Visions of Mars—My, How Our Expectations Have Fallen

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/08/visions-of-mars-my-how-our-expectations-have-fallen/243190/