Mariner 4 stuck the knife in first.
Racing past Mars in 64 its box brownie camera
Saw no traces of Lowell’s canals. Instead,
The 634kb of data it sent back to Earth
Showed only craters and barren rock,
So the Arizonan’s doomed Barsoom was replaced
With a Moon-like wasteland of a world.
“But maybe,” the true believers insisted, “the probe
Only saw the worst neighbourhoods? Perhaps,
Around the other side, there are signs of life?”
Two years later Mariner 9 murdered Mars, or at least
The old Mars, the Mars we so desperately wanted to be
Our neighbour. 9 arrived to find Mars cloaked with choking dust,
Its surface hidden from view (it looked like Titan long before
We even knew what that enigmatic moon looked like).
Slowly, slowly, the rolling storm lost its rage
And the blizzard of swirling fines settled, like rust red snowflakes
Fluttering from the sky. High above, 9 peered down
As the ground finally came into view…
Back on Earth buzz-cut professors leaned towards
Their flickering computer screens nodding
As a huge crater emerged from the clouds.
“Just like Mariner 4,” they thought, “no surprises there…”
But then their jaws began to drop as that crater was revealed
To be the caldera of a volcano, mightiest on all the Nine Worlds:
Olympus Mons, rising up out of a sea of cloud
Like a whale coming up for air.
Another shock followed – a vast chasm appeared out of the haze.
Valles Marineris, the Solar System’s Grand Canyon,
Long enough to span the stormy Atlantic;
An axe wound hewn from the very crust of the planet.
Days passed, and frame after frame after frame
Reached JPL, each one hammering another nail
Into the coffin of a living Mars.
No canals, none anywhere, no oases either;
No cities, no martians begging “Water, please!”
Mars was… Mars.
Magnificent Mars; desolate Mars;
Mars of empty rivers and the ghosts of oceans;
Mars of dust devil haunted deserts;
Mars of whispering winds wailing through canyons
Bathed in the light of two strange, bone-white moons.
An epic world deserving of its name.
And any Space Age Dorothy whisked away from Kansas
Would walk across it in ruby EVA boots with Toto at her side
And whisper “Volcanoes, canyons and craters, oh my…!”
© Stuart Atkinson 2018