Become a Member

Turner on Mars

written by Stuart Atkinson on January 28, 2006 | contact me
number of views: 76965 |   printable version (text) (PDF)

A couple of affectionate astronauts getting ready to explore (Mars?!)
A couple of affectionate astronauts getting ready to explore (Mars?!)
Credit: 1987 Marilynn Flynn
Today we've grown used to exploring faraway places from the comfort of our homes. Thanks to satellites, digital technology and TV; the sky really is no limit anymore. We can go, and virtually "be", anywhere we want to be. Today, when the wanderlust hits you, there's no need to grab a rucksack and pack it with a first aid kit, camera and passport; just by clicking buttons on the TV remote we can embark on a personalised world tour without even putting down our cup of coffee. Want to watch the Sun setting behind Mt Fuji? Tune into the Travel Channel at 7pm. Always wanted to see the Moon rising up out of the ghostly mists swirling in the depths of the Grand Canyon? National Geographic has it in widesecreen glory an hour later. Your friends can even “virtually” take you with them on their holidays to far-flung places, simply by emailing you snaps from their mobile phone.

And now, with our camera-laden space probes flitting around the Solar System like fragile metal butterflies, we can safely and sagely gaze down on the volcanoes, canyons and craters of alien worlds as we sip a cappuccino at our desk during our lunch break…

Let’s face it, over the past year or so we armchair astronauts have been spoiled rotten. Every day there have been stunning new pictures from Mars and Saturn to enjoy. Even if we’re not in a job that allows us to sneak online in our break time to check-out the latest raw images from Spirit, Opportunity or Cassini, we know they’ll be there to enjoy when we get home, and since Spirit landed in Gusev crater in January 2004 we’ve done just that in our tens of thousands, feverishly click-click-clicking our mouse buttons to take us to the JPL, Exploratorium and countless unofficial websites which display the Big Country landscapes of Gusev and Meridiani.

Now we have Cassini’s images of Saturn to astound us, too. Every time we scroll down our list of Favourites and select the Cassini or Ciclops homepages we’re smacked in the face with pictures of the planet’s moons, rings and weather systems more stunning than the last. Many of these – such as the image of Mimas silhouetted against a duck-egg blue Saturn, and the close-ups of Enceladus’s bizarre surface – are now deservedly being called “Classics”, up there with the “Earthrise” picture and the Hubble’s “Pillars of Creation”.

And all the while, without a hint of jealousy, and unaware of its impending fiery death, faithful old Hubble itself has continued to send back its own wonders, showing us the ethereal, wispy, misty hearts of planetary nebulae and the star-frothed arms of galaxies by the million, allowing us to be not just interplanetary but intergalactic sightseers…

Yes, in the 21st century exploring is comfortable, safe and easy. We can witness discovery, and history being made, remotely, and in real time. We can go anywhere we want to without even pulling on our hiking boots.

But of course, it wasn't always so.

In centuries past, explorers carried boxes of paints instead of mobile phones, easels instead of PDAs, sketchpads instead of laptops. Instead of snapping away at a landscape with a digital camera and posting their pictures onto their website for everyone to see instantly, they sat down on a boulder or a log and patiently drew or painted what they saw, then carefully packed their work away and continued on their journey, slowly building-up a portfolio of images which would be sent back home many months if not years later. The Voyagers and Pathfinders of two centuries ago, who opened up the frontiers of that age, were artists: men, and women, stained with paint, who lovingly recorded what they saw and shared their experiences with others, and left us an incredible and rich heritage in the process.

And today, as the Vision for Space Exploration gives us hope of actually seeing men and women flying to Mars in our own lifetimes, on the greatest voyage of discovery and exploration ever undertaken, I can't help thinking that in this hi-tech, Industrial Light & Magic age we should consider going back to basics and, whilst looking to the future, step back in time a couple of centuries.

We should send an artist to Mars.

But why? What have old-fashioned paints, pens and crayons got to offer us in this brave new digital age? How can a man, or woman, armed with just a box of watercolours, possibly hope to compete with the unblinking CCD eyes of a Spirit or Opportunity, which can take images at different wavelengths, zoom-in on distant features and even take images in 3D?

