In 1963, putting a human on the moon was still six years away when CBC Television’s The Nature of Things set its focus even further away, to Mars.
“Would it be desirable to send a man to land on Mars?” host Lister Sinclair asked Dr. Robert Meghreblian, chief of the space sciences division at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The entire 30-minute program was devoted to the subject of the red planet.
“If one sends a man, there should be a good reason,” said Meghreblian, who took a cautious view of the possibility.
He reviewed numerous other ways scientists could gather information about Mars: “the orbiter, the flyby, the rover vehicle, the capsule itself, the sample return.”
But once those methods had been exhausted, he said a case might be made.
“If it becomes apparent then that the presence of man is essential to furthering our understanding, then there is strong motivation scientifically for sending a man.”
Biosphere 2: Mars in the desert
The era of men on the moon had come and gone when, in 1986, construction was underway on what became known as Biosphere 2.
In the Arizona desert, a private company was building a complex of buildings capable of supporting human life, in the words of host Peter Mansbridge of CBC’s The National, “in a hostile environment.”
Biosphere 2 was what CBC science reporter Eve Savory called “our world in miniature.”
“One day, perhaps, our world on another world,” she said.
The goal of Biosphere 2 was to learn how humans could be self-sustaining on another planet, like Mars.
And to do it, Biosphere 2 would consist of seven different types of ecosystems and employ scientists in different disciplines including botany.
“They want to understand how this world works,” said Savory, “so they can build it on another planet.”
“The things we do on Earth today we don’t want to do when we make habitats on Mars,” Margret Augustine, director of Biosphere 2, told the Globe and Mail in 1990, when talking about the philosophy behind Biosphere 2.
Eight people — four women and four men — were sealed inside Biosphere 2 in September 1991.
But, according to the New York Times, with time the habitat’s oxygen levels dropped such that injections were required to safeguard the health and safety of the residents.
Subsequent study determined that soil overly rich in oxygen-consuming bacteria was to blame.
George W. Bush’s moon base
In 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the moon landing and before the Biosphere 2 experiment began, U.S. President George Bush announced his intention to go back to the moon and then further.
According to the Associated Press, he proposed building a base on the moon in the 21st century and using it to “mount a manned Mars mission.”
But without approval from other levels of government, the idea went nowhere.
Fifteen years later, his son, U.S. President George W. Bush, made a similar pledge.
NASA had released new pictures from Mars taken by the Spirit rover, but pictures weren’t enough for the younger Bush.
“If the thirst for human knowledge ultimately cannot be satisfied by even the most vivid pictures,” he said in a separate news report, “we need to see, and examine, and touch for ourselves.”
The Maple Leaf on the red planet
As CBC reporter Eric Sorensen found, the Canadian Space Agency was ready for any new mission, to Mars or otherwise, that might result from Bush’s vision.
“It could be a positive thing for Canada,” said Jean-Guy Dumoulin at the CSA’s Ottawa laboratory. “We look forward to possibly doing some of the testing here.”
The David Florida Laboratory was a testing site for satellite components, and was home to a huge vacuum chamber that reproduced the emptiness of space.
“It’s here that antennas and signals are tested, and will be tested for spacecraft and satellites from Mars,” said Sorensen.
The roving beaver
In Toronto, a team of 50 scientists was aiming higher than just components for a Mars mission.
“It unfolds like a clamshell,” said Brendan Quine, a member of the team, “And then deploys a small rover system here called the Beaver.”
As he talked, he showed off a device, emblazoned with the Maple Leaf flag, with wheels and an antenna.
The Beaver Rover was just one aspect of a project called Northern Lights.
“We have the Canadian industry and science to mount our own missions,” said Quine. “And mounting our own missions, that means more of the technology comes back to Canada.”
But for any of it to happen, funding was required — and Marc Garneau, Canada’s first astronaut, was taking that message to the federal government.
In the meantime, Canada was planning to have a scientific package on the Phoenix lander, which was planned to land on Mars in 2008.