Casey DreierNov 12, 2013

Cosmos with Cosmos Episode 5: Blues for a Red Planet

Cosmos with Cosmos was a weekly series that encouraged Society members to re-watch Cosmos with a shared group, a cosmo(politan), or other drink of their choice. The Planetary Society published weekly episode discussion pieces to complement the original series before the Neil deGrasse Tyson-led 2nd season in 2014. You can currently watch the original Cosmos streaming on twitch.

I hope there's no life on Mars today.

If we were to find life frittering about on the martian surface, humanity would (should?) reach the inevitable moral decision to cordon off the planet from further exploration – it would be irresponsible to alter the evolutionary progress of this other form of life. (What if robotic spacecraft had landed on Earth three billion years ago with a few hungry microbial hangers-on?) In the face of this unique form of life, Mars would become a vast, protected wilderness. Humans, hosts to a pantheon of bacterial communities, would be forever forbidden from setting foot on the Red Planet.

But we need Mars as an offsite backup for humanity. So my hope is that today's Mars is a barren world, ripe for future exploration and (eventually) permanent habitation. Ideally, we'd find evidence of past life on Mars, stimulating scientific research and philosophical revelation, and then we'd continue the search for life in the watery depths on the moons of outer planets. Humans could never settle on Europa or Enceladus, so let life exist there instead.

But Mars excels at denying us our most fervent wishes. From not fitting into the epicycles of Ptolemy, to lacking the canals of Lowell, to supplying no organic materials (yet) to the Curiosity rover team, the reality of Mars has consistently irritated humanity throughout history.

In Cosmos's fifth episode, Blues for a Red Planet, Sagan highlights the ways in which the Mars that is subverts the Mars we wish it to be. In this sense it's a thematic sequel to Episode 3's Harmony of the Worlds, where Mars kickstarted the development of astronomy as a science through the ceaseless taunting of Johannes Kepler to unlock the secrets of its motion across the sky.

This episode also portrays what is clearly a personal passion of Sagan's. Influenced from early childhood by the fantastic stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sagan loved Mars. He deeply wished to discover life there, but Mars denied him the satisfaction of doing so, while keeping just enough hope alive by hinting at a past of liquid water and habitability.

It is perhaps this personal passion for the Red Planet that causes the episode to suffer as an hour of television. I find it the weakest episode in the series so far, lacking in forward momentum, storytelling, and the general clever "interconnectedness" that is so nicely brought to life in previous shows.

The opening sequence featuring a reading of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds over a bucolic scene of 19th century-life is both predictable and overlong, as if they needed to fill time to reach their hour-long episode mark. I would have preferred a deeper exploration of relationship of the invasion-fantasy to the growing influence of the German empire in pre-World War I Britain and how this subverted the growing confidence of humanity's control over their destiny during the late industrial period. The martians here were defeated not by anything humans could create, but by the very diseases that had haunted our species for millions of years.

The malevolent martians of Wells's imagination evolved, for the most part, into the dying remnants of a once-thriving race as inspired by Percival Lowell's canals. In this vision, the canals are seen as a desperate engineering works project to combat global climate change. This leads to some of the most dated visual effects sequences in the series, as we fly over a artististic rendering of the ancient martian cities to the throws of Holst's Mars.

Lowell, of course, is famous for a theory that turned out to be completely wrong. The canals on Mars – mapped in detailed fashion over many years of hard work – were the projections of his dreams onto the blurry globe of this distant planet. There were no canals and no dying race of martians. Mars once again denied humanity its satisfaction.

Lowell's idea, despite being wrong, was was deeply romantic and filled with dramatic pathos. From the John Carter series to my personal childhood martian influence, Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, the story of the dying race persisted. And though most people understood that it was fantasy, the artistic concept Mars nestled itself deep into our psyche.

The latter half of the episode improves as we move focus to the actual exploration of Mars. Sagan appropriately devotes a good third of the show to the Viking landers – the most ambitious and expensive planetary exploration mission to date (there's a good argument to be made that this is still the case).

