The DIY explorers who dream of a 35-million-mile trek
Tina Sjogren remembers exactly where she was when she told her husband, Tom, that she wanted to go to Mars: inside the whirlpool on the patio of the Sheraton Gateway Hotel. She gazed up at the stars, as the bubbles rose around them like chlorinated Champagne, and said, “I wanted to go up there so bad!” Then Tina, one of the first women to ski to the North Pole, almost started crying like a child.
It was early May of 2006, and the Sjogrens had been invited to Los Angeles to write about the annual International Space Development Conference for ExplorersWeb, the online news site they had founded together in 2000 to cover the world of extreme adventure. At the Gateway, they were greeted by a 30-foot model of a “space elevator,” a conveyance to the stars envisioned more than a hundred years ago by proto–rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and a hotel full of space celebrities, including Apollo moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Although they counted some of the world’s best alpinists and polar trekkers among their friends, the Sjogrens were awed. By then the couple had already climbed Mt. Everest, conquered both poles, and circumnavigated the globe on their sailboat, a 30-year-old, refrigerator-less O’day Coastal — “basically a roomy bathtub,” Tina says. Between them, they held three Guinness World Records. But over the past few years, the Sjogrens had witnessed the world of extreme adventure undergo a profound shift. Everest had become a place where bankers sipped oxygen like mai tais and flew out to Kathmandu from Base Camp for steak dinners. The poles were similarly overrun by socialites in pursuit of trophy treks. Earth, they realized, was done. The obvious next step was space.
In one sense, civilian space flight has never been more within reach. Since 2001, when Dennis Tito became the first space tourist by paying Virginia-based Space Adventures $20 million to spend eight days on the International Space Station, a cadre of new startups, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, began promising consumers cheaper access to space. (At the conference, Virgin Galactic announced that it had presold the first 100 seats on a space plane that it was developing for the Black Friday price of $200,000 a pop.) The Sjogrens, however, aren’t interested in a few days of weightlessness or a suborbital joyride: They are explorers, not tourists.
The next day, they attended a talk by Dr. Robert Zubrin, a scientist whose name has become synonymous with Mars. In 1996, Zubrin, an aeronautics engineer who spent years developing space-exploration technology for Lockheed Martin, published The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle The Red Planet and Why We Must, the first in a series of manifestos.
Zubrin launched into his stump speech on the imperative to reach Mars. “Fish who ventured up on land evolved into much more than being fish,” he said. “Those who stayed behind are still stuck in the oceans! Doing their fish things the way they always have.” In short: We should go to Mars. We can go to Mars. What is lacking is our will.
After the talk, Tina approached Zubrin and started asking him her “typical explorer questions”: How long is the journey? What does it take to prepare for this? How much is it going to cost?
The Sjogrens relate this story to me over takeout containers of Thai curry and Korean bibimbap in the airy food court of the Metreon shopping mall in downtown San Francisco. With his fit build, angular features, and deadpan mien, Tom could be the Wall Street exec with a treadmill in his office, but today he is wearing a T-shirt with a cartoon of a Dachshund wedged in a hot dog bun and a baseball hat he found on the ground. Tina, similarly trim, is sunburned and wind-swept, her flyaway blond hair grazing her shoulders. Around her neck she wears a tiny gold ice ax on a chain: an exact replica of the CAMP alpine model she used to climb Everest with Tom. He took the ax to a jeweler a week after their return and had it cast as a birthday present.
The Sjogrens call their initiative Pythom Space, after an obscure (and likely apocryphal) reference to a comet from which all of Egyptian civilization emerged, and describe it as the first “alpine-style” expedition to Mars. Their approach is in direct opposition to NASA, with its massive bureaucracy, or even to comparatively nimble efforts of astro-industrialists like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. The Sjogrens don’t want to mine Mars, or build bases and colonize it themselves; these maximalist visions, they argue, needlessly complicate and delay the simple, significant goal of just getting there. They want to traverse the red planet and return with discoveries, like James Cook and Marco Polo, and they mean to do it the same way Roald Amundsen first reached the South Pole: by traveling light, going native, and, proverbially speaking, eating their sled dogs if necessary.
The custom-built, two-person craft the Sjogrens want to build would be the Kia to the Hummer-sized models proposed by NASA and would cost only a billion dollars, they claim. By comparison, NASA’s space shuttle orbiter costs $1.7 billion, and a single trip to the International Space Station costs $450 million. The Pythom Space website lists the Sjogrens’ departure date as late April 2018, but when pressed, the couple admit they are probably looking at 2020, the next time the orbits of Mars and Earth optimally align.
