth.

...but that's not my point... Just saying atmosphere is not the issue making this more difficult than the moon.  In fact, Mars doesn't have enough atmosphere for a parachute landing, making it more difficult than landing on Earth even with 1/3 the gravity (why the whole bouncing ball followed by sky-crane show with the rovers).


Aaron King
Aaron King

@Brian Wagner @Jakob Stagg your gawd, and the gaaawwwds of the jews and muslims, are the cause of our problems. You and all the rest of the religious people should just stop talking.

mr peabody
mr peabody

@Kamal Ali @m c @Michael L. - i think the reason none of this is being done is because there is next to no point in doing so. i have a feeling even NASA only talks up mars exploration when it wants to stir up public excitement (and FUNDING) for its other more practical missions

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