Since ancient astronomers first looked to the heavens, man has harboured a fascination with Mars. Named for the Roman God of war, the icy red planet has ignited the human imagination for centuries. Popular culture brims with imaginings of the planet and its secrets. From ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, to Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’, our obsession with fictionalising and envisaging a new human frontier shows few signs of slowing down.
By the turn of the Twentieth century, Mars Fever was in full swing. The Red Planet was parachuted into public consciousness after the astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported noticing large ‘canali’ on the planet; a mistranslation then led to the widespread belief that canals had been discovered. It stood to reason that these canals must have been designed by a species both intelligent and innovative: Martians. These revelations came a few years after the completion of the Suez Canal; a remarkable feat at the time. Perhaps, it was thought, we had neighbours with similar engineering capacities to ourselves.
Mars may once have harboured life, although likely not as envisaged. Schiaprelli actually found channels on the planet’s surface; a discovery with significantly fewer implications. Regardless, our preoccupations have changed. We are less intrigued about the planet’s past, than by the possibilities of its future. Elon Musk just unveiled a new SpaceX spaceship, designed to carry humans to Mars, while a survey by the Institute of Engineering and Technology found that 48% of under-16’s believe they will live to see humans colonise Mars. But could, or should, we really attempt to do so?
This is the question posed, and answered with thrilling optimism, by the Design Museum’s latest immersive exhibition. From models of 3D printed Martian settlements, to prototypes of Martian clothing (think futuristic Balenciaga), to unseen footage from the planet’s surface, Moving to Mars offers an inspirational journey through colony design.
And while similarly labelled experiences can feel more like toe-dipping than full scale immersion, the exhibit succeeds in its multi-sensory endeavour. A faint, metallic whiff is apparent; presumably, this is what Mars smells like. The exhibition is, as a whole, an astonishing testament to human ingenuity, at its most stylish.
It is posited that after settling on Mars, some form of post-human would evolve. As a species, we are highly adaptable. But those who take the first steps, the pioneering generations of interplanetary settlers, are likely to have a difficult time. Our own planet is currently playing host to a global mental health crisis. The fragility of our sanity feels more apparent than ever. It is right that the collection doesn’t shy away from asking ‘ could Generation Mars stay safe and sane’?
The atmosphere on Mars is hostile, its landscape destitute and void of greenery. The psychological impact on settlers is likely to be devastating. One of the most thought-provoking contributions, then, comes from Royal College of Art graduate Anna Tavli, who’s custom-made gloves can be imbued with scents personal to the wearer, to “bring you back to your Earth-memory place”.
Colonising Mars as insurance against nuclear disaster or global warming, is controversial. For some, the blank, untouched canvas offers a second chance. But to ensure the survival of humanity, we must learn from our mistakes on Earth, and build a zero-waste, sustainable civilisation, powered by clean energy. The ‘Moving to Mars’ exhibit gives a glimpse as to how.
It may seem counterintuitive, but by learning to survive on Mars, we might just save Earth.
The Design Museum’s Moving to Mars exhibition runs until 23 February 2020.