Visions of Mars—My, How Our Expectations Have Fallen

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In the old days, we thought Mars had intelligent life. Then, we were ready to settle for regular old life. Next up was hoping was for an extinct civilization.

Science unfortunately disabused us of many of our more fanciful notions about the Red Planet. The Mariner series of expeditions came back with bad news: there was no liquid water, as far as we could tell, and no signs of life as we knew it. Seasonal changes that humans had long observed seemed more likely to be caused by wind rather than vegetation. It was a bummer of a quarter century for Mars fans.

More recently, hope for life on Mars has crept back into our consciousness in attenuated form. The Mars Phoenix mission raised hopes that life could survive around grains of ice underground. And now, new evidence suggests there may be some liquid saltwater on Mars (though questions abound). People are going nuts! And it would be a big deal, if true. I just want us to remember how much smaller our Martian dreams have become through time.

With new Atlantic video editor Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg's help, we dug up some wonderful old public domain Mars clips to show the progression of our thinking about our cold neighbor.

Here we see the good old days, 1950 to be exact, when Mars was still a blank slate on which we could paint our dreams and standard social configurations.

Then, we have scientists like Carl Sagan doing their best to keep our imaginations alive after the relative bummer of the Mariner missions.

After space stopped being a wonderful unknown and we realized precisely how difficult it would be to get to any other planets, humans figured out they could just simulate what other planets might look like. As the dream of actually going to Mars has faded, we've gotten better at creating mockups of the place. Here, we see the academic film through which the special effects wizard behind Star Wars's space scenes honed his skills.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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