Mission to Mars, Michael Collins

Grove Weidenfeld, 1990, 307 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-8021-1160-2

I have always been fascinated by space. My parents are fond of reminding me -to my great embarrassment- that as a very young lad, I regularly pointed upward at night, repeating “The Moon! The Moon!” to everyone within earshot. As a slightly older lad, I practically cut my reading teeth on Apollo mission clippings and a used copy of Jules Verne’s De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon)

Is it any wonder I became a heavy science-fiction reader? After I had read all about the historical events and witnessed the first few shuttle flights, there wasn’t much left to explore in the real-world. And, up to a certain point, fifteen years later that’s still true: Humankind has ignored the promise of outer space, being content with circling the globe -if that- for strictly pedestrian reasons. It’s intolerable that most people accept the fact that there hasn’t been a human on the moon for twenty-five years.

Historical records show that once Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, Nixon and Agnew were already talking of taking the next step; going to Mars. Of course, we know what then happened to Nixon and Agnew, but the dream of going to Mars hasn’t fared much better.

However, the nineties have seen a renewed surge of interest in plans for Mars. Only in Science-Fiction, we’ve seen almost a dozen novels dealing with Martian exploration, from the definitive Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson to awful franchise novels which shall remain nameless.

But the book that arguably sparked this interest is Mission to Mars, by ex-astronaut Michael (“First Man Not to Walk on the Moon”) Collins. In this 1990 non-fiction account, Collins exposes why and how we should go to Mars, as well as the problems to solve until then.

As could be expected, we get a solid description of the current state of our knowledge about the Red Planet, as well as practical considerations for making the trip. We don’t have Star Trek technology: Our closed-loop environmental systems are imperfect at best, and the weight of the spacecraft we’ll be sending there will remain a significant problem for a long time.

Collins is no armchair commentator; he’s been up there and he knows what he’s talking about. Mission to Mars is peppered with candid -often tough- advice about a myriad of small and big subjects.

The book really lift off, however, in its last third, where Collins writes a small docu-novella describing in fictional format the adventures of the first colonists. A testimony to the power of good science-fiction, this account repeats the arguments and issues of the first two-third of the book while making them more interesting and certainly more memorable. While no Hugo-winning piece of work, it is serviceable enough to serve as centerpiece to the book. (As for the “straight” non-fiction part of the book, the two highlights are chapters about submarines and Antarctica as related to a Mars Mission.)

Though not exceptionally well-organized, Mission to Mars flows well. The index ensures that it will be usable as reference material.

Where Collins fails, however, is to convince me that we should forego the Moon to go directly to Mars. I’ve suggested elsewhere that it’s this attitude that made us go on the Moon before we were ready to follow up exploration by colonization. In my mind -and Collins didn’t change it-, we should establish a permanent colony on the Moon even before thinking of going to Mars. If the goal is to move permanently into space -and I can’t think of any other overriding goal for humankind-, it’s far better to expand in the neighborhood than take a short trip in next country.

But, personal preferences aside, Mission to Mars is a succinct compilation of the whys and hows of going to Mars. It’s worth the time for anyone who still looks above at night and wonder why we’re not already up there.

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