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Martian Wonderlust In The 1950's

Kevin F. Owens

December 18, 2012

In 1950 when I was six my folks took me to see the drive-in movie ‘Destination Moon’. That film, about the first manned mission to the Moon, sparked my enthusiasm for space adventures. Afterwards, I retrieved some empty cardboard refrigerator cartons from an appliance store, and with some scrap wood, a few tools, and some crayons I converted those boxes into a play rocket ship for my own imaginary trips to the Moon. In the evenings I could look up at the Moon, the planets, and the stars. That was where adventure was for a child with an active imagination. I started filling sketch pads with crayon renditions of rockets heading to the exciting frontier beyond our atmosphere As a third grader I saw the movie version of H.G. Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’ in 1953, a movie depicting an invasion of Earth by a technologically advanced race of Martians desperate to eradicate human civilization so that they could transform Earth into a new home for themselves. This was the same story my dad had witnessed in 1938 as a radio play that frightened the nation. I was fascinated. Could there actually be Martians? Were they a threat to us? What was life actually like on Mars? In the movie the brutal invasion was finally stopped by bacteria infection that killed the unstoppable Martians. That made me wonder… when human explorers finally made it to Mars would alien bacteria infect the explorers; then they would return to Earth with a Martian plague? For a nine year old, those types of questions became intertwined with religious philosophy, and just as important. I looked for books and about Mars. I began reading astronomy books about the planets and the science fiction of Wells and Boroughs and Bradbury and Asimov and Heinlein. The science fiction created images of indigenous civilizations waiting for us on Mars and Venus. In 1957 I was in seventh grade when the Russians orbited Sputnik, a feat that astonished the world. The American attempt with “Vanguard” blew up on the launch pad. I was excited. I bought myself a small six inch reflector telescope. For the first time I could see the planets the way they were described by astronomers. The Moon, lacking any evidence of air or water had rugged mountains and sharply defined impact craters. Venus had phases like the moon and a global cloud layer that obscured the entire surface. I tracked Jupiter’s four moons. In November 1958 when Mars made close approach to Earth I focused my telescope on the bright orange star high in the night sky. The best images I could get were of an indistinct orange ball with a whitecap on top of that globe. I saw the hint of slightly darker smudges, but they were nothing more than smudges. I could not see anything like the lines some astronomers thought were canals. When my ninth grade science teacher asked his students to participate in an upcoming Science Fair, I decided to create an entry about Mars. My personal observation were too limited because of the small size of the telescope, so I decided to make an entry based on the results of professional astronomers who used large telescopes with cameras, spectroscopes, and filters. I painted Percival Lowell’s map of Mars over a globe I got from Salvation Army, and prepared a report and a display detailing our understanding of living conditions on the Mars. It concluded with a collection of the various possibilities for the surface based on the professional interpretations of what we would find. My entry won first place in the science fair.

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