Well, for one thing, while it's true to say that photographs are incredibly accurate when it comes to recording physical details of a place, they can be remarkably soulless, and cold. Anyone who's ever excitedly opened up their envelope of holiday snaps, looking forward to seeing again the spectacular mountains or beautiful sunsets they saw on their vacation, only to be disappointed by what they find on the prints, knows that photographs can never hope to even come close to capturing the beauty or drama of a scene, or a place.

But a drawing, or a painting can capture the feel of a place in a way no photo can ever hope to. True, photos can be beautiful, and give a feel for the beauty of a place, but only a painting can capture its essence. Of course, there are exceptions. Ansell Adams' work is literally breathtaking, and other photographers like Galen Rowell have taken incredible, enduring images. But only a painting can accurately portray the three-dimensional nature of a landscape, or the quality of the light there, the atmosphere.

You don't believe me? Do a Google image search right now, and compare even the most beautiful Ansell Adams photo ever taken of Yosemite Valley with one of the 19th century paintings of Albert Bierstadt. I rest my case.

Even in this age of instant digital photography, web cams and streaming video, many people believe that an exotic, distant land or scene can only really be seen, and appreciated, as a real place when it's been drawn or painted by an artist. I'm one of them. And I sincerely believe that this is true for Mars, too. We've "seen" the surface of Mars through the eyes of three space probes now, and everyone who's ever opened an astronomy book or magazine knows that Mars' surface is covered with rocks, dust dunes and hummocks, all sheltering beneath a salmon- or caramel- or lavender-coloured sky, depending on the time of day. They know that it looks like Death Valley, but with all the distracting blue and green removed and even the tiniest traces of water, and life, erased. But that's all they know, that's all they can compare it to. There's no experience there, no appreciation of the light, or the essence of the place, no hint of what it would be like to actually stand there and hear the thin wind rasping over one's faceplate, or see the shrunken Sun fade as it is covered by a twisting dust devil.

Thanks to the early photos of Viking and Pathfinder, and now the landscapes returned by Spirit and Opportunity, people think of Mars as a dead, rocky desert, and that's it. They don't see it as a real place - no, come on, let's not kid ourselves they do. And I really don't think they will until someone has been there and drawn, or painted, what they see. Mars will remain philosophically and psychologically distant, and alien, to the vast majority of people, until it has its portrait painted.

It's true to say that the exploration and colonisation of Mars is often compared to the "taming" of the so-called "Wild West". And although the analogy is very strained in some regards, in others it is very accurate, especially - as Oliver Morton says in his superb book "Mapping Mars" - when it comes to the role of the artist. Centuries ago, the mountains, valleys and coasts of California were as distant and alien to the people of New York as the mountains, valleys and volcanoes of Mars are to us here on Earth today. It was the artists who brought the West's stunning landscapes - previously described only in the words of letters and journals sent or brought home by explorers - to life for the masses. Indeed, many think that the colonisation of the US was driven, at least in part, by the excitement generated by the paintings and sketches made by the artists who accompanied the first epic expeditions across the country; their pictures not only educated people about the exotic animals and stunning landscapes of the untamed wildernesses which existed on the other side of the country, they inspired many to head west and see them - and exploit them - for themselves.

Between 1564 and 1565, French artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues drew the ceremonies and rituals performed by the Native American Indian tribes in and around Florida. The sensation caused back in Europe by his depiction of a band of stark naked warriors fighting an enormous alligator with little more than a long wooden stake and clubs can only be guessed at! And in the early 1580s, when Sir Walter Raleigh was establishing his Roanoke colony in Virginia, he even placed it under the command of an artist. John White, a veteran New World explorer - even before joining Raleigh in his first attempt to establish a foothold in the New World he had accompanied Martin Frobisher on his expedition - painted the colony's landscapes and wildlife, as well as the settlements and customs of the local native American tribes; when his watercolour paintings of the Indians hunting turtles and cooking fish in their nearby town of Secota were published back in England in 1590 they brought the "New World" vividly to life - and, as Raleigh had hoped they would, they also convinced people that the New World was a place of prosperity and adventure, thus ensuring continuing financial support for his endeavours. Fund-raising aside, it's a testimony to the significance and importance of his work that White's book of Roanoke paintings was re-published no less than seventeen times before the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America thirty years later, in 1620.

