Did you know NASA currently has two rovers and a science laboratory on the surface of Mars, as well as several satellites in its orbit? The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) satellite is expected to reach the red planet later this summer, providing new insight into its atmosphere and climate history. It is currently traveling at about 65,000 miles per hour. All of this could contribute one day to a manned mission to Mars, a journey that could take anywhere from 228 days as it did Mariner 4 in 1965 to a speedy 131 days, which is how long it took Mariner 7 just four years later.

2014-february-19-text1-spica-mars-arcturus-big-dipper-night-sky-chart1Mars is currently about 225 million miles from our record shop here in Minneapolis. In 2003 it was closer than any time in the previous 50,000 years, at a distance of 56 million miles. During last month’s eclipse Mars was very close to the Moon in the night sky. If you’re looking for it tonight, just find the Big Dipper and follow its handle down to the stars Arcturus and Spica.

aniaraThis obscure two-act opera by Karl-Birger Blomdahl chronicles a failed mission to Mars, launched in 2038 but derailed during the mid-summer celebrations. The Aniara‘s computer expresses itself through Mimaroben, who is heard in this performance by basso cantante Erik Saaden. He describes the failings of mankind to the crew as the Earth is destroyed. A new course to the constellation Lyra is plotted, although it was decades after this recording that evidence from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii suggested its largest star, Vega, may be host to terrestrial planets.

marscapeThe mission was a success on Marscape, a 1976 record by Jack Lancaster and Robin Lumley, essentially a follow-up to the debut album by jazz fusion band Brand X. Marscape follows the mission from it’s opening “Take-Off” through the long journey. We enter into Mars’ atmosphere with a pretty piano piece by Lumley, “Arrival.” Afterwards, the moons Phobos and Demos are introduced, and then the enormous volcano Olympus Mons.


Side two of Marscape includes a reflection on Earth (“Homelight”), which must be a tiny blue dot in the Martian sky, as well as an exciting romp on the Martian surface in a “Hopper,” a machine for negotiating the rough terrain. The Hopper is presumably like the two Rovers NASA currently has exploring the surface of Mars.

In “Blowholes (the Pipes of Mars)” we hear the winds blowing through the naturally-sculpted rock formations. It sounds similar to the beginning of Herbie Hancock’s fun re-make of “Watermelon Man” on Headhunters.


When Gustav Holst composed “Mars, the Bringer of War” for his orchestra suite The Planets in 1914, the world was on the edge of unprecedented war which would cost nearly forty million human lives. It is often noted how the quiet English composer captured the sense of impending

Holst enlisted but was found unfit for service. His brother Emil and his friend, and fellow composer, Vaughn Williams were sent to active duty in France. Holst volunteered for a time driving an ambulance. Towards the end of the war he spent a year in Greece, working with troops awaiting demobilization and performing. “It was great fun,” he later wrote, “But I fear I was not much help.”

title“Mars, Bringer of War” from The Planets by Gustav Holst

war of the worldsWar on an even greater scale appeared imminent to some radio listeners on October 30, 1938. Tuning away from NBC’s Chase and Sanborn Hour during the musical guest, listeners all over America happened upon a startling report from Grovers Mill, New Jersey where Martian crafts were emerging from a smouldering crater.

What they were hearing was not the news, but Orson Welles’ famous radio adaptation of War of the Worlds, an 1897 serialized story by H.G. Wells which details an invasion from the red planet. Those who didn’t hear the opening disclaimer took the realistic dramatization for the news — the following morning, Halloween, newspapers around the country reported on panicked citizens abandoning their homes, flooding highways, and demanding protection from local authorities.

The extent of the panic following Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast has since been questioned. Newspapers, smarting from the advertising revenue lost to radio, were eager to find fault, damning the drama as deceptive. One certainty is that its impact was not lost on Adolf Hitler, who cited the panic as proof of the decadence of democracy. Of course, the Fuhrer was no stranger to the power of the airwaves to manipulate.

titleAn excerpt from the October 30, 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds

Wells’ novel tapped into a common fear at the time of its original publication, although it took a different approach to the “invasion narrative.” An assault on Great Britain from overseas was a popular plot in adventure writing, although the invaders in the best-sellers were more often than not German. Listeners to the 1938 broadcast were filled with the very same fears, many believing that Germans and not Martians were laying siege to New Jersey. Only a month earlier the airwaves had been filled with news of the Munich Pact, in which Europe shamefully allowed Germany annexation of Czechoslovakia. In a biography of Orson Welles, Frank Brady describes the atmosphere of terror over the airwaves:

For the first time in history, the public could tune into their radios every night and hear, boot by boot, accusation by accusation, threat by threat, the rumblings that seemed inevitably leading to a world war.

Contrary to our nearest neighbor’s enduring presence in our nightmares, Mars is most unlikely to launch any such invasion. The red planet is hot, dry and barren — the search for life in our solar system has been extended to the mysterious moons of the Jovian system. “Nothing ever happens on Mars,” as lamented by a Martian himself, visiting the small town of Blaine, Missouri in this musical number from the 1997 film Waiting for Guffman.



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