The couple know exactly how this sounds. “I don’t think you will find one single person that believes we are going to be able to do this,” Tom admits. But the couple have also made a career of achieving surprising firsts and of building the technology necessary to accomplish them. In the late ’90s, they developed Contact, satellite-enabled software that sent live transmissions from the top of Everest and, later, both poles. They continued to experiment with new technologies capable of withstanding extreme weather conditions, creating a wearable computing system with a Bluetooth-enabled eyepiece that allowed them to liveblog their adventures and which TechCrunch later hailed as a proto–Google Glass.
The Sjogrens began developing ultralight communication equipment for extreme expeditioners, naming their company HumanEdgeTech. A few months after their epiphanic 2006 meeting with Zubrin, the Sjogrens say, NASA became one of their clients, purchasing Contact software and hardware that they had created to facilitate the hunt for meteorites on Antarctica.
Over the past year, the two have scaled back their software work to undertake a vertiginous study of space engineering, orbital mechanics, artificial intelligence, and high-power rocketry. (Tina says she recently passed her level-two certification.) Most of their time, and all of their nonessential income, now go toward developing a ship.
“This is exactly the same route Elon Musk went before he started with SpaceX,” Tom says. Glancing over his shoulder, I notice that the Indian family next to us — all three generations of whom were wholly absorbed in their smartphones when we sat down — is now openly eavesdropping. “You have this dream to do this really cool thing, but you always think in the beginning: It’s not for you. It’s not gonna happen …. Then one day you start to realize: It could be you.”
Until recent years, a mission to Mars seemed quaintly anachronistic — cue a sizzle reel of 1960s scientists in white lab coats, families gazing into fishbowl TVs, Brezhnev in his overcoat. Now, everyone wants to go. The Dutch organization Mars One received more than 4,000 applications for its proposed reality-show-funded Mars colony. The Russians announced plans to send a crew of rhesus monkeynauts in 2017, and the Chinese, a rover equipped with ground-penetrating radar by 2020. (Experts have deemed the latter highly likely, the former not.) But the U.S. remains the only country with the experience and infrastructure necessary to send an actual human. Within the next five years, NASA hopes to send astronauts aboard the new Orion spacecraft deeper into space than any human has ever traveled. The agency’s current plan suggests a manned mission to Mars could depart as early as 2030. SpaceX, the private organization largely responsible for making Mars buzzy again, has a major NASA contract and intends to conduct its first crewed rocket tests in 2018 (so far it has only committed to transporting NASA astronauts). Nonetheless, Musk has vowed to beat NASA’s timeline and reach Mars by 2025.
With billionaires promising cities on Mars and The Martian crushing it at the box office, NASA received a record-smashing 18,300 applications for its astronaut program in 2016 — more than triple the number of submissions received during its last recruitment call in 2012.
The requirements haven’t changed much over the past 30 years: a B.A. in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics discipline; the fitness required to pass NASA’s legendary Astronaut Long-Duration Spaceflight Physical; and a height no taller than Elon Musk’s (6 foot 2). But many hidden shoals can sink an otherwise strong applicant. For example, the Astronaut Candidate FAQs claim that “there are no age restrictions for the program.” Then they go on to state that in the past, successful applicants “have ranged between the ages of 26 and 46, with the average age being 34.” That pretty much rules out the Sjogrens, who are both 57.
But the fine print hardly matters: Only some ten individuals will survive the 18-month selection process to join the current class of 45 NASA astronauts eligible for space flight, making for a maximum acceptance rate of .005 percent.
There is a growing conviction among some, however, that NASA has already lost its monopoly on who gets to be an astro-pioneer. Within the past ten years, myriad citizen-led efforts and micro-startups with an everything-goes approach to space travel have emerged, loosely affiliated under the moniker “NewSpace.” It’s a movement that encompasses entrepreneurs like Bas Lansdorp, the mind behind Mars One, and Dennis Tito, who vowed to send a married couple on a bare-bones flyby of the red planet (the Sjogrens sent a letter expressing interest; they received a “very cold reply”), but also tinkerers determined to DIY it, such as Liftport, a controversial crowdfunded effort to build a real version of Tsiolkovsky’s Space Elevator, and the Copenhagen Suborbitals, the world’s only “manned, amateur, crowdfunded space program,” which recently conducted its fifth rocket launch. These bootstrappers are united by an ethos of free enterprise, driven by a wonky sense of personal mission, and unfettered by concerns of shareholder accountability — or even personal safety. Hannah Kerner, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to hastening human settlement of outer space, describes these would-be Wozniaks as “the NewSpace of NewSpace.”