As the years passed, artists continued to play a vital role in the settlement of America, inspiring and informing the growing population about the amazing sights to be seen out on the edge of the frontier. By 1804, the leading edge of the wave of exploration had almost reached the west coast, and when Lewis and Clark were despatched by Jefferson on their epic trek in search of the North West Passage, they packed paints and paper as well as muskets and maps.

Meriwether Lewis was a talented artist, and his illustrated journal contains countless beautiful drawings of the wildlife they encountered along the way. Lewis and Clark recorded everything living that they saw - their journals contain page after page of sketches of birds, fish and plants - but sadly only a very few sketches of the landscapes they witnessed seem to have survived, or even to have been made in the first place. But many artists followed in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, ensuring that the stunning Great Plains wildernesses the two explorers had encountered were immortalised on canvas, and preserved for future generations of historians and researchers. Among them was George Catlin, a New York portrait painter who felt so moved by Lewis and Clark's descriptions of what they had seen that he vowed to travel west and ensure the wilderness was painted, and thus preserved, before it was lost forever by the wave of settlement. After spending four years travelling among the plains Indians - living and working with the Pawnee, Blackfoot, Crow, Comanche and others - Catlin was one of the first people to sound alarm bells at the disappearance of the Indian tribes, and the huge buffalo herds which supported them.

Some artists went to extreme measures to capture the beauty of the wilderness, embarking upon breathtakingly-ambitious large-scale projects which modern day painters would not even dare attempt. Perhaps the most remarkable of these artistic pioneers was John Banvard, who spent six years creating a painting of the course of the Mississippi river no less than 370 metres long! When completed, the painting was so big that it could not be displayed in its entirety - no museum or gallery was big enough to house it. Instead, Banvard slowly unfurled it on a stage, in front of stunned audiences. As the painting slowly unwound from its two upright revolving cylinders, giving the audience the impression of travelling down the river, Banvard gave a running commentary, taking great delight in recounting tales of the sights he had seen and people he had met on his 40 day expedition down the great river. After a slow start, Banvard's panorama was an enormous success; during its first seven months at Boston, Banvard collected almost $50,000 in admissions from finely dressed city-dwellers wishing to see the frontier for themselves.

Twenty years after Banvard's panorama was first unfurled, perhaps the most famous American naturalist of all, John Muir, was beginning to declare the beauty of Yosemite Valley to the world, and using sketches and drawings to make his case. Yosemite had first been seen by non-natives in 1833, but it wasn't until 1851 that a squad of soldiers, pursuing an Indian raiding party, actually explored and recorded the valley's stunning appearance in detail. Muir fell in love with the valley, and, as everyone knows, spent many years there, protecting and preserving its unique beauty, a beauty which was inevitably recorded by many artists at the time. Perhaps the most stunning images of Yosemite Valley were made by Albert Bierstadt, whose use of light and shade resulted in pictures showing the valley and its granite monoliths bathed in almost unbelievable glory. Some have accused Bierstadt of being over-sentimental, of representing "a nation's last gasp of romanticism before the railroad ate into the countryside", but I prefer to think of his work as powerful and evocative. True, it is hardly photographically realistic - sunsets are never as dramatic as those seen in Bierstadt's Yosemite or Rocky Mountain paintings - but they make us wish nature was that dramatic, and sunsets were that glorious.

After Bierstadt, many other artists dedicated themselves to recording the stunning wilderness landscapes of North America, and their paintings, when displayed in galleries and museums in the new, bustling cities, almost certainly inspired more and more settlers to journey to those same wildernesses in search of a new life. The gaping chasms of the Grand Canyon and the snow-capped peaks of the mountain ranges were painted by William Holmes and Thomas Moran; artists of the Hudson River School - among them Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church - immortalised the mountains, plains and riverscapes of the frontier in spectacular colours and stunning realism.

