Making Mars Feel Lived-On

When we get to Mars—by government agency or reality show—how will we make up our neighbourhoods? The process has already started: for just five dollars, you can claim a piece of the Red Planet.

March 10, 2014

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner's poetry and non-fiction have appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Malahat Review among other...

Even at NASA, the people who believed we would fly humans to Mars within our lifetime have always been a bit of a fringe group. British doctor Kevin Fong spent time at NASA in the late 1990s, and in his new book, Extreme Medicine: How Exploration Transformed Medicine in the Twentieth Century, he writes, “There was a kind of Mars underground at NASA, a cadre of folk who had long held dear the hope of sending a human crew to the Red Planet...A badge had appeared on the lapels of the faithful: a cheap tin badge about the size of a quarter with the words MARS OR BUST! in bold red lettering.” By 2009, it was definitively bust; the economic crisis meant that NASA’s budget cutbacks would keep Mars out of reach for the foreseeable future.

When NASA gave up on Mars, reality television stepped in. In 2011, Bas Lansdorp, a 37-year-old Dutch entrepreneur, co-founded a project called Mars One—a not-for-profit foundation planning to finance its trip to Mars through crowdfunding, commercial sponsorship, and broadcasting its astronauts’ travails as a reality show. Mars One received about 4,000 videos from applicants from all over the world, a field it has now narrowed down to 1,058 applicants from 107 countries. The plan is for a series of supply and exploration vehicle launches starting in 2016, with the first Mars-bound astronauts launched into space in 2022. By 2033, Lansdorp and his colleagues say, Mars will have a settled colony of about 30 people.

On March 4, Mars One made a new announcement: its mission’s official map would be the new “People’s Map of Mars” in development over at a website called Uwingu—one that lets anyone with five dollars to spare name the geographical features of the planet.

Toponymy is the study of place names, and the People’s Map of Mars offers a new opportunity for the discipline. In 1980, Carl Sagan wrote, “Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.” Like a kid who falls asleep at a slumber party, Mars is blissfully unaware of our hovering Magic Markers. With the face of the Red Planet turned towards us halfway between the realms of mythic abstraction and satellite-image precision, what words are we inscribing on its surface?

Here’s a sample:

Campa Crater
Named by jerrodgermusa

Diameter: 0.94 km (0.58 mi)
Latitude: -3.31° N, Longitude: 182.45° E
District: 3152, Province: 390

Citation: This is where the campa will be once transported to mars. The campa is where my friends and I smoke cigarettes and drink excessive amounts of alcohol. The campa will have its own oxygen and heat supply. No cops are going to bother the campa here. In honor of the famous campa gang: (Preston, Jerrod, Chaddy, Jacob, Zach, Jack, Isaiah, Brady & his trill nugguhs, Bilbo Baggins, John, Robbie, Dip, Propane, Diesel, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Nascar, Trap-top, Trap-box, The Spitter, The Vomit Crock, etc

It seems appropriate that the craters of Mars should honour the adolescent hideouts of Earth. A human colony on Mars would be a sort of secret club, an outsider society where the inhabitants could make their own rules (albeit while the cameras rolled for the reality TV show back home).

Just up the road from the ravine where Campa Crater kids will tool around on their anti-gravity dirt bikes, Mom and Pops will have their home-away-from-home:

Bob and Deb Conner's Dip in the Dirt
Named by DABC

Diameter: 1.53 km (0.95 mi)
Latitude: -3.05° N, Longitude: 182.61° E
District: 3152, Province: 390

Citation: Looks like a nice place

You can see the carved wooden sign nailed to a Martian tree, a rope swing dangling from—or maybe floating above—the sturdy branches. Inside, embroidered samplers in oval frames declare “Our Family is Out of This World!” On the back porch, Uncle Bob is grilling moon-steaks, while in the kitchen, Aunt Deb is mixing up a batch of her famous Mars bars.

Of course, not everything on Mars is quite so peachy-keen. The Conners’ neighbours on the other side of ravine are in not such a nice neighbourhood:

The crater of Dave's hopes and dreams
Named by jaweir

Diameter: 28.30 km (17.58 mi)
Latitude: -2.9° N, Longitude: 183.77° E
District: 3063, Province: 361

Citation: Well, it has been a hard few years for Dave

Outer space can be as lonely as inner space. Dave rattles around his dusty crater wondering how it came to this, how he got here, why he doesn’t just put his hands on the crater’s edge and pull himself up, for chrissakes. He’s wallowing and he knows it, but there’s something crippling about the meaninglessness, the desolation of this place—it’s got no atmosphere.

It doesn’t help poor Dave that the sonic backdrop on Mars is the hysterical giggling of hundreds of children under ten celebrating their birthdays all at once:

Mia and James Knowlton's Crater
Named by Anonymous

Diameter: 0.74 km (0.46 mi)
Latitude: -3.24° N, Longitude: 182.82° E
District: 3152, Province: 390

Citation: Mia, age 3, and James, age 2, are huge lovers of science, and space and rockets and aviation. They both are regular museum-goers. James asks his parents to take him to the Air and Space Museum as often as he can get them to; when shown a picture in a book and told it's a galaxy, he insists on more precision: "No, that's the Milky Way," he says! (swear it's true!)

It’s the space-themed birthday party that never ends. Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” plays for the one-billionth time as streamers hang forlornly in the manufactured air. Freeze-dried astronaut ice cream isn’t the treat it once was, and the goodie bags, with tentacled-monster space erasers and Marvin the Martian stickers, are always the same. In space, a space-themed birthday party is just a birthday party, and parents are starting to feel the meta quality of the whole exercise weigh upon them with existential heaviness.

But then, they were the ones who wanted to own a little piece of heaven. All around the Mars landscape, from District 3153 to Province 391, from Glasshole to Svalkir, are places people have named for themselves. Famigliere Albiero, Altine Crater, Victora Joaquin; why wait for the universe to reward you when you can reward yourself? In the words of the namesake of crater Michael Brooks, with a 1.41 km (0.88mi) diameter, located at -3.14° N, 182.69° E, in Province 390 of District 3152—“it’s mine.”

Every week, Linda Besner reads a new book and writes on a tangentially related topic.

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Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner's poetry and non-fiction have appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Malahat Review among other journals, and her radio work has aired on CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera, Outfront, and The Next Chapter. Her first book, The Id Kid, was published in 2011 by Véhicule Press, and was named as one of The National Post’s Best Poetry Books of the Year.