August 22, 2020, is the 100th anniversary of science fiction author Ray Bradbury’s birth. To honor the centennial, Museum geologist John Grant reflects on Bradbury’s impact on his career studying Mars.
That I am a Martian is thanks in no small part to Ray Bradbury. As a child growing up in northern NY, I spent many nights reading and rereading his books. From Fahrenheit 451 to Something Wicked This Way Comes to The Illustrated Man and everything in between. But it was the Martian Chronicles that really captured my attention. After reading it multiple times, I’d play outside and imagine ancient Martian civilizations living on a drying Red Planet long before humans appeared on the Earth.
This all happened at about the same time I was eagerly waiting for first the Mariner 9 and then Viking missions to reach Mars. Although prior missions had flown by the planet, these missions were the first to go into orbit and, in the case of Viking, successfully land on the surface of Mars. When Mariner 9 arrived at Mars, a global dust storm was largely obscuring the surface from view. As the dust slowly cleared and Mars was unveiled, a diverse landscape was revealed that included not only impact craters, but also giant volcanoes, ice caps, and even ancient water-carved channels. The Viking orbiters followed this up with even better and broader resolution images of surface features and the Viking landers revealed a landscape that to me looked somewhat similar to deserts on the Earth, sans vegetation of course.
Although these missions did not reveal evidence of the past civilizations I imagined while reading Martian Chronicles, I was hooked nonetheless. The walls in my bedroom were plastered with posters from the Viking mission and I started to thinking about how the Martian landscape had evolved over time and thinking back to when the channels had once been actively cut by water coursing across the surface. Clearly Mars had once been more Earthlike than today and maybe even had been an abode for life.
Equipped with my imagination and interest, I became a budding planetary geologist, eager to help decipher the mysteries of Mars. Over the course of my subsequent career, I have been very fortunate to have participated in multiple Mars missions like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Exploration Rovers, the Curiosity rover, and the InSight lander. The sense of exploration and discovery builds daily with every new landscape that these missions bring into view. And while there is not yet evidence of past life on Mars, there is evidence of widespread water and past habitable conditions. So even if the ancient civilizations penned by Bradbury all those years ago did not exist, it seems aspects of ancient Mars were similar to what he described: the planet was once wetter than the cold, dry conditions that occur there today and life may even have been present.
This past year, I was thrilled to hear my son say that they had been assigned There Will Come Soft Rains in his English class. It has always been one of my favorite short stories and I was pleased that my son also enjoyed reading it. Ray Bradbury would have been 100 years old on August 22, 2020, and it seems that his writings continue to hold their appeal and inspiration. I could not be more pleased for the next generation of Martians who will reveal more and more to use about the Red Planet.