Those frontier landscapes are gone now, lost forever behind visitor information plaques, fencing and signs for car parking and postcard stalls. And Mars will be no different. In centuries' time the yawning chasms of Valles Marineris, the cloud-veiled peaks of Olympus Mons and the boulder-littered plains of Arabia and Utopia will be gone, changed beyond recognition by the building of settlements and, perhaps, the onset of terraforming. But just as we still have the work of Bierstadt, Muir, Cole and Church to take us back in time and show us what the New World was like when it really was new, we'll have Viking and Pathfinder photos, and the photos of the first explorers, to show us what Mars used to be like. But will they be enough? I don't think so. Photos can only show, and say, so much. What's needed is for Mars to be portrayed - and, thus, preserved - in the same way the wildernesses of the New World were in their time. Mars needs its own Bierstadts, Muirs and Coles…

In fact, it already has them - in a way. Today, a new generation of painters is inspiring people to undertake long, dangerous journeys to enable them to gaze upon incredible landscapes by painting what they would see there - space artists. Space probes have now visited every planet in our Solar System except one (Pluto) and sent back millions if not tens of millions of photographs of their surfaces, clouds and moons. But it is the work of the space artists which makes us long, and ache, for the chance to bound across Mars' boulder-strewn Ares Valles, wade into the gently-lapping methane waves off the beaches on Titan, or stand on the icy surface of Mimas and look up to see Saturn's rings cutting the bloated butterscotch-hued world in half like a golden guillotine blade.

Once quarantined to space-related books, today space art is now commonly featured in magazines, on websites and even in advertising too. No space mission proposal is complete without stunning space art visions of the hardware in orbit, or on its target moon or planet's surface. Even a quick trawl through a handful of NASA sites will reveal dozens of pieces of breathtaking space art, visions of how we will one day travel to the Moon, or Mars, or the stars beyond. But it is the space artist's depiction of landscapes in our own solar system that continue to thrill us the most, and there have been many books published dealing with just that.

Two of the most important were "The Grand Tour" and "Out Of The Cradle", both of which featured the work of two of the field's most accomplished and popular space artists, William K Hartmann and Ron Miller. William K Hartmann's work is widely known and admired. Painstakingly scientifically accurate in its content, Hartmann's work is typically both colourful and faithful to its subject: planetary surfaces, moons and landscapes are all shown accurately and virtually place you there. Having said that, Hartmann's work can also, occasionally, be quite stylised, as is the case with his recent depiction of the eruption of a martian volcano. As is fitting for a painting which was intended as a homage to the aforementioned pioneer painter Frederic Edwin Church, the billowing volcanic plume is shown burning blood-red in the light of a fading martian sunset, silhouetted against an angry, purple-blue sky.

But for me, Hartmann's partner in "The Grand Tour" and "Out Of The Cradle", Ron Miller, is the more pleasing artist. Under rated, and some might say over-shadowed by Hartmann, Miller's paintings have more heart and more soul. His painting of a martian sunset on page 81 of "Grand Tour" is both scientifically accurate and pleasing to the eye, full of the subtlety that is sometimes missing from Hartmann's; the addition of silvery-white noctilucent clouds above the sunset is quite magical…

There is a third member of the artistic team on "Out Of The Cradle", who I feel is one of the most under-rated space artists of all. Pamela Lee's work skilfully and effortlessly combines scientific realism with human wonder and passion. Where others take such great pains to show each rock, boulder and dust grain in aching realism, Lee ensures her audience is drawn into the picture - and the future the picture represents and hints at as being possible - by placing human figures in her landscapes, giving both a sense of scale and of humility. Her wonderful painting "Martian Arches Natural Monument" ("…Cradle", p120) shows a space suited martian explorer standing on a ledge overlooking a dried-up river spanned by several fragile-looking rock 'bridges', and no-one seeing it can fail to ache to want to go and see such a sight for themselves.

