Home Reviews Shorts Search

Well, here we go again with a non-fiction volume, and on a topic close to my heart. Robert Zubrin's (and Richard Wagner's) The Case for Mars - The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must was originally published 20 years ago - a duration which used to be an eternity in space developments and progress, and which seems to have mainly seen stand-still now, at least on the human exploration front.
But a disclaimer first, before everyone gets offended - I'm an interested (very) amateur, so my reading and opinions here are based on my limited knowledge from outside the space industry and science community, and without the historic background other people have. If you know more than me then I'd be more than happy to add your opinion/explanations (as long as printable) to my efforts - the contact form is on the left, and worked last time the spammers tried!
Dr Robert Zubrin in an American aerospace engineer, and space advocate, with a heavy personal investment in getting human space exploration re-started, and humanity to Mars. You can find substantial materials by him on the Internet and in print, and there are presentations by him on the topic on YouTube should you be interested after reading this!

Back to the book at hand - this kicks off with a foreword by Arthur C Clarke, including his address to the future Martians which was sent with the Russian Mars Lander in 1996. He closes with: "The choice, as Wells once said, is the Universe - or nothing...
The challenge of the great spaces between the worlds is a stupendous one; but if we fail to meet it, the story of our race will be drawing to its close. Humanity will have turned its back upon the still untrodden heights and will be descending again the long slope that stretches, across a thousand million years of time, down to the shores of the primeval sea."
Beyond that we get a Foreword, a Preface, 10 chapters of core content, an Epiloge, a Glossary, a list of Notes and References, and an Index; making this a very well appointed and structured book indeed.

It was written, and refers to, 25 years after the initial Moon landing - and compares what had happened since with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire - bold, I have to say (and sad, as said decline really has continued since!). He wrote the book based on his work at Martin Marietta Astronautics, where he developed advanced concepts for interplanetary missions. The "Mars Direct" plan, which at least the first part of the book is based upon, was developed there by him and by David Baker. Mars Direct advocates a "living off the land" approach; "It is the richness of Mars that makes the Red Planet not only desirable, but attainable" he quotes at one point. It is about using local resources instead of brining everything along, something Mars allows, in contrast to the Moon, or an Asteroid. NASA estimated that Mars Direct would come with a $50bn price tag, compared to the $450bn for their own, much bigger, Moon-landing style approach which was proposed at the time.
If you look around the Internet you will find that they did put some noses out of joint with their cheap and unconventional approach - there are left-overs of major politics, and sour grapes still on display.

The 1st chapter tells the story of the Mars Direct approach, in layman's terms, mainly. The similarities to other approaches I've seen discussed (newer, as far as I'm aware), or what's on display in Andy Weirs The Martian are rather striking. He then detours into a Focus Section dealing with detailed planning, physics etc (there are several throughout the book), in this case on historical lessons (Franklin vs Amundsen, in their approach), and examples of how 'living off the land' led to success. I felt a theme coming on...

Chapter 2 gives an overview of the development of Astronomy in relation to Mars, history of and current plans for exploration, plus options and approaches under discussion. This I found rather more practical in actual spaceflight terms, but only half as entertaining as Colin Pillinger's similar account in Beagle.

Chapter 3 deal with George Bush's address at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington - the programme to go to Mars - known as the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI); the disastrous, bloated 90-day report on it, pricing it an an unaffordable $450bn. It then describes the Martin Marietta group that came up with Mars Direct (with David Baker as Zubrin's foil), and its way into the consciousness fo the 'space community', including the regular Mars Underground conventions (after whose conference the book is named).
I found this to contain an fascinating insight into mission design and planning, thinking behind them, the mindset employed, the constraints and trade-offs, the politics which drive the sometimes nonsensical and illogically appearing decisions, and the arduous process to make decision makers aware of new, better ideas to be included in their evaluations and decisions.

Chapter 4 contains a discussion on trajectory choices, impact on 'useful' mission time on the ground, crew composition (with a strong emphasis on 'no doctor'!), weight estimates and constraints, supply considerations, abort and free-return scenarios, redundancy considerations, and the impact future proposed 'advanced technologies might have on Mars Direct. Here we started to heavily encounter 'promotional' language, some if funny (Battlestar Galactica ships for the original plan), some of it less so.

