State of the planet

At the age of eighteen I was a dope-smoking, layabout, benefit-scrounging squatter. During this phase of my life I was arrested for shoplifting. The thing I stole, however, was not food, or something I could sell to buy drugs, but a book. It was The Atlas of the Solar System by Bill Yenne, and it contained actual maps of various bodies in the Solar System, including Mars. I took my caution, and not long afterwards, I bought a copy somewhere. It’s hard to overemphasise the impact it had on me.

It was quite exciting to see partial maps of the moons of the outer planets, but it was the more-or-less complete maps of Mars that made the greatest impression. At the time the best photographs that existed of the surface were those from the Viking landers, which had pointed their cameras at the ground, but these maps invited the viewer to enter imaginatively into the place called Mars, to travel in the mind from Hellas Planitia to the Valles Marineris, to explore the Tharsis uplands and to sail a land-yacht across the Vastitas Borealis. With a similar nerdy interest in dinosaurs I conceived a speculative fiction setting that populated Mars with extinct theropods and a society with medieval technological capacities, although I didn’t do much about writing it, dope-smoking layabout that I was. When Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy was published I read each book hungrily. Mars became a part of my psychogeography, as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Le Guin’s Earthsea, and Gene Wolfe’s Urth already had, and it remains an object of deep and abiding fascination.

For this reason, Moving to Mars is an exhibition with considerable attractions for me. The last couple of decades have been insanely exciting for the dedicated Mars-nut in any case, given the high volume of exploration that’s been taking place, particularly the rover missions, which have yielded a bounty of breathtaking, high-quality surface photography. There are lots of organisations talking big about future manned or un-manned missions, and Nasa continues to fund speculative engineering research that looks like it was commissioned for a science-fiction movie. I never know how much coincidence there is between my personal obsessions and the popular imagination, but The Design Museum clearly thought there was enough public enthusiasm for Mars to justify a big-ticket exhibition.

Judging by the appearance and overheard remarks of most of our fellow-visitors, this was a good call. These weren’t nerdy space-aficionados wearing British Interplanetary Society hoodies, but tourists, often in large groups, clearly quite happy to have paid the moderately steep price of admission. And although the show caters well for the anorak, it has plenty of stuff to capture the imagination of non-geeks, such as a 1:1 rover model, and a habitat mock-up with some 3-D printed plastic furniture to slob out on.

You’d expect good design from an exhibition in The Design Museum, and by and large we weren’t disappointed. The only blip was in the first gallery, which had a wall of photographs illustrating the early exploration of Mars, and this seemed to have been hung to look good as a layout, rather than to work as an exhibit. The labels were linked to images by number, which is fine as far as it goes, but they were placed such that it was necessary to traipse back and forth between the cluster of labels and the pictures, and some of the images were too high on the wall to look as closely at them as I would have liked. Other than this display, the materials were clear and accessible, and the interpretation was illuminating.

The basic premise of the show is to examine the role of design in both observing and in exploring Mars, but there is also a good deal of history, both in terms of astronomy and in terms of the planet’s role in popular culture. I’m no expert in these fields, although I probably know a lot more than the average lay-person (and I was wearing my British Interplanetary Society hoodie), but the treatment seemed pretty much on point. I was surprised that the (admittedly very brief) discussion of science-fiction literature about Mars mentioned only old farts like Asimov and Clarke, but not Ray Bradbury or Kim Stanley Robinson—especially considering that the exhibition catalogue contains an extensive interview with Robinson.

Robinson is an interesting figure in relation to Mars, because his trilogy about the terraforming of the planet is probably one of the principal places that all the various issues around the colonisation of Mars have been put together as a coherent whole. A lot of work that is done on Mars is effectively science-fiction, like the various habitat designs that are displayed in the show, and the Mars trilogy could be seen as an example of such research. Although Robinson’s books were written before the latest flush of observation, and although we now know stuff that makes his vision implausible (the toxic concentrations of perchlorates in Martian regolith, for example), the clarity of their vision, and the fact that his protagonists are plausibly characterised scientists, has made them a significant recruiting tool for Mars science. Many scientists working on Martian astronomy today cite Robinson’s books as an early inspiration.

In a sense, Moving to Mars can be related to Robinson’s trilogy more than it can to other exhibitions, and more so than other science-fiction books, which always eschew Robinson’s fidelity to the technical challenges. It builds carefully on the foundations of Martian astronomy, opening its displays with objects such as a Cuneiform tablet of observations, and one of William Herschel’s reflecting telescopes, and honours the history of exploration missions—it’s easy to forget, accustomed as we are to having long-lived rovers posting amazing photos in our Twitter feeds, that sending any kind of object to Mars is unfeasibly difficult. It does not neglect the majesty of the Martian landscape, and the second gallery is a panoramic, wall-filling video presentation on rover journeys. It gets deep into the nitty-gritty of living on Mars, exploring some of the imaginative research and design that’s been done into the basic needs of food, clothes and shelter—this last obviously including the provision of a breathable atmosphere. In all of these things, it felt to me like a twenty-fifth anniversary update to Robinson’s work.

There’s far too much in this show, from Foster + Partners’ designs for habitats, to a conceptual artwork executed in a games engine, to posters from Soviet science-fiction movies, to a pair of boots made from fungal mycelium fibres grown on human sweat, for me to even attempt to sum it up. Mars is a big topic, and the work that has been done by scientists, engineers, designers, artists, writers, entrepreneurs and others is as various as it is extensive. Even a show like this offers no more than a snapshot. We may well stand on the cusp of the next phase of Mars exploration, when footprints will be left in the regolith, and it seems timely for the The Design Museum to offer us a ‘state of the planet’ summary. Pretty much everyone who’s in a position to know (other than Elon Musk) is agreed that we’ll probably never colonise Mars sustainably, to live there as we do on Earth, but Moving to Mars offers its visitors the tools to imagine that eventuality for themselves.

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