My Favorite Martian

In his guidebook to the Red Planet, Tucson's William K. Hartmann writes like a native.

Add up your frequent-flyer miles and start packing, because this month, Mars is only 34 million miles away--the closest it's been to Earth in thousands of years.

Leave room in your suitcase, right beside the thermal underwear, sand goggles and oxygen for the essential book for interplanetary tourists: William K. Hartmann's A Traveler's Guide to Mars.

Hartmann is a senior scientist at Tucson's Planetary Science Institute, and he's participating (feet planted in terra firma) in the U.S. Mars Global Surveyor Mission. But you have to wonder when the guy finds time to do research.

In 1998, he won the first Carl Sagan Medal awarded by the American Astronomical Society for his efforts to popularize planetary science. He got that not by contributing technical articles to obscure scholarly journals (although Hartmann has done plenty of that), but by writing seven (Mars makes eight) popular books about space, the planets, the history of Earth and our own Sonoran Desert.

He's also written two novels: Mars Underground (about guess what), and Cities of Gold, a story of the ancient and modern Southwest (excerpted last year in the Tucson Weekly, but not available online).

He has also painted dozens of astronomical and terrestrial scenes--two of the paintings commissioned by NASA. Conspiracy theorists will be delighted to note that he was a photo analyst for the House Select Committee on Assassinations and the U.S. Air Force UFO team.

Oh, and through his international scientific and artistic connections, he helped arrange the American premiere, by the Tucson Symphony, of a symphony by Russian composer Rostislav Boiko, and about 20 years ago he was one of the writers and hosts of a KUAT-FM series about film music.

The trip to Mars will be long, so if nothing else, Bill Hartmann will be an entertaining travel companion.

Somehow, Hartmann has squeezed a good bit of actual planetary science work into his schedule. He's made intensive studies of, among other things, the moon's craters, our solar system's asteroid belt and the surface of Mars. Hartmann was one of the scientists who, sifting through images from the Mariner 9 Mars mapping mission in 1971-72, discovered the planet's dry river channels and volcanoes. A few years later, he was the lead author of what is now the most widely accepted theory of the formation of Earth's moon (a huge chunk of planet embryo slammed into the Earth, ejecting matter from our mantle that coalesced into the moon).

So not only is Hartmann a fun guy to hitch an interplanetary ride with, but his science is rock-solid.

He says it isn't particularly difficult to move back and forth between writing science papers, textbooks, popular books and novels.

"It isn't switching gears so much as getting a chance to use part of my mind that isn't getting used otherwise," he says. "Besides, novelists are like scientists of the human soul, so writing a novel isn't that much of a stretch for me."

A Traveler's Guide to Mars, despite its fanciful conceit of being a sightseeing resource for tourists, is a serious science book for general readers. Hartmann skips from one photogenic region of the planet to another (and beautiful color photos abound, as well as some of Hartmann's own speculative paintings), but he manages to produce a coherent history of Mars' development and a narrative of Mars observation and automated exploration--which until the 1990s was largely a story of misinterpretation and rocketry disaster.

Earth-based guidebooks start going out of date the day they're printed, as restaurants close and tourist attractions change their admission prices. That's not a problem on Mars, but with new data coming in all the time--at least three big Mars missions are in progress over the next couple of years--one might fear that Hartmann's Traveler's Guide may soon be as outdated as any old Baedeker.

"In one sense, this will never be out of date," Hartmann contends, "because it's a report on what we know about these places on Mars now. We've mapped the geography and can see things the size of a small bus, so that information is fixed. It's some of the more conceptual things that are in flux. Is there water on Mars? If there is, are there microbes in it? These ideas may change as we get more information."

Hartmann predicts that humans may set foot on Mars in 20 years; they'll be scientists, though, not tourists. So if you want to see a little bit of Mars on Earth right now, where should you go? Not far, says Hartmann.

"Try the Santa Cruz riverbed," he says. "It's amazing how some features on Mars look like the teardrop erosion features you see on the floor of the Santa Cruz after a flood. Or go to Meteor Crater (near Flagstaff), which is a very-well-preserved version of something you see all over Mars. Or go to Cabeza Prieta (National Wildlife Refuge), or the Pinacates volcanic field, or Rocky Point, and look at the dunes and the windblown dust features, which are a lot like what you find on Mars. Just fly east out of Tucson, and you'll fly over Willcox Playa and the lava flows and craters south of El Paso, which are really Mars-like voids."

A hundred years ago, many reputable scientists peering through inadequate telescopes speculated that Mars was covered with vegetation and laced with artificial-looking canals. The advancing and receding vegetation turned out to be massive seasonal dust storms, and the canals turned out to be quite different features (although there are newly found, spidery old watercourses cutting through much of the Martian terrain). Information provided by NASA landers in the 1970s suggested that Mars was sterile, but data transmitted by orbiters 20 years later now lead some scientists to believe Mars may hold life--not little green men, but perhaps little green microbes.

Hartmann says it's unfair to be hard on earlier scientists who got things wrong. "Science isn't randomly theorizing about things," he says. "In science, you ask questions of nature, and nature comes back at you with answers. Once we ask the right questions, we get better and better answers."

He worries that too few people will be asking those questions in the coming generations. "Kids are exposed to less natural history now because our society is so entertainment-based," he complains. "We don't pursue interests; we just want to push a button and be entertained. So it's especially important for us scientists to do a better job of making science interesting to people."

If A Traveler's Guide to Mars doesn't accomplish that, we'll have to start wondering if there's sentient life on Earth.

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