A Visit to Mars (concluded)

This, the third and last part of this strange account, is a follow up to an earlier jot.

January 15th. For the sake of those who, in spite of my gloomy experience on the whole, wish to make this voyage too, I should like to make the following observations on the equipment required for the expedition. A large quantity of provisions, as for an Arctic or Antarctic expedition for many years is a first requirement. It is quite easy to keep the provisions here owing to the permanently low temperature in the ground. If economically used, sufficient water can be obtained by melting hoar-frost.

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A Visit to Mars (part 2)

Map of Mars (1894)

More from  the Dutch astronomer, Professor G. Van den Bergh  ‘A Visit to Mars ‘ a chapter in his The Universe in Space and Time (1935). In this account, which has weird parallels with the adventures of the Matt Damon character in the recent movie The Martian ‘a man, an inhabitant of the earth, succeeded in reaching Mars by rocket. He remained there a few years and evidently managed to keep alive, thanks to his good equipment and a large stock of provisions’. After a while this man returned to Earth, but was killed when his rocket crashed. It transpired that the man had kept a diary, but only a few pages could be rescued from the crash site, some of which were reproduced in the chapter. This continues an earlier jot.

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‘There will be no beautiful women on Mars’–and that’s official


Speculation on whether there is life on Mars and what form it might take has been going on since the planet began to be seriously studied. Writers of fiction have let their imaginations run riot, with ludicrous results, but even scientists have been guilty of groundless speculation. Two items from the Peter Haining archive —an incomplete clipping dated 1924 from the Daily Express and a chapter from The Universe in Space and Time of 1935 throw interesting light on the subject.

Back in 1924 the Daily Express published a report by a certain Monsieur Camille Flammarion, ‘the famous French astronomer’, that ‘ the people of the earth will be both shocked and disillusioned if ever they become acquainted with the Martians’. “First of all”, he states, “there will be no beautiful women there. They may be beautiful according to Martian standards, but to us they will probably look frightfully hideous.” It’s all to with the ‘rarer’ atmosphere of the planet, apparently.

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Leslie Shepard on Charles Fort

Although Leslie Shepard (1917 – 2004) was a passionate devotee of early cinema, he  is probably best known today for his books on Dracula, Indian mysticism, the supernatural, paranormal  and British street literature, on which he was a world expert. He was a born collector who amassed a huge library of books and ephemera, much of which is now in academic libraries. The portion  which escaped this fate seems to have been sold at auction over a period of years and it was at auction a couple of years ago that I acquired a large box containing part of his penny ballad archive—possibly the detritus.

It goes without saying that Shepard was a fan of Charles Fort, that indefatigable collector of facts concerning the paranormal, and probably in the 1960s, as he reports in this typed article of 1974, which may have appeared in INFO, a successor to Doubt, the house journal of the American-based Fortean Society, that Shepard was recruited into the latter. Shepard had relished the early issues of Doubt, but in the article he complained that in the later numbers natural skepticism towards scientific dogma was transformed into something:

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It is rocket science…

An apposite Jot in view of the recent death of Wurzel soundalike, Professor Colin Pillinger, the space scientist behind the Beagle 2 Mars landing vehicle.  The British Interplanetary Society was actually founded as long ago as 1934, when H. G. Wells was still alive, and is still going strong. I don’t know if Pillinger was a member, but in 1954 Arthur C. Clarke was on the publications committee and Patrick Moore was sitting on the Council. It is notable that although most of Moore’s fellow Council members had a degree, not one of them achieved anything like as much as this college dropout did in the field of astronomy.

The lead article in this January 1954 issue of the Society’s Journal  is a passionate plea by Dr A. V. Cleaver, head of the rocket division at Rolls Royce, for funds to be taken out of Europe’s various military budgets and put into a space programme which would ultimately see a man on the moon, flights to Mars and Venus, and ultimately the establishment of bases on these and other planets. Like many scientists before and since, Cleaver argues that the space race must be seen, not as a huge waste of resources, but as a logical extension of Man’s ceaseless striving to explore, and also a potential opportunity to develop various technological projects.

The writer betrays a political naiveté shared by many scientific visionaries, but his technical knowledge can hardly be faulted. The article ends with some fascinating appendices outlining time scales and costs. Interestingly, although he speculates  vaguely on significant progress occurring in  'generations' ,  he does make some bold predictions. For instance, by 1975 a 'relatively small piloted Earth –satellite- vehicle might take up its orbit'. And perhaps during the 1980s and 90s 'a few expeditions by small ships, carrying human crews of only one or two, might be organised.'

If anything, these predictions were a little conservative. Within just fifteen years of the article appearing, Man had landed on the Moon— in another issue of the Journal, the more cautious Clarke had predicted that this would happen by 1975. [RH]