If Lee's paintings have a common theme it's Possibility; her work strives to show us just what amazing things will be possible in the future if space exploration is supported, and she shows us this by always making her paintings human, by making people, not rocks or boulders, the most important features in them. The people are real, everyday, familiar, it is their location, their surroundings, which are alien and futuristic. In "Cradle" we see the three best examples of this personalisation of space and the future of space exploration. Page 89's "Visiting Tranquillity Monument" is one of her most touching and evocative paintings, showing the long-abandoned Apollo 11 landing site reflected in the helmet visors of a pair of future lunar settlers, a mother and her child. Slightly more saccharine, but just as evocative, is the page 60 painting of a naked baby floating in the zero-g environment of a space station with the blue and white Earth shining through the portal behind them. "Virginia Dare…?" asks Lee, comparing the infant to the first immigrant baby born in the US. The baby's gurgling smile, and the smile of pure pride on its mother's face, shows us the promise of the future.

The painting "Death on Mars" shows us the flip-side of space exploration - the ever-present danger and risk of death: an astronaut's body lies almost covered by wind-blown martian dust, his visor shattered, showing us that Mars will not give up its secrets without a fight, or without exacting a cost on the men and women brave enough to set foot on it. All these paintings, and many of Lee's others, are rallying calls to the future, and to the frontier, in just the same way as the paintings of the pioneer artists of the 1800s were.

Just as there are many different schools of what one might call "classic" painting - Impressionism, Romanticism etc - there are different schools of space art. Some artists, like Kim Poor, strive to make their work as photographically realistic as possible, and to present us with the same views we would enjoy if we actually journeyed into space and peered out at a planet, moon or comet through our spacecraft window. British space artist David Hardy's work is perhaps less photographically realistic than some, and occasionally strays - delightfully - into fantasy. One of his most striking and widely-admired works, "The Way It Should Have Been", combines fact with fantasy by depicting an Apollo-type lander on the Moon's surface, with its crew bounding over to the foot of a nearby mountain range… all very familiar, of course… only the mountains are not the gently rolling hills of the real Moon, they are the towering, jagged peaks of the pre-Space Age Moon, when, inspired by the great space artist Chesley Bonnestell's visions, we all believed the Moon to be a far more exotic place than probes eventually revealed it to be. Another of Hardy's major works, "Planet of Proxima Centauri" shows that his hypothetical alien worlds have a quite sublime beauty, and features a stunning red and orange alien landscape, with a sky and clouds almost worthy of Bierstadt or Cole.

Other artists are less enslaved by the need for geological realism and instead give us scenes from future spacefarers' everyday lives. MariLynn Flynn's work focuses on the uniquely human aspects of space travel, and of living in space. Her touching picture "I Love An Astronaut" features an astronaut couple; with the woman looking into the eyes of her clearly-exhausted partner we are reminded that space is a place best explored by people, not machines, and however far technology advances, the real, hard work will always be done by men and women like these.

One of the most accomplished and well-known space artists is Pat Rawlings, whose work illustrates countless NASA mission plans and science publications. Rawlings is a true visionary with an obvious passion for manned space exploration, and skilfully combines practical and believable future hardware with obviously enthusiastic explorers. "Rawlings" is the name you'll see signed on two of the most famous pieces of space art ever created. "First Light" is a breathtaking image - a pair of astronauts standing, exposed, on the top of a Valles Marineris ledge at dawn, with the canyons below and around them wreathed in mist. And his image of flag-carrying astronauts approaching the Viking 1 lander has been used in so many books and magazine articles about the manned exploration of Mars that it's impossible to try and count them.

The drawback, of course, is that unlike their pioneer predecessors, space artists cannot paint with the benefit of personal experience; although the quality and accuracy of their work might suggest otherwise, very few space artists have actually been into space. The obvious exception is Alexei Leonov, the first human to ever walk in space. His paintings have thrilled space-art lovers - among them Arthur C Clarke - for decades. Likewise, the work of US astronaut Alan Bean, who flew to the Moon on the Apollo 12 mission, is stunning, combining a genuine love of space travel with a fine technique and appreciation of light, shade and tone. Perhaps surprisingly for someone with a scientific background, Bean does not belong to the photographic-realism school of Rawlings and Poor, instead he has a much more Impressionistic style; his painting "Conquistadors", showing two Apollo astronauts in close up, is rendered in shades of green and blue, and with each brush stroke clearly visible it is much more reminiscent of a Monet or a Mary Cassatt than a NASA photo.