“We’ll learn things from them that we’re just not going to be able to learn from anyone else,” Kerner says. “They’re able to take these risks that even the commercial industry isn’t willing to take.”
One such risk-taker is Cameron Smith, a part-time professor of anthropology at Portland State University. With a team of student volunteers, he’s created a homemade spacesuit, which he intends to test himself by plunging from a hot-air balloon at 65,000 feet — more than twice the height of Everest.
Smith’s quest to build a cheaper, lighter spacesuit was inspired, back in 2008, by the Sjogrens’ announcement on ExplorersWeb that they were planning to go to Mars. Smith, who is also an accomplished polar explorer, remembers thinking, The Sjogrens aren’t space engineers, either. Suddenly he realized that the remote, frozen landscapes he’d spent months hiking across were just pale stand-ins for the moon. If the Sjogrens could devote themselves to Mars, then he could pursue his childhood, Apollo-era space fantasies, too. Online, he discovered resources, like blueprints, through NASA’s Technical Reports Server and began studying the stories of such early pilots as Wiley Post, who tested the world’s first operational pressure suit (pigskin gloves, rubberized parachute fabric, a diving helmet) by flying in an open-air cabin at 50,000 feet. On eBay, Smith had no trouble scoring cheap vintage gear, like a Soviet Air Force helmet that he could then modify. (Winning bid: $400.)
Smith has now tested six generations of his suit in partnership with the Copenhagen Suborbitals, who provided access to an altitude chamber. His growing media profile (Smith’s suit has been featured in Wired and Popular Mechanics, among others) has also attracted the interest of the traditional space industry. Smith recently served as a spacesuit consultant for “a large, private space-development company” (he signed a nondisclosure agreement, but you know who it is) and earned props from space heavyweights like MIT astronautics professor Dava Newman, currently the deputy administrator of NASA. And while he recognizes that to the rest of the world, homebrewed astro-projects may seem like the crackpot fringe, he is convinced they will play an increasingly crucial role in the future of space flight.
“The commercial aviation of the 1930s and ’40s, which is the basis of today’s very reliable aircraft, only came about because thousands of aviators died testing out ideas. If you do it the NASA way, you never get there!” Smith laughs. “People are frustrated and now want to move fast, even if it’s dangerous.”
Smith’s success bridging the gap between the NewSpace and the Old may be the exception; many indie efforts crash and burn before they even have a chance to, well, crash and burn. Tito’s Inspiration Mars Foundation folded about a year after he announced his Mars flyby project, when he was rebuffed by both NASA and SpaceX. And after eight years of effort, the Suborbitals have yet to reach suborbit. But even if their interstellar goals remain out of reach, NewSpacers see themselves as part of a larger anti-regulatory mission on Earth: to ensure access to space remains open to anyone with the money, ingenuity, and hubris to vault themselves above the Kármán line. For his part, Smith intends to “break that monopoly” of government contractors by putting PDFs of his final design online, making his the world’s first open-source spacesuit.
The Sjogrens, who hold similarly libertarian views on the right to space, have come to fear that NASA, and other big players in the Mars Industrial Complex, will try to stop their celestial barnstorming. In September, NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, said he was “not a big fan of commercial investment in large-launch vehicles just yet.” The Sjogrens, of course, see an analog to the bureaucratic challenges facing explorers on Earth. “Antarctica, of course, is not owned by anyone,” Tom warns, “but you need to get a permit from the government to visit.”
Three different experts in international space law assured me no regulatory efforts were underway. It’s true that anyone hoping to launch a craft into space needs to meet certain licensing standards, but the same goes for a Vespa driver. If anything, the pendulum has swung the other way; last year, Congress passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, the first law to allow U.S. citizens to extract resources from asteroids and hold any form of property rights in space. Theoretically, this could lay the legal groundwork for privately owned developments — Muskville, Amazonia, perhaps even Sjogren Land — on Mars one day.
The Sjogrens, however, remain on high alert. They say sympathetic NASA insiders have warned them to be careful “because if we go without an agency, without a nation behind us, they may try to stop us,” Tina says.
“So what will you do?” I venture.
At this, Tina flashes the tiniest, most enigmatic smile.
