Seeing Mars by Matt Colborn


Mars, the god of war, presides over a tumultuous year. Mars the planet had its closest approach to Earth on October 6th, coming into opposition on the 18th. Although fading at the time of writing, it remains a welcome sight in the evening sky. At its closest, Mars was only 38.57 million miles (62.07 million km) from Earth.

On the clearest autumn nights it almost seemed almost possible to reach out and touch the fiery red eye of light. The telescope revealed a hypnotic, blurry pinkish, marked disk. It’s quite something to think of the probes and rovers we’ve already sent there. The thought of human footprints on the planet is something else again.

A human colony on Mars is today the prime ambition of Elon Musk, who discussed his plans at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico in September 2016. Musk wants to build a city on Mars that will function as a ‘backup drive’ for humanity. Other advocates like Bob Zubrin, the engineer who proposed the Mars Direct mission plan and founded the Mars society, sees settlement of the Red Planet as essential to fend off social, cultural and technological stagnation.[i]

From Dream to Landscape

The little boy in me completely sympathises with Musk and Zubrin’s ambitions. That little boy grew up in the 1980s, in the long wake of Apollo, watching the shuttle program and reading books like Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Then, Mars was a playground of the imagination. I knew the old stories were factually inaccurate, and that the Viking landers had suppled a far bleaker vision. But that didn’t matter. A ‘double vision’ was possible, with fact and fantasy co-existing in the imagination.

Decades later, my outlook has evolved. A significant trigger for this shift is the flotilla of uncrewed probes that has been sent to the Red Planet, starting with the NASA Pathfinder mission in 1997. These probes have revealed Mars in unprecedented, topographic detail. The significance of this mapping was brought home to me by the Natural History Museum’s Otherworlds exhibition in 2016. The exhibition presented large, back lit images from throughout the solar system. The surface of Mars was on display in high resolution. For the first time, I felt as if I was standing on an alien world.

The images have also prompted doubts about the space entrepreneurs’ logic. My problem is that Mars is essentially seen as a resource for the exclusive use of human advancement. This seems a terribly human-centred viewpoint. In conservation science a contrast is made between what are called the instrumental and intrinsic values of something.[ii] According to philosophy professor Ronald Sandler, the instrumental value is ‘the value that something has as a means to a desired or valued end (op. cit).’

Intrinsic values, he says, come in two stripes. The first is subjective intrinsic value, where something has intrinsic value if it is valued by human beings in itself, perhaps for its beauty or aesthetic worth. So when artists and writers project their fantasies on Mars, they’re giving it subjective intrinsic value. A more radical possibility is that something has an objective intrinsic value. According to Sandler:

objective intrinsic value is not humanly conferred. If something has objective intrinsic value, it has properties or features [that are valuable] independent of anyone’s attitudes or judgments (op. cit).

This is a radical position because it forces us to think beyond human dreams and needs. Perhaps Mars has a value in itself that is not humanly conferred. So it might be ethically questionable to use — abuse? — the world for our own ends.

Space Art

With this shift in values came a need to know our neighbouring world better. In 2007, I joined the International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA). I discovered the organisation through David Hardy’s book Visions of Space, which showcased the awe-inspiring work of many space artists. The book described the workshops that the IAAA had undertaken to what are called Earth analogues. These are Earthly landscapes that resemble extraterrestrial ones. The IAAA had visited places like Iceland, Death Valley and Arizona in search of Mars-like landscapes.

It became a long term ambition of mine to visit an Earth analogue, in lieu of actually going to Mars. The opportunity arose in 2018, with an expedition to Teide National Park in Tenerife. This is a volcanic landscape inside a caldera, and is centred around Mount Teide, a volcano that’s 3,718 metres high. Its bona fides as an Earth analogue is confirmed by the fact that in 2010 a team tested an instrument that was to be used in the ESA-NASA ExoMars expedition to Mars at the Las Cañadas del Teide.

During the visit, we trekked past lava flows, volcanic cones, varicoloured dunes and boulders. The landscape was primordial. I found myself wandering over the basalt landscapes with a kind of double vision. On the one hand, the interior of the caldera was awe-inspiring in itself. On the other, you could see echoes of Mars all around. The paintings should speak for themselves.

Mars, in the end, remains a place that resides for most of us in the imagination. Despite this, the reams of data from the probes and rovers have opened windows into a wider, cosmic habitat. These windows suggest the need for a revisioning of human engagement with Mars, away from notions of ‘conquest’ or instrumental value. This needs to be a piece with revisioning our relationship to Earth. The intrinsic value of the planet must be honoured. So the most difficult challenge ahead is perhaps not the technical one of ‘footprints on Mars,’ but evolving the wisdom and vision to honour and preserve the Red Planet as well as our own.

Note: a selection of these images are available in the IAAA book The Beauty of Space (2nd ed.) edited by Jon Ramer and Ron Miller (Springer, 2020).

[i] Zubrin, B. (2011) The Case for Mars. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[ii] Sandler, R. (2012) Intrinsic Value, Ecology, and Conservation. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):4

Matt Colborn is a freelance writer and academic with a doctorate in cognitive science. He has written for the Guardian as well as SFX and Interzone magazines. He writes across the spectrum of speculative fiction. He published a collection of short fiction, ‘City in the Dusk and Other Stories,’ in 2013 and is currently completing a novel. His website is at

About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (, the secretary of Milford SF Writers (, a singer ( and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers (
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1 Response to Seeing Mars by Matt Colborn

  1. Reblogged this on Loving Life in the Rain and commented:
    Thought provoking insights into human ambitions in relation to Mars.


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