Carl LeCompte’s Oreo milkshake comes with little cookies surrounding the straw. It’s a shake befitting someone young, innocent, and appreciative of sensory pleasures. “My little indulgence,” he calls it after collecting the concoction and an Italian sandwich at a Redmond Potbelly.
The 29-year-old Microsoft programmer, a member of the team responsible for Internet Explorer, also likes walking on the beach, hiking in the woods, and feeling the wind on his face and the rain in the air. He also enjoys a fairly active social life. Today, a Thursday in late February, he’s carrying dice in his backpack that he will later take to a weekly session of Dungeons and Dragons. On Fridays he meets another set of friends to play board games like Settlers of Catan. Tuesday nights he devotes to group screenings of the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine.
In other words, LeCompte, dark-haired, goateed, and on this day sporting a black hoodie, seems like a lot of bright, outdoorsy, and unabashedly geeky Northwest techies. Except for one thing. He’s planning to give it all up—the wind on his face, the rain in the air, his weekly get-togethers, and most definitely Oreo milkshakes—to go to a place that’s barren and possibly uninhabitable, devoid of even the most basic earthly delights, like breathable air, drinkable water, and anything resembling food.
Carl LeCompte, aspiring Martian. Photo by Morgen Schuler
In mid-February, a private Dutch outfit called Mars One announced that LeCompte was one of 100 finalists—out of a pool of 200,000 applicants from around the world—whom it had selected to go on a mission to Mars. It would be a one-way mission—meaning the rest of these fledgling astronauts’ lives, as long or short as they may be on the Red Planet, if they even get there alive. Mars One appears to be serious about this, as does LeCompte.
A couple of years ago he read an article about the mission. Mars One’s founder, Bas Lansdorp, an engineer and former wind-energy entrepreneur, had announced that his new enterprise intended to establish a permanent colony on the fourth planet from the sun, a place that has served as an endless source of fascination for Earthlings. As Mars One puts it on its website, “the next giant leap for humankind” is to expand into the universe, and there are “obvious technical advantages” in making it a one-way mission. Getting to Mars will be difficult enough without hauling all the equipment needed to launch a rocket back to Earth.
The article LeCompte read went on to say that Mars One was looking for 24 would-be astronauts and “aspiring Martians,” as the candidates came to call themselves on a Facebook page. The first four-person crew, consisting of two men and two women, would depart in 2024.
“Do I feel I could do something like that? Do I feel it’s worth it for me?” LeCompte says he asked himself. We’ve walked from Potbelly to a nearby Starbucks to eat lunch. The chatter at the sandwich shop was too loud for LeCompte, who likes to focus on the matter at hand.
“I’ve always been interested in fiction about people trying to survive hostile environments,” he says, explaining his eventual decision to apply to Mars One. He recalls loving the 1965 science-fiction classic Dune, in which Tacoma-born author Frank Herbert tells the tale of a young man whose family takes over a desert planet.
But he says that the “biggest thing” to contribute to his decision was his hopes for our species. “I don’t want humanity to be stuck on Earth,” he says. “I feel a big part of what makes us what we are is that we try to become more than what we are.”
He goes on to explain that our space missions to this point haven’t accomplished that, in part because they’re round-trip. Although he can’t quite articulate why, he believes that it’s important to “go somewhere and stay there.” And he holds that Mars is the best candidate. Unlike the Moon, it has a measurable atmosphere, even if oxygen is only a tiny part of it, the rest being mostly carbon dioxide. Mars also has ice—at its poles and underground—that theoretically could be turned into drinking water. And hey, at least it’s not a hellish fire of a planet that rains sulfuric acid, like Venus. Not at all. Mars’ average temperature is -81 F.
Not that he’s going to be getting outside much. Due to dangerous levels of radiation, he figures he’ll walk in the open maybe “a few hours every few days,” and only then in a spacesuit.
Carl LeCompte’s Mars One video.
