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Mars Ain’t What It Used To Be

In 1964 NASA retrieved pictures of Mars from Mariner 4, the first close-up images that revealed Mars to be (seemingly) a dry, dead world. The striking Mariner Valley (Valles Marineris) was one of its most important features. It started our understanding of Mars as we know it today.

At the time I was working as a courier and chauffeur for NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. When the Mariner team came to DC to be feted by Congress and the President, I was assigned to drive a few of them from venue to venue. My first trip with them took them to Congress, where they were in a hearing for hours. I knew a long wait would be boring so I brought a paperback novel to read: Thuvia, Maid of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. On the cover the backdrop showed a ruins remniscent of Ozymandias’ kingdom, fallen marble pillars and broken-down walls, with shifting red sands beyond. In the background a giant, green, four-armed Martian with a four-handed broadsword as long as a car was moving toward the viewer. In the foreground was John Carter, somewhat larger and more muscular than Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, with a similarly long two-handed broadsword. In the middle ground was a buxom, scantily clad maiden, the eponymous Thuvia.

After the hearing, the team was in a voluble and excited mood. One of the engineers decided to join me in the front seat. He hopped in with a grin and spotted my book which was lying face down on the seat beside me. He picked it up, turned it over to see he cover, then paused just a beat.

“Look, guys,” he said with a broad smile, turning to his colleagues in the back seat. “We were wrong. There is life on Mars after all.” Haw haw haw.

I’ve never forgiven them.

For a glimpse of what Mars might be, check out Life on Mars.

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