But maybe it doesn't matter that they haven't seen their subjects with their own eyes, because modern space artists have one thing in common with their 18th and 19th century predecessors - they show us what lies in our future, what's hiding just around the corner of possibility, if we just make the effort to get off our backsides and Make It Happen. They let us step briefly into the space boots of future generations of explorers, and give us sneak previews of the "Must See" tourist views of the next century. Many have even followed the example of the panorama painters like Benvard and created large scale works for museums and planetaria: Robert T. McCall's huge panoramas are enjoyed by thousands of visitors to the Smithsonian every year, and Jon Lomberg's stunning portrait of our Milky Way galaxy shows us just how insignificant a part of the Universe we are.

So, am I suggesting sending a space artist to Mars? Well, I'm sure that Hardy, Miller, Lee and Rawlings would jump at the chance, but that's sadly not really practical. No. What I'm suggesting is simply that when the time comes to select the crew of any Mars 1 mission, the selectors should seriously consider including a crewman or woman with proven artistic skill, and experience, because they'll be able to make an invaluable contribution to the mission. Not just because their work would personalise the experience for the people back on Earth, like the pioneer artists did for the city dwellers in the 1800s, but because they'll be a valuable "back-up system" in their own right. After all, machines fail and break, that's what machines - every machine, from your CD player to a cooker to a space shuttle - do, and if a camera fails on the first manned Mars expedition, depriving the world of priceless (and unrepeatable) pictures, wouldn't it be a relief - and make sense - to have someone there to manually record what the camera missed? Ask Alan "Camera Trasher" Bean about the wisdom of that… ;-)

If Mars truly is a New World, then it, and our exploration and colonisation of it, deserves to be recorded and preserved faithfully and accurately, with passion and heart, not just on hundreds or thousands of jpg's or gif's. There's still a place for photographs. Browsing through any of the large format space-themed books currently available - NEW MOON, SHUTTLE, BLUE PLANET, BEYOND etc - shows just how stunning space photography can be, and there will be breathtaking photos taken on Mars too.. The historic "first footprint" photo will stop the world in its tracks; the inevitable "crew saluting the flag in front of the lander" photo will have as much impact as the famous photo of Aldrin standing on the Moon's surface, with First Man On The Moon Armstrong little more than an amorphous white blob reflected in his faceplate. And that long-awaited first photo of Earth shining in the martian dusk sky will be heart-stoppingly dramatic and beautiful, and will be blown-up on the front page of every newspaper on the planet before being cut out and pinned-up on a billion office and bedroom walls.

But I still believe that the real Mars, the true Mars, will be captured in slow motion, by the careful movement of a brush across a sheet of paper or canvas, and not by the cold click of a camera shutter.

Of course, even if they're not trained artists, our brave martian explorers will feel moved to make sketches and drawings of what they see anyway, they won't need prompting. And their efforts will be well worth seeing and sharing, giving us priceless glimpses into the day-to-day life of the crew and their incredible new home. But to have a genuine artist there will give us so much more.

In the future, Mars will have its own artists, I have no doubt of that. Just as settlers on the pioneering frontier grew to love their rugged land, and felt inspired and moved to record it on canvas, so will the martian colonists of the mid 21st century, and just as Bierstadt, Catlin, Muir and Lewis did two centuries earlier they will send back images of the new frontier to the people back home. Some will be photographically realistic, some more sentimental and romanticised, but each one will shout "How beautiful it is here! Look! See the mountains, and the valleys? This is our home!"… and whisper, quietly, "…and it could be yours too…"