“Our biggest wish is the U.S. will be on our side,” Tom says. Then he and Tina exchange a meaningful look. “But if they are not … we can’t let politics get in our way.”
Over the three days I spent with the Sjogrens in California, I learned their verbal shorthand can be confusing. “Our place in the mountains” refers to the two Walmart tents they currently inhabit near Deadman Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (one is used as an office, the other, a bedroom). The classes they’ve taken — aeronautics at MIT, coding at Stanford, machine learning with artificial intelligence guru Andrew Ng — were all taken online. And “our workshop” is TechShop, a makerspace in the SOMA district of San Francisco, where members can access more than a million dollars’ worth of equipment and software for $150 a month. The Sjogrens have brought me to TechShop for a glimpse at the “brain” of their ship. We are gathered around an industrial table on the second-floor workspace, staring down at what appears to be the sad innards of a cellphone, while munching on complimentary popcorn.
“For people that don’t understand electronics, this doesn’t look like much, but if you actually understand how much code is behind it, the stress tests it can handle ….” Tom trails off. A spaceship, he goes on to explain, is basically a big spacesuit, a room-sized life-support system covered in sensors like these, inside and out, feeding an array of information back into the central processing unit. “So, for instance, here’s a simulation we are running right now.” He points to the screen of their Lenovo laptop, also propped on the table before us, where yellow arrows dance along a spectrum of half-moon dials. “We have numbers coming in for humidity, for temperature, for heating, for pressure, CO2 level, O2, G-force ….”
At TechShop, the Sjogrens have built casings for their sensors and learned how to make carbon fiber — one of the layers needed to coat their ship — from scratch. With the software behind the “brain” of their ship 80 percent complete, according to them, they plan to start building its body next year and are looking to buy a parcel of land, preferably an easy commute to Mojave Air and Space Port.
Initially, when the Sjogrens decided to go to Mars, they had a distant idea they would hitch a ride on one of Elon’s rockets. But the more they learned about the current approaches to Mars, the more convinced they became that they needed to design a ship themselves. Rocket science may be a famously complicated discipline, but, ultimately, getting a ship in the air is an issue of power versus mass.
“Elon — all these projects — they don’t understand weight,” Tom rails (even though SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy weighs less than half of NASA’s most comparable rocket, the Saturn V). “How low you can go in weight to sustain yourself.” When they set out for the North Pole in 2002, they had about 686 pounds between them. When they arrived 67 days later, they had one chocolate bar left: appropriately, a Mars bar.
Insiders have castigated NASA for including indulgences like a camping toilet in the design of Orion, the ship NASA hopes to send to Mars in 2030. (The Apollo astronauts reached the moon relying on plastic bags.) “We believe that we can land about 10,000 kilos on Mars,” Tom says. That’s a little more than 22,000 pounds, less than a third of the gross liftoff weight of Orion.
Amid the drone of industrial fans and a cyclone of hyperbole, it’s hard to gauge how much, if any, of this is feasible. By casting themselves in the mold of iconoclasts like Ferdinand Magellan, the Sjogrens offer an implicit challenge to their interrogators: Do you want to be like King Manuel I, who refused to help Magellan fund the first successful circumnavigation of the globe? Do you want to be like the dream-dooming NASA lifers who originally rejected Musk? Or do you choose to side with the visionaries and believe?
They often point to the example of the Soviet Union, which built the world’s first space program and sent a man to orbit the Earth when it was still a war-torn country where scientists were so strapped for parts that they took the springs out of clocks.
“When Gagarin flew up into space, it was him and a small team of technicians standing around this little shit-ass bullet tin can,” Tina says, sensing my skepticism. “And you know how they came down to Earth? They ejected and came down in a parachute. Landing beside peasants toiling in the dirt. ‘Where’d you come from?’” She smiles, spreading her arms wide, gesturing the peasants’ welcome and surprise.
When the Sjogrens first started writing code, it had nothing to do with satellite communication; one of their earliest algorithms tracked toilet paper usage. They built the program for their first company, Easyshop, a toilet paper home-delivery service, to predict when customers would need a re-up.
“Customers would be like, ‘How did you know I was on my last roll!’” Tom laughs. “We have cameras,” he liked to joke.
They launched Easyshop in 1985, two full decades before Amazon Prime debuted, but the Sjogrens weren’t interested in Bezosian empire-building. “Mostly, we thought this was a really good idea to make a lot of money in a very short time.” They needed money, Tom explains, to fund their increasingly ambitious adventures.