Unappealing as that may sound, a veritable Mars fever has broken out recently, especially in the Northwest, which has unexpectedly deep ties to space exploration efforts past and present. Mars One, in particular, has attracted not only a flood of applicants but some respected scientists. Among its “ambassadors” charged with spreading the word is a Dutch physicist and Nobel Prize winner named Gerard ’t Hooft. He recently got some press for stating that the mission might take exponentially longer than planned. His remarks added to the cascade of skepticism and scrutiny that has greeted Mars One in the last few months.
Yet, reached by phone from the Dutch town of Utrecht, ’t Hooft tells me that although he sees “the dangers and obstacles a bit more,” he still thinks the mission is a noble effort that will one day succeed. “I’m quite surprised how far they’ve gotten, actually.”
Then there’s Elon Musk, the charismatic entrepreneur who made a fortune as co-founder of Paypal and CEO of Tesla Motors and now heads SpaceX, one of a new breed of private space companies started by tech billionaires (including Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin). Musk came to Seattle in January to announce the opening of a new SpaceX office in Redmond, which, he told a Seattle Center crowd, would build a satellite system to pay for his eventual goal: “a city on Mars.”
Even NASA, whose funding and ambition has waxed and waned since landing the first man on the Moon in 1969, has announced plans to take humans to Mars in the mid-2030s. This is a turnabout for the space agency. In 1981, when a group of graduate students organized a conference at the University of Colorado to discuss human exploration of the Red Planet, the subject was “taboo,” remembers Chris McKay, one of the graduate students, who now works as an astrobiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. His group became known as the “Mars Underground.”
One momentous question helped changed the official mind-set: Could there have once been life on Mars? For that matter, could life exist there still?
At approximately 4 a.m. on July 20, 1976, the first close-up pictures of Mars began to appear, pixel by pixel, on a screen at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Eleven-year-old Rachel Tillman was staying up late to watch them come in. In a nearby room was her dad, a University of Washington atmospheric-science professor named James Tillman, who played a key role in the mission.
“All of us were looking at these big rocks,” recalls Rachel Tillman, who now lives in Portland and heads the Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project, which is creating a digital archive of documents, data, and oral histories related to the mission. The rocks were “bumpy and porous, not smooth like river rocks.” They cast shadows amid their own crags as well as on the ground. The images reminded her of the rugged desert landscape in Joshua Tree National Park in California, where her family liked to camp.
NASA already knew that Mars had striking geography. The space agency’s Mariner 9 mission, which five years earlier had sent probes to orbit the planet, took pictures of massive volcanoes. One, Olympus Mons, “would make Everest look like a mere hill,” according to UW planetary scientist David Catling. The images also captured the solar system’s biggest canyon—which on Earth would stretch from California to New York—and what appeared to be a former flood plain, suggesting that water had flowed on Mars billions of years ago.
University of Washington atmospheric-science professor James Tillman and the Viking spacecraft he helped land on mars.
But Mariner 9 was a flyover. Viking actually landed, enabling a wealth of detail. James Tillman set up a computer lab at UW that eventually received data directly from the landers. Speaking on a conference call with his daughter from a retirement home in Seattle, the now-82-year-old scientist recalls being surprised by the variability of great global dust storms. Viking saw two the first year and none the second. The mission also provided evidence to Tillman’s lab—despite the average freezing temperature—of “four seasons, just like us,” he says.
Viking had an even greater purpose than charting Mars’ geography and atmosphere. It was the first feasible search for life on the planet.
The subject had been a source of speculation for ages. In 1908, an amateur astronomer named Percival Lowell published a book that hypothesized about the origin of canals he and others thought they saw on Mars. The waterways were, he wrote, the creation of “intelligent creatures, alike to us in spirit, though not in form.” He was wrong. As NASA’s missions would later show, there were no canals.
