Chris McDonnell’s weekly ‘Catholic Times’ column – Mars, you’ll never walk alone…


Perseverance has landed

Chris McDonnell CT March 12th 2021

The fourth rock from the Sun, the planet Mars, has for centuries held a fascination for the human dwellers of planet Earth. The small red spot in the sky was the subject of mystery, long before the invention of the telescope and with it our ability to see Mars in greater detail.

For the Romans, Mars was the god of War, second only to Jupiter in the Roman pantheon. In the last century, there was considerable interest in Mars and it was the popular focus of science fiction. It was famously the subject of H G Well’s book, War of the Worlds, first serialised in 1897 by Pearson’s Magazine in the UK and by Cosmopolitan magazine in the US. The novel’s first appearance in hardcover was in 1898, published in London. It tells the story of the invasion of Earth by creatures who move about in three-legged machines, wreaking destruction with a devastating heat ray. Set in the Home Counties and in London, the stark horror of Martian invasion from another world is set against the reality of familiar places. The demise of the invaders is brought about not by weapons but by the onslaught of earthly pathogens from which they had no immunity. It would seem that a lethal contagion struck a decisive blow.

This narrative was to provide the substance of a famous radio broadcast by the American actor Orson Welles in New York City in 1938. Welles presented the story of War of the Worlds, setting the events in and around New York as a series of broadcast news flash interruptions. The interlacing of fact and fiction meant that his presentation was so convincing that many of his listeners were led to believe that an invasion by Martians was in fact taking place. Fake news had consequences, then as now. One thing it achieved was the establishment of the career and fame of its perpetrator, Orson Welles.

The musical composition, The Planet Suite by Gustav Holst, opens with Mars, the Bringer of War, a brooding, threatening piece of music that builds to a tumultuous, vengeful climax. It was a piece of music I first came across through its use in the BBC science fiction television serial Quatermass broadcast in the mid-50s.

The recent successful landing by NASA of a vehicle, named Perseverance sent from Earth to the red planet has rightly been recognised as a significant achievement. The initial images returned to Earth are detailed and exciting. It has landed in what is believed to be the dried-up dust bowl of what was once, over three billion years ago, a Martian lake. Its principal scientific purpose is to search for evidence that life may have once existed in the waters of our neighbouring planet even if it was, in the famous Star Trek words, ‘Life, but not as we know it’.

Early in the 20th century, the astronomer Percival Lowell believed he had seen evidence of canal structures on Mars and argued that they were evidence of life, either now or in the past.

Jeff Wayne’s musical version of War of the Worlds was released in 1977. The actor Richard Burton, reading the words of the Journalist in the story, opens the recording with these brief words.

“No-one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No-one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinized, as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets. Yet across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us…”.

The question arises, are we alone in the Universe? Is the life that we see here on Earth unique or have other planets beyond our solar system developed conditions that are suitable for some form of life to exist, possibly significantly in advance of our own development? It is an intriguing question, one that has puzzled many people over the centuries and continues to do so.

For some, this possibility might seem to be a direct challenge to faith, much as Galileo’s rejection of the Earth being the centre of the Cosmos was threatening to the Church of his time.

But surely this is not so? To suggest that we are alone and unique in this huge Universe is to put a limit on the majesty of God. Our scientific endeavours have led us to the discovery of many stars with planetary systems, some of them apparently not unlike our own. The colossal distances involved prohibits, within the constraints of our present knowledge, any possibility of contact. There is however no reason why we shouldn’t ask questions and speculate on the possibility of inhabited worlds other than our own.

The exploration of space is hugely expensive and many question the efficacy of the cost. It has been suggested that the multi-million dollar cost of the present probe seeking evidence of water in a now-barren land, would have been better spent providing distribution of clean water for those who need it here on Earth; a valid argument indeed, one that we might also use when we count the cost of the expenditure on the world-wide weapons industry. At least the exploration of space may provide useful answers to help solve some of our problems here on Earth.

We are challenged by the events recounted in the fictional story of H G Wells to look at ourselves as we walk our journey in faith.

How would we cope with the unexpected, the unknown? COVID has given us a foretaste of this scenario, as we have faced a world-wide threat, totally new in our limited experience, asking many practical and ethical questions, questions that we have often struggled to answer to everyone’s satisfaction over recent months, not least the need to share with poorer countries the vaccines they desperately need.

The rights of the individual have been measured against the overall needs of the society in which we as individuals live. We have come to realize, through bitter experience, that we need each other and that our selfish behaviour is ultimately destructive.

That is the lesson of the latest Mars Lander. It was the consequence of so many human minds operating in a collective way, one with another, to achieve a common goal. The red and white panels of the descent parachute were laid out in binary code for the words “Dare mighty things”. Three words attributed to Theodore Roosevelt and adopted as the motto of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, funded by NASA which is based at CALTEC in California.

JPL is a research and development lab federally funded by NASA and managed by Caltech.

It is a lesson that each of us can take from our Christian faith, that we are not alone as we seek the God who made us and who sustains our lives, one with another. We too should dare mighty things in our search for truth. And like the Lander, we should persevere. We might even borrow the words from the anthem of the Liverpool Kop – You’ll never walk alone – and feel confident on our journey.

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