Tom and Tina met at a party when they were both 20. He was a student at the Stockholm School of Economics, and Tina had a plum job as aide to the head of Swedish Public Television’s technology department. “I was just a sporty person and had no clue what to do with my life. She was this very cool girl that asked all these questions,” Tom reflects. “Then one day, I suddenly knew. Tina told me: ‘Go travel! See the world.’”
Their get-rich-quick toilet paper scheme didn’t get off the ground at first; after two years, Easyshop was broke. Nor were they successful in the other goal they had set for themselves: climbing Everest.
Tina remembers being overcome with self-pity at Base Camp on their fourth, and final, attempt to make the summit. “Our toilet business was down the toilet. We were shitty climbers. No one would have anything to do with us in our Walmart tents. Everywhere we looked, it was just sad.”
But a successful Everest climb gave them a burst of celebrity in Sweden, which led to their toilet paper wholesaler offering them more favorable rates; by the time they sold Easyshop and moved to New York City in 1999 to set up HumanEdgeTech, they were millionaires. Neither money nor success, however, brought the Sjogrens happiness. They both describe the three years they spent in a Central Park South penthouse with “all these old ladies with little dogs” as boring, isolated, and hard.
“We just went endless rounds around Central Park,” Tina recalls, “trying to find the next goal that would elevate our soul. We couldn’t find it.” Not until Mars.
But the Sjogrens need to elevate their bodies in addition to their souls — and at a range of 34 million miles, the shortest possible route to Mars. That requires the help of thousands of specialists as well as land to build on and materials of a magnitude more durable and expensive than those available at TechShop. Today, space shuttles regularly launch from the Earth’s surface, but launching a ship from the surface of Mars, à la Matt Damon in The Martian, has never been done before. This, too, is a problem the Sjogrens claim they can solve.
To assess the possibility of this, I turned to a more informed source: NASA. Specifically, Don Pettit, who aside from having worked as an astronaut for more than two decades, was the very person who used the Sjogrens’ Contact system to hunt for meteorites in Antarctica in 2006. He had even invited the Sjogrens to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to view a NASA rocket launch a couple years later. The only problem? NASA didn’t want Pettit — or any other astronaut — to talk to me about the couple. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for NASA to comment on the Sjogrens’ plans,” a representative from Johnson Space Center’s public affairs office wrote me via email.
So I sought out the Mars messiah himself, Robert Zubrin, who is currently the president of an aerospace research and development company in Colorado called Pioneer Astronautics. Remarkably, Zubrin remembers meeting the Sjogrens back in 2006 — sort of. “They were Norwegian or something? Norwegian mountain climbers?” But he was unaware of his impact on them. He is not fazed, however, when I tell him about the Sjogrens’ effort to makerspace their way to Mars.
“I’m an agent of an idea,” Zubrin says with a menschy shrug. “And the idea recruits people to its banner: Ordinary people and extraordinary people, like Musk,” who, before starting SpaceX, briefly sat on the board of the Mars Society, the global advocacy organization Zubrin founded in 1998 to promote settlement of the red planet. But as for the Sjogrens’ plan to build an ultralight craft capable of taking them there and back for a billion dollars?
“I think you could do a two-person Mars flyby mission for a billion dollars if you had a couple like that, that was willing to rough it,” Zubrin muses. (In all the excitement over colonizing Mars, it’s easy to forget that a manned flyby has never been attempted.) “Elon would sell you the required launchers for a couple of hundred million dollars … then you could develop the spacecraft for, perhaps, a couple of million dollars …. All they need is a capsule, a heat shield, a life-support system, which might be …” — here he pauses, choosing his words carefully — “within the competence of people who are not part of the professional aerospace community to develop.” But creating a craft capable of lifting off from Mars, reaching orbit, and entering a trans-Earth trajectory is an endeavor of a different order. “That is a multibillion-dollar development. You are creating a new launch vehicle that can do a mission about as hard as getting from the Earth’s surface to orbit.” Zubrin shook his head. Even if all of this were technologically possible, and the Sjogrens could build the team to do it, “Do they have a billion dollars?” he wants to know. No, they don’t.
High up in the Sierra Nevadas, at the southern collar of the Long Valley Caldera, the Sjogrens and I stand at the edge of a 500-year-old crater limned with volcanic obsidian — a black sea of boulders extending to the horizon.
Welcome to Mars. Or, as Tina explains, the most Mars-like environment in California they could find.
