Pat Rawlings / NASA
In the novel "Mars Life," explorers like the ones shown in this speculative artwork
find evidence of long-gone intelligent life in the Red Planet's Tithonium Chasma.
Over the course of more than 45 years, and through more than 115 books, Ben Bova has been chronicling space exploration as fiction and fact. But in his latest novel, "Mars Life," Bova uses facts about the Red Planet - plus facts about the blue planet we live on - to weave a tale of interplanetary politics as well as scientific discovery.
In Bova's vision of the future, Earth's governments are struggling to cope with coastal upheavals brought on by global climate change and rising sea levels. A fundamentalist group known as New Morality is tightening its influence on political leaders and the media. A network of lunar settlements has become self-sufficient and declared its independence from Earth. And an outpost on Mars is hanging onto existence, under a management deal worked out between Navajo tribal leaders and financial backers back on Earth.
Living under conditions much like those experienced by Antarctic researchers today, explorers on the Red Planet follow up on archaeological evidence apparently left behind by an intelligent species that was wiped out millions of years ago - and hope that the anti-Mars, anti-Darwin activists of the New Morality movement won't get their funding cut off.
|Ben Bova is president
emeritus of the National
Space Society and a past
president of the Science
Fiction Writers of America.
When you talk with Bova, who turns 66 next month, don't expect him to stick to pure fiction. In his weekly column for the Naples Daily News, he often holds forth on political developments and how they relate to the scientific frontier. Just last weekend, in an opinion piece published by The Washington Post, he called on the next president to set up a loan guarantee program for solar power satellites.
"You can use the powerful technology we've forged over a half-century of space exploration to solve one major down-to-Earth problem - and become the most popular president since John F. Kennedy in the process," Bova wrote.
In a Q&A session, Bova talked about "Mars Life," solar power satellites, science, religion, politics ... the whole shebang. Here's an edited transcript:
'Cosmic Log: Does "Mars Life" reflect the way you think the world is heading? What led you to come up with this vision for interplanetary politics as well as science?
Ben Bova: I've been writing about the interaction of science and politics for more than 30 years. I think it's a fascinating area, full of drama, full of conflict, and full of opportunities for the future.
Q: So do you feel that your book reflects current trends? The idea that there's a fundamentalist group that is able to pull the strings in the background, and also the idea that the concern about global warming will grow, and that governments will be turning inward to cope with that? How do you go through the process of extrapolating current trends to come up with a vision of the future? Is this a fantasia on current events, or could this be a realistic scenario for how things will develop?
A: I'm trying to write a very realistic novel. In fact, I think of this novel as a historical novel that just hasn't happened yet. All the trends that I talk about are very much apparent today. We do have people trying to stop lines of research because they conflict with their religious views. We do have problems of climate change. And we do have people who want to explore the universe. Sometimes these various threads come into conflict.
You can't do big science without getting involved in politics – actually, two kinds of politics: the politics within the scientific community itself, and then the interaction with the larger political world, which determines what kind of funding you might be able to get, and how far you can go with your research.
Q: If there were some plot twists that you wanted to write into current events to move things more in the direction you'd like to see for the next 40 or 50 years, what would they be?
A: Gosh, you're asking me to write a novel!
Q: Yeah, you do the work for me … maybe I'll write it up! You tell me.
A: I think climate change is a very, very real thing. It's going to affect us more and more. The political arguments over whether climate change is caused by human beings or just a natural event are beside the point. Climate change is real, it's happening, and it's going to be accelerating. So we'd be smart to do whatever we can to alleviate it.
|"Mars Life" is a novel that touches
upon the search for alien life as well
as political and economic trends.
On the other hand, we do have the technology and the drive to expand through the solar system. We have been living now for almost 20-some years in a world where not all of the human race lives on Earth. We've had people living in space stations, orbiting the earth, constantly for the past 20 years or more. We have the technology to return to the moon and begin using the resources of the moon to help make life better on earth.
One of the things that we could do, and that I've advocated very strongly, is to build solar power satellites. Very large satellites that could collect solar energy in space, beam it back to the earth, and bring gigawatts of electrical energy to us, cleanly, without altering the atmosphere, without putting greenhouse gases into the air.
Space technology offers us a banquet, really, an enormous harvest of resources beyond the earth. More resources of energy and raw materials than the whole earth can provide to us. We have the tools to do this. We certainly have the need to do it. The human race is using up the earth's resources at a fearsome rate. And the novels I've been writing, like "Mars Life," are examples of how this might come to be.
Q: Why do you think that message hasn't sunk in with the general public?
A: People can watch the Olympics live from Beijing, and wonder what has space ever done for us? They don't realize they're seeing signals relayed by satellites. I live in Florida. We watch the weather satellites very, very closely, especially this time of year, when the hurricanes are brewing. Space technology has helped to produce the computer revolution, helped to change our lives. If you're using a GPS system, if you're unfortunate enough to have to be in an intensive-care unit in a hospital, if you'd like to go scuba diving, you are using technology derived from space. This has produced new industries, millions of new jobs, and yet people don't realize it – because the investment we make in space come out of tax dollars, but the profits we make from space go to private companies.
So although we have profited fivefold or tenfold for every dollar we've spent on space, the bookkeeping is a little out of line.
Q: It's a case of "what have you done for me lately," I suppose.
A: Exactly. That's one of the reasons why I advocate building solar power satellites, so that when someone asks, "What have you done for me lately," we can say, "We've helped lower your electricity bill. We've helped to stop greenhouse warming. We've stopped the enormous debt that we pay every year to import petroleum from overseas." Some of that money goes to fund terrorists and dictators. Solar power satellites are a contribution we can make to help solve very, very real problems right here down on Main Street.