Since then, the idea of life on Mars—whether native to the planet or imported—has inspired countless works of science fiction. Lynnwood author Greg Bear ticks off some of the classics: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1917 A Princess of Mars; Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles of 1950; the kitschy 1967 film Mars Needs Women. Bear, who himself has written about Mars several times, recently published War Dogs, in which Mars serves as a battlefield for human colonists fighting beings from another solar system. Bear says he used the planet as a proxy for the real-life battlefield of Iraq.
Mars has served a number of other functions in science fiction, and for that matter in our collective imagination. For some, it’s a refuge—the place we can go when our foolish, global-warming ways destroy Earth. For others, it’s grist for the ultimate adventure fantasy—an Antarctica for the space age.
For author Kim Stanley Robinson, colonizing Mars is a fiction. Photo courtesy SFX
Ironically, Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the most famous science-fiction authors to write about Mars, expresses impatience with such notions. Given the poisonous atmosphere, he says, speaking by phone from his home in California, he can’t understand why the lunacy of settling Mars—at least anytime in the next, say, 10,000 years—“isn’t just as obvious as the nose on your face.” Maybe it’s an Internet thing, he speculates, as “young people with too much time on their hands” peruse various Mars sites. (One, ExploreMarsNow.org, features an interactive design that allows users to virtually enter imagined future habitats on the planet. )
Yet Robinson’s Mars trilogy from the ’90s—Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars—contributed another way of imagining Mars: as a utopia. His novels, which he stresses are a “thought experiment,” not a road map, envision a planet where land is communal and environmental values reign. His description of Mars was not entirely a product of his imagination, however. Robinson says he was inspired by the Viking mission’s pictures. Here was a landscape that looked to him like the “American Southwest on steroids,” with “amazing mountains” that “looked both familiar and completely strange.”
While space exploration inspires science fiction, the reverse is also true. The interplay of the two realms, along with the tech sector, is long-standing and tremendous. When Robinson has a question about Mars for a novel, he says he calls NASA’s Chris McKay, who convenes a lunch seminar for him at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. And on the day we speak in early March, Robinson is planning to deliver a talk about his views on Mars at SpaceX the following week.
Bear says he and his wife Astrid have gone to dinner with SpaceX’s Elon Musk, who sought the couple’s views on space-tourism pricing (a quarter-million dollars sounds about right, they all agreed, far below the going rate). The couple has also snagged a rare tour of Bezos’ Blue Origin facility in Kent, which is working on enabling “lower-cost” space travel. “Big, beautifully outfitted—a spaceship factory!” Bear enthuses.
Yet science has not yet aligned with science fiction, especially when it comes to life on Mars. Viking played a formative role on that point. When the landers arrived, they discovered no creatures, intelligent or otherwise, roaming the planet. Nor any plants. None. No trees, no flowers, no tumbleweed. And when the landers tested the soil for organic matter, none appeared.
“It was very disappointing to many,” says Rachel Tillman. “It shut down the Mars program for the next 20 years.”
Yet the soil had exhibited a reaction when tested. Essentially, it fizzed. What was that? Some thought it was a chemical reaction, but others suspected organisms at work.
Something even more important kept the idea of Martian life alive, according to McKay: our knowledge that the planet had once contained water. “Water is the essential requirement for life on Earth.”
So NASA eventually returned to Mars missions. And the agency found even more evidence of water. The Curiosity rover, on Mars since 2012, discovered ancient lake beds that once would have made excellent homes for microbes—the starter organisms for life. Meanwhile, a Science magazine article revealed just last month that analysis from observatories back on Earth suggest that the planet once had a vast ocean.
And even if living matter doesn’t exist on Mars, and never did, why not transplant life there? That’s the view of McKay, who is involved with planning future Mars missions as well as interpreting data from Curiosity. “If we take life as a thing we value, than spreading life around the universe is enhancing that value.”
McKay—who served on Mars One’s board of advisers until NASA told him that holding such a position with a private firm is verboten—goes one step further. “Our goal should be to enhance the richness and diversity of life.” What he means is that whatever we plant—ourselves, animals, or actual plants—“will take off on its own evolutionary trajectory.”
“Who knows what it will create?”