Tom crunches a few feet up the gravel path and points to a large rock. “I want you to pick up that stone.”
“This one?” I say nervously. It’s about the size of a picnic basket.
“Yeah. Pick it up.”
I go over and pull at it pathetically for a moment before giving up. Then Tom walks over and lifts it high over his head, a demonstration of how easy it will be for him to maneuver in Mars’s weakened field of gravity, about a third that of Earth’s (not, he assures me, an indictment of my laptop-atrophied arms).
“We have been talking to explorers who do desert crossings,” trekkers who add big wheels to their sledges for better traction over stone, Tom explains, “and we have been pulling sledges ourselves.”
“We want a movable hab [habitat] with us,” Tina continues. “It’ll give us the opportunity to explore the really interesting areas that are higher up.”
The Sjogrens had been living in the Sierras for about four months now, both to keep mission-fit (depending on the season, they go hiking, skiing, or rock climbing every day) and to acclimate to the deprivations of space life. Their 15 square feet of tent space is the same size as the ship they intend to build. Their campsite is about a mile up the road from the official campgrounds and is a picturesque spot, if you don’t mind a German tourist wandering by with a safari-grade lens as you squat behind a tree stump.
NASA spends more than a million each year studying the psychological toll of long-term isolation by running immersive experiments in similar environments. The HI-SEAS program in Hawaii, where half a dozen crew members spend up to a year sequestered on a volcanic slope, subsisting on freeze-dried food and venturing outside only in full space garb, wrapped up its fourth trial this past August. A round-trip mission to Mars would take three years — a marathon of stress, loneliness, and physical deprivation — but despite the pragmatism of sending a childless couple to space, the agency forbids married astronauts to fly together.
Even though they aren’t locked inside an isolation capsule, in some ways the Sjogrens’ method-acting approach goes beyond NASA’s deprivation experiments. The process of drinking her own unfiltered urine, for example, is among the trials Tina has documented for ExplorersWeb. “We were discussing what to do on the mission if we run out of water,” a worst-case scenario in which the filtration system clogs up. “It’s one thing to talk about things, but if we are really serious about it,” she remembers telling Tom, “we have to be able to do it. Right now.” So she did. (While the actual experience was relatively benign — “pinching your nose helps, eliminating the smell,” Tina reports — she threw up five minutes later.)
Theirs is, by self-design, a lonely road, and yet I wondered whether, beneath all the bluster, they ever turn to each other at night, inside their Everest-grade sleeping bags resting on an air mattress in their starship-sized tent, and ask: “Who are we kidding?”
Of course, Tom tells me. A while back Tina asked Tom what he really thought their chances were of making it to Mars, and Tom told her a little more than 50 percent. But one of their exploration mantras has always been: “You don’t have to believe in order to succeed” — e.g., fake it till you make it.
In the meantime, Mars has become a way of life, an expedition without a fixed end, a mission whose customization has become a form of intimacy (they have dubbed the AI interface of their ship “Jonathan,” the name they would have given their son if they’d had one). They compare their obsession to the “polar fever” that gripped explorers like Amundsen and Shackleton, men who doggedly returned to the polar regions again and again, despite having both led disastrous missions that left their crews stranded on the ice.
“For me, Mars, space, is everything. I’m going to do everything it takes, my whole life,” says Tina. “My whole life, and I really mean it. Except for one thing,” she says, shifting a hand to Tom’s knee without taking her eyes from mine, “and that’s Tom.”
Driving up Route 203 to the Sjogrens’ camp later that evening, we pass a large sign that reads Star Party — one of the regular summer astronomy events organized by the National Park Service. It turns out that the Sjogrens have never seen Mars through a telescope, so we park the car and walk toward Minaret Vista, the stars a brilliant confetti over our heads. The telescope, a basic refracting model not much different from what Galileo used, is trained on Saturn. Tom, Tina, and I each take a look, marveling at how neatly the planet’s rings are embossed against the night sky. Then Tom turns to the ranger manning the scope. “After this, are you going to aim it toward Mars?” he asks.
“Um, I might,” the ranger says, hesitating.
“Is Mars hard to find?” I ask.
“No,” the ranger says, pointing toward a star that was supposed to be red, but looks barely feverish. “Mars is that one. It’s just not very … impressive.” For a moment, we stand there in awkward silence, necks craning. “All right, guys,” Tina suddenly says, “I guess there’s no point hanging around here.” She is already heading back toward the path. “We’re just going to see a dot.”