The Last Frontier: Once People Saw Mars as like the Wild West, without the Indigenous Inhabitants. but Is Antarctica the Better Archetype? (Space)

By Morton, Oliver | New Statesman (1996), May 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Last Frontier: Once People Saw Mars as like the Wild West, without the Indigenous Inhabitants. but Is Antarctica the Better Archetype? (Space)


Morton, Oliver, New Statesman (1996)


In the 1890s, Percival Lowell, a wealthy Bostonian hitherto known for his accounts of travels in the far east, moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, in order to build himself an observatory from which to study Mars. Thus began along association between Mars and the arid parts of the American west, one which has coloured our picture of our neighbouring planet from that day to this. The link it fosters between past American expansion and future space exploration has come to carry a fair amount of ideological freight-butnow, a century on, it is beginning to dissolve.

As Lowell got to know Mars through his telescope, he also got to know the Colorado plateau on which Flagstaff sits. And in both places he found desert. In the Painted Desert, he saw the fossil woods of the Petrified Forest, and became convinced that the desert was spreading like a deadly stain. Through his telescope, he thought he saw another deadly desert, this one with a whole planet in its grasp. But the desert was criss-crossed with lines. These, Lowell decided, were canals: the Martians were keeping their planet habitable, just as irrigation, electrification and the railroad were taming the American west.

Lowell transplanted to Mars a feeling for the American west as a new world -- in the sense of newly discovered by someone -- that was at the same time an old world -- in the sense of accumulated entropy. In his popular Barsoom stories, Edgar Rice Burroughs took Lowell's lead and catapulted his hero John Carter from the mountains of Arizona, where he faced death at the hands of the savage red man, to the dried seabeds of Mars, where he faced death at the hands of the savage green man. Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles added the disinheritance of the natives to the mix, his Martians dying of chickenpox as the earthly invaders played harmonicas round their campfires. There was often an orientalist overlay to these ideas -- think Ming the Merciless -- that reflected the idea that civilisations other than the Anglo-Saxon would be flamboyant but decadent, especially on an ancient planet. But there were also noble savages and, almost always, ruins -- echoes of the most haunting human presences in the "new" west.

Though most scientists came to reject Lowell's canals, the rest of his picture of Mars was broadly accepted: thin air and little water, marginal plant life, the deserts of the Colorado plateau writ large. When Chesley Bonestell, the first great painter of astronomical scenes and one of Hollywood's best matte artists (he created Citizen Kane's Xanadu), did the production paintings for a 1950s film about the W exploration of Mars, his first drawings, meticulously based on the impressions of the scientists of the day, were rejected for being insufficiently alien and "too like Arizona".

By the mid-1960s, however, fresh observations -- from early spacecraft and from new telescopic instruments on Earth -- showed that Mars was much nastier than a desert on Earth. The atmosphere was not merely thin--it was a wraith: only 1 per cent as dense as the Earth's; it contained no free oxygen; and its carbon dioxide froze solid in the winter to form the polar caps. The surface was torn up by vast moon-like craters. There was a lack of water that went past any aridity found on Earth. There was no life.

But if space-based exploration destroyed the myth of a marginally habitable Arizona in the sky, it also provided the occasion for a space-age re-establishment of the rhetoric of the Wild West. There have been people claiming that America needs a frontier for more or less as long as it hasn't had one, and space provided them with a new and appealing surrogate. Every week, William Shatner told the viewers of Star Trek that space was the final frontier; the Apollo programme grew, in part, from the "new frontiers" rhetoric of J F Kennedy's presidential campaign. When, on his first moon walk, Neil Armstrong said that the "stark beauty" surrounding

Tranquillity Base looked "like the high desert of the United States", he was simply translating this rhetoric into terms of landscape. …

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