Review: “The Mars Challenge” by Wilgus and Yates

Mars is hard.

In fact, just the prospect of humans missions to Mars is so hard that even talking about why Mars is hard can be hard because, well, it’s hard.

Alison Wilgus and Wyeth Yates’ The Mars Challenge is a shockingly good book on this topic.

To say The Mars Challenge gets it right is an understatement.

The prospect of sending humans to Mars is daunting, and the reasons for that get very technical very quickly. Try to explain it, and you start talking about things like the rocket equation and orbital mechanics and EDL, and the specter of complex mathematical formulas starts quickly drawing near like a gathering storm. 

It becomes very easy to let the technical become so technical that the average person, or, for that matter, a decent number of fairly technical people who haven’t immersed themselves in this particular deep dive, get overwhelmed.

On the other end of the spectrum, there can be a temptation to try to make the topic accessible by watering down the technical to the point where you’re not really doing it justice.

The Mars Challenge does neither of these. It lunges bravely directly into the very real technical challenges of a human mission to Mars and then deftly unpacks them so that a lay reader can understand.

Oh, and did I mention The Mars Challenge is a graphic novel?

The framework for the book is a conversation between a teenager with dreams of dirtying her boots with Martian regolith, and her space professional mentor all too aware of the hurdles that must be overcome to make that happen. 

In Wilgus’ hands, that mentor speaks the language of spaceflight with a  realism worthy of an insider, but lovingly translates it into human in a way a teenager could believably understand.

Ably assisted by Yates, the creators overcome another substantial challenge to tell the story – keeping what is essentially a 200-page comic book consisting solely of two people having a conversation from becoming tedious. Both the writing and the artwork, replete with visions of the past, present and future of space exploration, are lively and engaging.

The Mars Challenge takes an admirably even-handed approach devoid of agenda – unlike many books on the subject, it eschews “all you have to do is” editorializing in favor of an honest analysis.

The book is a perfect primer for teens who feel the call to boldly go – or build the ships for those who do – and is a quick and accessible read for adults who’d like an overview of how space exploration works.

Mars is hard, but it’s doable, and The Mars Challenge is an inspirational tool for equipping the next generation of explorers for the challenges ahead.

On the Streets of DC

Any conversation with a man that walked on the moon is cool, but it was two random conversations on the walk home that were the highlight of the day.

The second day of the Humans To Mars summit was wonderful; it’s each year to step back to really appreciate how much progress is being made toward landing astronauts on the Red Planet. At the end of today’s summit, I got to have a brief conversation with Buzz Aldrin about Venus flyby missions of fiction and future.

I’d had zero chance to actually see any “DC stuff” on this trip except for glimpses of the Washington Monument from a balcony and down an alleyway, so I decided to walk back, from the Watergate on the river to far side of the senate office buildings.

As I snapped a selfie at the Capitol, a woman asked if I wanted her to take the picture. I was satisfied with what I had, so I offered to take one of her and her husband instead. We chatted for a bit. She was there on a work trip; she teaches at Clemson and had made the drive up that day. For both of them it was their first time in the city. It was one of those moments that just hit reset on what I was doing — for a moment, I got to share their perspective, experiencing our nation’s capital for the first time. “We’ve seen pictures of it, but now…” “You’re here. It’s right there.” A good reminder to never forget where you are, no matter where that is.

Walking a bit farther, I came across Lockheed Martin’s Mars Experience bus parked on the side of the road by one of the Senate office buildings. No one was around, except the driver, so I spoke. “Do you travel with the bus?” “Yeah.” “So you were in Huntsville a few weeks ago?” “Yeah.” “And Houston a few weeks before that?” “Yeah.” I’d gone through the bus back in January at the Super Bowl Live event in downtown Houston, and again with Rebecca a month or so ago when it came to Huntsville for FIRST Robotics; he’d been there both times.

He and I chatted for a while also. He wasn’t affiliated with Orion and didn’t work for Lockheed, he was just staff for the exhibit bus. He’d spend weeks on the road with it; he was going home to South Carolina that night for a two or three week break before heading out again. He said he loved seeing the kids experience it; you can tell, he said, the ones that really get into it. He asked what they were saying at the summit, how things were going. “I’ve been traveling with this thing so long now, I really want to see this happen,” he said. I thanked him for his part in making that happen – his role in sharing with people what the future could look like is as important as any.

It’s weird watching D.C. in the news when you’re in the city. It’s easy to believe sometimes from the TV and Twitter and headlines that this place is tearing itself apart.

But you walk the streets of D.C. long enough, and you realize that maybe there’s hope for us yet.