ALL MONTH I’d watched Mars in transit through the upstairs window at the foot of my bed. The stars also passed by, strung in predictable formations. Orion’s belt, my main insomnia timepiece, appeared to the left of my feet around 2:30 a.m. To the right, closer to 4:00. Mars the red always far to the right, often tagging along with the early hours moon in the western sky. Or so it seemed in sleepless vigils when to look at the clock was to panic, but to peer at constellations drifting steady as ever overhead brought surprising comfort. When sleep wouldn’t return, I stood at the window searching like an ancient navigator charting a ship’s course by the stars’ positions and the rosy glow of Mars.
Even though my house never moved, the world as I knew it had. An unprecedented year of pandemic, politics, wildfires, and drought had unmoored daily life, uprooting familiar patterns, underscoring the nature of existence humans most long to ignore: its uncertainty. As my world shrank to the walls of my house, what I could see from my window anchored me: nature and its predictable cycles of day and night, the arrival of each season familiar as if nothing had changed.
But a series of headlines caught my attention. “Mars Is the Place to Go This Summer,” read one. “Is there lyfe on Mars? New concept broadens search for alien organisms,” read another. What was going on? Sure, we were pandemic-weary and longed for travel, but to Mars? That was the stuff of science fiction.
Or so I thought.
It turned out the United States, China, and United Arab Emirates had each launched unmanned spacecraft to Mars in July, timed to take advantage of the orbital window occurring only every twenty-six months that allows reaching the red planet with the least expenditure of fuel. Such flights are planned years in advance, but their simultaneous, international occurrence in the midst of a global pandemic seemed both ominous and somehow enticing, manifesting my own growing desire for escape.
Mars wasn’t what I had in mind, but the news did make me curious.
I began Googling. The U.S. mission planned to deploy a rover to search for signs of former life in carbon deposits from soil samples and to try out a camera-equipped helicopter. The UAE’s spacecraft would maintain a unique orbital pattern above Mars to understand weather patterns across the planet. The Chinese rover would search for underground water. Each mission’s scientific goals reflected typical nationalistic agendas: to gain strategic advantage over information and potential natural resources. Mars, fourth planet from the sun, just a six-month journey away. An outpost there could serve as a way station to more distant galactic travel.
Underlying these exploratory aims were grander dreams of conquest, I found—no longer just fanciful speculation. One article announced billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s intention to build a SpaceX mega-colony on Mars with the hope of establishing a million people there by 2050. In other words, not just a settlement, but a nation.
Although this sounded far-fetched, another site confirmed the winning results of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge: egg-shaped obelisks to be made from ground-up Martian stone and polymer, with “touches of home”—a houseplant, an aquarium—softening the simulated, high-tech interiors. Mars’s atmosphere isn’t exactly welcoming. Double walls would be required to maintain pressure and keep human bodies from otherwise simultaneously boiling and freezing to death.
Ongoing research also explores how to terraform a new, more habitable world out of the failed planet, engineering an environment similar to Earth’s from Mars’s waterless dust. It’s a paradoxical dream, both optimistic and cynical, to create a backup planet in case our own environment collapses. Would we then hope to terraform a ruined Earth, try and re-create there what we ultimately destroyed here? I felt I’d stumbled into a postapocalyptic time warp.
Looking at online photos from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, I tried to imagine living there. A rust red surface—red rocks, red dirt, red air—a volcanic landscape. A frigid desert. There is gaunt beauty in its strangeness, but not Earthly beauty. Still, I was transfixed by a brief video of a double solar eclipse by Mars’s two small, ragged moons, Phobos and Deimos, misshapen chunks of rock floating across our shared sun, so unlike our own elegant moon. But wouldn’t it be astonishing to stand on Mars, watch them pass overhead?
I felt strangely moved by the names given the three Martian missions. The pragmatic United States named its Perseverance. Apt, I thought, for these long days of isolation. The UAE named its Al-Amal, or Hope, the brighter side of perseverance. We persevere because we hope for something better, though most people I knew just wanted a return to normal. China chose Tianwen-1, Questions to Heaven, questions we all have, whether pondering an expanding universe, our own fragile planet, or the uncertainties of global pandemic. The brave names exposed something vulnerable, something human. We still look to the heavens for salvation, for a sign.
Mars loomed large those nights, shining like polished bronze. The shield of a warring god, the ancients thought, the color of blood. A planet gleaming not as a beacon but as a warning.
I imagined the three ships—Perseverance, Hope, Questions to Heaven—their long journeys, and the news they’d be sending back before long. I hoped it would be good news. Our planet could use some. And I thought of how Earth itself looks from space, a pale blue dot suspended in inky darkness facing its own perils, for now the only known planet brimming with life, Mars just a distant red light.
Sally Ashton is editor in chief of DMQ Review and author of four books, including Some Odd Afternoon and The Behaviour of Clocks. Recent work appears in Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity, Cagibi, and in several anthologies. She lives in California.