Q: Often, when you start talking about these sorts of things, people ask why we have to put billions of dollars into these blue-sky technologies when we could be working on conservation and closer-to-the-ground energy strategies.
A: Well, you could build solar power satellites without spending a penny of tax money. Properly run, the program would encourage private investment. The government's role, I think, would be to build a demonstration model to prove that the technology works. And then all the government has to do is back long-term loans. Private industry will come in and put up the investment, and make a profit at it. Here is a technology that can help to solve our energy problems, and our environmental problems, and create profits and new jobs. And at the same time we'll be providing the infrastructure and the technology and the trained people that will allow us to return to the moon, to explore Mars, to find out if life exists elsewhere in the universe.
Q: Among space advocates, you can sometimes get into a discussion over whether it's worth going to the moon, or whether we should just go directly to Mars. In your novel, the moon is really the first off-world settlement that becomes totally independent of Earth. Is that why the step-by-step approach, going to the moon first, and then to Mars, would work better?
A: I think trying to prioritize your objectives for exploration is a political ploy that has served us very poorly. Space is a frontier. It's not a set of little islands that you visit here and there. It's a frontier that you develop. If we applied that kind of reasoning to the development of our Western frontier 100 or 150 years ago, we'd still be arguing over whether we wanted to build St. Louis or Chicago. You do it all. You do all that you can, and you reap the benefits from it. The moon has enormous resources to offer us. Mars is the farther objective, and the interest in Mars is really about whether life existed there or not.
Q: When you talk about the resources of the moon, some people focus on helium-3 as a fusion fuel – but I have a feeling you have something a little more concrete in mind.
A: Fifty percent of the moon is oxygen. Eighty percent of all the stuff we've ever lifted off the surface of the earth and put into space is oxygen – oxygen to help fuel the rocket engines, and oxygen for crews to breathe. If you could supply oxygen for the moon for space operations, the cost of space operations would go down 20 percent or more. There's one very humble but concrete resource.
You might get manufacturing on the moon, or manufacturing on orbit under weightless conditions. I've had guys from U.S. Steel, way back in the '60s, tell me that they could make steel alloys in weightlessness that would be much stronger and lighter than anything they could make on Earth. The reason for that is, under weightless conditions, the molten metals in the alloy mix together much more cleanly and the impurities bubble out.
Q: I wanted to push on and ask about Mars, because that's the central theme for the book. It's also a central theme in the search for life beyond Earth. You come up with a very intriguing scenario for an intelligent civilization that existed on Mars 65 million years ago. Experts might quibble over whether life existed on Mars 65 million years ago, or 3 billion years ago, and the idea of intelligent life is very controversial. But a lot of those scientists would bet that some sort of life did exist on Mars.
A: And some sort of life may exist on Mars now. Here on Earth, we have vast colonies of bacteria living miles below the surface, in total darkness, under temperatures and pressures that would destroy us. Those bacteria have probably been there since the beginning of Earth. You may have similar bacteria living underground on Mars. We know the surface of Mars is very harsh, very cold, arid, bathed in hard radiation. But half a mile or so below that surface, you may have lots of bacteria that have been living there for billions of years.
Now, in "Mars Life," I stretch things a bit: I say that perhaps there was an intelligent species on Mars, a species that got wiped out in a giant meteor strike much as the dinosaurs on Earth were wiped out by a meteor strike. Most scientists would say that's absurd. But I would respond that you can't prove it's wrong until you go to Mars and look. I'm hoping to encourage people to get there.
What we'll find on Mars, I think, is the fact that life is not restricted to Earth. We'll find out that life is as commonplace as rocks and stars. There are many people with very conservative religious convictions here on Earth who won't want that information brought out. They're afraid that it contradicts their views, and therefore they'll do just about anything to stop us from going to Mars and finding out whether it's true.
Q: That was an intriguing psychological aspect of the book – that people will find any way to avoid coming to a conclusion that doesn't fit with their pre-existing patterns. And yet, some people are still able to get out from under those restrictions and explore.
A: To be a successful scientist, you've also got to be a successful politician. You've got to be able to get people to support you, both financially and politically. Scientists are driven to explore and find new things, and this is why they often get themselves into trouble with religious leaders. Most of these institutions that societies have created are backward-looking. They are attempts to keep tomorrow exactly the way yesterday was. If you think of religion, or of the law, or of most of our customs, we are trying to preserve the status quo. But science is always looking for new stuff. Science is always breaking the mold, finding new things, upsetting ideas. Therefore, people not only fear science, they get upset and actively try to stop it.
You have to know how to get the support you need to do the work you want to do. It's like an artist looking for a patron: Michelangelo had to find the pope and get his support to do the art he wanted to do. Today, the patrons of the sciences, almost universally, are major national governments. Scientists have to learn how to get along with the politicians. It's an uneasy relationship. And that's what my novel "Mars Life" is about, among other things.
Q: Are you hopeful or pessimistic about the way scientists are interacting with those other institutions in society?
A: Oh, I'm very hopeful. If you look over the long history of the human race, we have solved much tougher problems than this. Human beings are very resourceful. I have no doubt that we will expand through the solar system. As I said before, I don't regard "Mars Life" and the other novels I've written over the past 20 or 30 years as science fiction. I see them as historical novels that haven't happened yet. So hang in for a while, and they'll come true … at least in part.
For a nonfiction view of the setting for Bova's fictional Mars base, Tithonium Chasma, check out this satellite picture from Europe's Mars Express orbiter. For a nonfiction treatment of the subject of astrobiology, Bova recommends one of his own books, "Faint Echoes, Distant Stars." And for a nonfiction roundup of Mars news, click on over to our special section, "Return to the Red Planet."