But maybe it will take a little more time than that for the first truly faithful images of Mars to be made. Perhaps those settlers and colonists will still be so tied to Earth that they will always have images of their distant blue-and-green, soaking wet Home world in their minds as they paint the landscapes of their adopted home. Perhaps a colonist painting the Viking probe standing on Chryse Planitia will be unable to purge his or her mind of memories or images of Arizona, or Death Valley. Will an Earth-born artist standing on the edge of Valles Marineris really be able to detach themselves from memories of sightseeing trips to the Grand Canyon, and do Mars' own "grand canyon" justice? I'm not at all sure. We compare new sights to old sights, we can't help it, it's just the way we're programmed. When you return from holiday and are quizzed by friends about what you saw, you naturally tell them how the landscape differed to the one around you at home, or how much better / bigger / more colourful your destination was…

I can't help thinking that the first true images of Mars will not be painted by settlers, but by their children, born on Mars. Mars will only be painted faithfully by the first Martians.

Because Martians will be starting with a clean slate - or rather, a clean canvas. They will have grown up on a world, and surrounded by landscapes, devoid of blues, greens and other terrestrial tones. Their experiences will all be tinted red, brown and gold. Unlike their parents they won’t miss blue skies, fluffy white clouds or rainbows because they'll never have seen them, except perhaps in books and on photos. They'll have grown up watching and taking delight in Mars' own unique rose-pink skies, towering tsunami-like dust storms and endless terracotta-coloured desert plains. And just as our eyes have been subconsciously "trained" to distinguish between countless different shades of green and blue, their eyes will see a dozen different shades of red or brown or tan for every one we can see. In a way their parents could never hope to, they'll appreciate the way the winds send low waves of hissing sand whispering and rippling up and down the dunes of Hellas; they'll be able to put a name to each and every different shade of silver and blue found in the haloes that surround the shrunken Sun at dawn or dusk. They'll see and appreciate Mars in the way that Muir saw Yosemite, and Bierstadt saw the Rocky Mountains.

And that means that some wonderful treats await us in the future. Try and imagine how beautifully a martian Monet will capture the subtle colours and textures of a colony of blue and green algae and lichen clinging to the wet walls of a cave far beneath Argyre, or clustered around the cone of a steaming volcanic vent hidden-away in the maze-like interior of Noctis Labyrinthus. How breathtaking will the work be of a martian Turner, intent on capturing the spectacle of a sunset as seen from the shadowed depths of Valles Marineris? Just imagine almost-biblical shafts of sunlight cutting through the undulating banks of fog and mist…

And try to imagine, just for a moment, how a martian Frederic Edwin Church will paint the ten-mile high, billowing storm clouds of a Mars in the first painful throes of terraformation. Imagine standing in a gallery here on Earth and staring at a painting showing the drama and power of the long-awaited first rains falling from a bloated, angry sky…

But it won't stop there. One day those same native martian artists will travel to Earth, paint the landscapes they see here and send their work back home, to Mars. Just take a moment to think what that means…

Imagine it's 2061, and Halley's Comet is shining in the sky above a blossoming Mars colony, forty years after the first manned landing. Inside the colony's museum crowds of curious native martians are gathered in the art gallery, clustered around a dozen new paintings by the most popular martian artists. But these paintings are different: they have just arrived on the cycle-ship from Earth. Instead of showing the endless rocky plains of Utopia, or the mist-wreathed peaks of Pavonis and Arsia they show the monolithic cliffs of Yosemite Valley, the snow-capped, dinosaur-spine peaks of the Rocky Mountains, and the emerald and azure surge of the Pacific ocean slamming itself against the rocks of a Californian beach. The martians stare at the paintings with open-mouthed wonder, asking each other if such exotic, alien places could really exist… and if they do, wouldn't it be an amazing adventure to go and see them for themselves..?

And so Earth has become the martians' frontier, their New World. The circle is complete.

That's in the far future of course, and at the moment even the day of the First Landing seems so far away that it's almost tempting to believe we won't even see it. But we must have patience. And faith. We will find more water. We will find life, I'm sure of it. And when we do then things will start happening. Soon we will be locating and mapping landing sites, selecting and training astronauts - and designing and building spaceships. I think we should make sure there's room inside them for a box of paints.

If history is anything to go by, it would be a wise investment.

Current Rating: 7.30 (13 votes)