Ken Kalfus at n+1:
For more than a century now, the fourth planet from the sun has drawn intense interest from those of us on the third. We viewed it, first, as a place where life and intelligence might flourish. The mistaken identification of artificial water channels on its surface in the late 19th century seemed to prove that they did. More recently, terrestrials have gazed at the arid, cratered, wind-swept landscape and seen a world worth traveling to. With increasingly intense longing, we’ve now begun to think of it as a newfound land that men and women can settle and colonize. It’s the only planet in the solar system—rocky, almost temperate, and relatively close—where something like that can be conceived of as remotely plausible.
Since the last moonwalk, in 1972, Mars has drawn the fitful attention of American presidents and blue-ribbon commissions. As the Apollo program was winding down, Richard Nixon declared, “We will eventually send men to explore the planet Mars.” During the Reagan Administration, the National Commission on Space, chartered by Congress, proposed actual dates: a return to the moon by 2005 and a landing on Mars by 2015. President George H. W. Bush declared “a new age of exploration with not only a goal but also a timetable: I believe that before Apollo celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its landing on the Moon, the American flag should be planted on Mars.”