Chapter 5 discusses a number of distractions, and, in his opinion, wrong approaches and dead ends concerning the proposed ways to Mars: Radiation Hazards (very interesting, I learned a lot, even after being aware of the hysteria clouding judgment in that area), the Menace of Zero Gravity, the Dreaded Human Factors, the Dangers of Martian Dust Storms, Back Contamination (ie the dangers of Martian microbes to the expedition, and to Earth upon return), and the detour on the way to Mars via Moon bases. I cannot say that I was always fully comfortable with the style of how some of these were dismissed; I would have thought that all of them needed to be taken seriously and planned for, IMHO.
Also - it's sometimes hard to tell from my amateur perspective, but there seem to be a good number of non-sequiturs, hand-waiving, skipping of logical steps, and genearl selling going on here. Yes, it par for the course, but if I'd be a manager (and I'm glad I'm not) signing off such a programme for x billions, or support it publicly or politically then I'd have to pull some of these things apart substantially.

Chapter 6 delves into the potential details on some of the practicalities of a mission - moving around Mars for exploring, car design, propellant production (local!), communications, navigation (we don't have the satellite cover like here on Earth!), time-keeping and the Martian calendar, and the use of telerobotics, which appears to be both easier and harder than we we do for Earth.

Chapter 7 looks into the future, past the initial set of exploration missions, and towards the building of the initial permanent Mars base. It is, byt its very nature, even more speculative than earlier parts, and, I felt, in a number of areas overly unquestioningly positive about the feasibility and viability of some approaches, developments, and technologies. It touches on building shelter (underground), and the materials for this, domes, manufacturing plastics, ceramics, and glass. It discusses how to gain access to larger quantities of water, and on agriculture. Metallurgy/power/mobility requirements are discussed. The main message is: Mars has it all, in abundance, and much easier than the Moon or an asteroid in terms of accessing them.

Chapter 8 deals with the colonisation of Mars - firstly the why, but then also speculates on some of the practicalities, like how to fund this endeavour (Interplanetary Commerce), on how to actually populate Mars, it being a long and expensive trip there, on the real estate market, and finally on future propulsion techniques which would maek such an undertaking more feasible - these range from the existing by the used in anger to the purely theoretical.
This chapter also contains a block of pages with photographies and illustrations, not just for the chapter, but most of the book. There were some here I had not seen before - interesting, even if some of them made me smile for being optimistic and/or slightly quaint...

Chapter 9 discusses scenarios and approaches to terraforming, with a focus on releasing CO2 from the the polar ice caps and the regolith as a precursor to everything else. This is, to no-ones surprise, slightly far-flung/far future in its conception and requirements

And finally we get Chapter 10, titled The View from Earth. it deals with politics, and the practicalities of how to get a Mars programme off the ground and funded. It delves into 3 models: JFK (Apollo equivalent approach), US only; Sagan (internationally shared/joint approach) - at the time this was written this mostly meant Russian, these days there would be more players; and Gingrich, who supported a privately funded approach, with prices for achievement of specific goals funded by the US.

Then there's the Epilogue - The Significance of the Martian Frontier. The basic premise is that the American Frontier drove process, technological development, and an peaceful, open, resourceful society (debatable, IMHO). And, in extension, that without a new frontier on Mars this will stop, and descent into stagnation and loss of freedom and the end of the American 'Humanist Society'.
Er, not convinced about that one.

Following this we get a Glossary, a list of Notes, a list of References, and an Index.

Overall this book left me with mixed feelings - on the one hand it was interesting, and I feel I learned a lot about the practicalities of such an effort, as well as the reality of the politics that need to be overcome before it can even start. On the other hand I felt that, whilst the earlier part were well thought through and reasonably stringent, that the latter parts of the book drifted off into speculation, wishful thinking, personal hobby-horses, and generally a display of possibilities and thought experiments without a causal link to the original topic.
Still, this is a substantial and solid piece of writing on a topic which is as relevant (and inchoate) now as it was when the book was written, but an author with a message, a mission, and loads of knowledge and experience on the topic. One for people interested in the topic, and not afraid of having it served with some science attached!

More Robert Zubrin

Title: The Case for Mars
Subtitle: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must
Author: Robert Zubrin
Author: Richard Wagner
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL:
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: 1996
Review Date: 160201
ISBN: 0684819309
Pages: 328
Format: HB
Topic: Science
Topic: Space Exploration



Lavie Tidhar - Central Station


Thomas Pynchon – Gravity’s Rainbow


Ken MacLeod - Cosmonaut Keep


Somtow Sucharitul – Starship & Haiku


Iain Sinclair - Radon Daughters


Doris Lessing – The Sirian Experiments


Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me

Andy Weir - The Martian


Thomas Pynchon - Slow Learner


Liz Williams - Empire of Bones


S.P. Somtow – I Wake from a Dream of a Drowned Star City


Peter Watts – Maelstrom


Peter Watts - Blindsight


Ian Sales – Adrift on the Sea of Rains


Sydney Padua - The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, Powered by Mambo!; free resources by SiteGround