Meeting Jake Matijevic, Curiosity sol 43
Curiosity in Gale Crater Tracks lead off into the horizon made by a roving machine on the surface of the red planet. NASA's Curiosity rover is the manifestation of true martian exploration that Sagan only dreamed of.Image: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Damia Bouic

Once again, Mars worked to deny the expectations of humanity. Though both Vikings had clever experiments to search for life, they produced, at best, ambiguous results. Instead of clearly providing a "yes" or a "no" to the answer: is there life on Mars today? Mars told us probably not... but maybe.

Since Cosmos was made in 1980, Sagan had no way of knowing that the Vikings would be the last successful mission to Mars for nearly 20 years. The 80s saw deep budget cuts for NASA that targeted the planetary exploration program. Despite the hints of past water and the tantalizing science returned to us by Viking, humanity saw fit to take its sweet time.

That all began to change in 1996 with the launches of both Pathfinder and the Mars Global Surveyor. These missions kicked off a sustained commitment to the exploration of Mars. We've seen a fleet of spacecraft explore Mars in the past twenty years, culminating with the Curiosity rover, far beefier and more impressive than any concept rover portrayed in Cosmos. It's a wonderful coda to this episode. Millions of people are following the exploration of the Red Planet, and not via their television screens, but in the palm of their hand. We are able to trek across the plains of Mars, and though the planet remains characteristically complex and resistant to our inquiries, we are slowly uncovering the Mars that is: a world that was once wet and habitable, but now hopefully dead, patiently waiting for new life to arrive.

Stray Observations

  • Bruce Murray, one of the co-founders of the Planetary Society with Carl Sagan and Lou Friedman, was very much a martian-life skeptic. He and Sagan clashed publicly for years prior to their friendship which led to the formation of the Society. Here's a quote from Murray in 1971, singing the blues for the red planet: "I really don't think there is any life on Mars. There never has been any evidence of it. It has just been a very attractive idea. You cannot completely disprove life on the moon…It just becomes less and less likely. And it has become very less likely as we have gotten more information about Mars. When you go back to find out why people thought there might be life there, it was in part, if not entirely, the result of this wishful thinking and the Edgar Rice Burroughs kind of popularization."

  • The pathos of the dying martian civilization is exemplified in one of my favorite Bradbury short stories from the Martian Chronicles, Night Meeting, where a human and a martian cross paths in time. The martian sees his world as it was: bright and full of life, while the human sees it as it is: dry and dead. It's haunting.

  • I don't have much to say about the Goddard sequence, but it did give me chills when it cut from the video of his small rocket tests to that Saturn V launch.

  • I found it interesting that Sagan didn't mention human exploration of Mars at all in the original version of this episode, and only very briefly during the Cosmos "Update" sequence filmed in 1990. That was right around the ill-fated proposal by the first President Bush to send humans to Mars.

Science Update

  • So much has happened in Mars science since the airing of this episode that it makes no sense to even try and address it all. We've had nine subsequent successful missions that have mapped Mars in unbelievable detail and probed its geologic history. We know that Mars was once habitable to life as we know it, but it's a pretty harsh place now.

  • The outcomes of the Viking biological experiments can be explained by purely chemical processes, as outlined in this summary on Malin Space Science Systems' website (they made the cameras on the Curiosity rover). The oxidizer that they mention in the summary is likely to be perchlorate, first detected by the Phoenix lander, which destroys any organic compounds when heated.

  • The "Pyramids of Elysium" are most likely ventifacts – shapes made from wind blowing in the same direction for eons. This hasn't stopped a thriving cottage industry of fantastical speculation.


  • "I'm a carbon chauvinist, I freely admit it."

  • On a Mars rover: "It could drive to its own horizon every day, a distant feature it barely resolves at sunrise it can be sniffing and tasting by nightfall. Billions of people could watch the unfolding adventure on their television sets as the rover explores the ancient river bottoms or cautiously approaches the enigmatic pyramids of Elysium. A new age of discovery would have begun."

  • "Science is a collaborative enterprise spanning the generations. When it permits us to see the far side of some new horizon, we remember those who prepared the way, seeing for them also."

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