Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Elegant failure of the Polar Lander preserves The Mars We Can Imagine
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   12/10/1999)

So what became of the Mars probe? The Mars Polar Lander? That precursor to manned flight to the Red Planet, the "Angry, Red Planet?" A world of canals and elegant low-gravity architecture as envisioned a century ago by popular astronomer Percival Lowell. A kingdom of heroes and princesses and monster-beasts in visions summoned in a dozen books by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the 1920s.

Barsoom, Burroughs called Mars, and to get there... to get there... why you simply stood on a hilltop at midnight with your arms out-stretched and willed yourself to transmigrate upward, across space and time, to that celestial realm of romance, mystery and adventure. It only required a heroic act of imagination.

Which is, of course, what NASA represents on some level. NASA wants very badly to land people on Mars, to establish a base, maybe even, one day, to build bubble-domed gardens there. Still, I can't say I'm saddened by the loss of the Mars Polar Lander.

You see, there are two versions of Mars. There's NASA's Mars, and then there's The Mars We Can Imagine.

NASA's Mars is a cold, rusty planet of boulder-strewn deserts, ice-fields, and--if we are lucky--trace remains of microscopic life that once eked out some pseudo-existence, but never quite rose to the level of fungi. This is the world the Polar Lander was sent to explore--a dried, skeletal husk, a dumb, dead slag heap. And then there is The Mars We Can Imagine. Barsoom! Sister world! Home to the race that launched a thousand spaceships... to invade Earth according to those scary and gregarious fun guys, H.G. Wells and Orson Welles. "The War of the Worlds," like any vision of Mars worth its dilithium crystals, posited a Mars inhabited by beings that had become one with their machines, and who looked down with utmost envy on the green hills of earth, before launching an armada of conquest.

The Mars We Can Imagine is also the Mars of Ray Bradbury, who conjured a globe where reincarnated souls of loved ones dwelt alongside restless spirits of lost alien life. It's the Mars of Robert Heinlein and Rod Serling and James Cameron, and that eerie stone face detected for a spell in old NASA photographs. You remember, it looked for all the world like the makeshift alien dummy of "The Corbomite Maneuver," that classic first-year episode from Star Trek. The one where Kirk tricks the aliens into believing he has a doomsday device on-board the Enterprise that will automatically destroy any attacker, and so the aliens let down their masks to reveal themselves as child-like cosmic pranksters....

It's the Mars of blasting rockets and ray guns and service stations for starships, and Bermuda Triangles in space....

You can hear it now on your holographic TV, that baritone voice chronicling lost probes: "More than a dozen unmanned spacecraft have disappeared in the void surrounding the red planet. To this day, scientists and philosophers are trying to understand why. Could it be that some alien intelligence--some malevolent will--has determined man should never decipher the secrets of their ancient civilization...."

The failure of the Mars Polar Lander unites that mission to a tradition rooted in science fiction, fantasy and things that go bump in the night. In that world, ah, in that world... we can easily imagine what happened to the Mars Polar Lander.

Standing on her balcony, Princess Elana gazed upward through the crystal dome above Crater Centralia--the capital of Deep Welles--and watched the meteor streak through burgundy Martian skies. Often she had gazed at such shooting stars, here on the edge of the Asteroid Belt, but this one was different. This one had been sent from the emerald-blue and white morning star closer in to the sun. There dwelt a primitive race intent on conquering Mars. Elana carefully concentrated her psychic gaze, summoning a force field to cushion the tiny alien craft's fall and settle it softly in the Martian soil beyond the dome. Tonight she would send her warrior-lover, Deft-thew, and his helpers, the Chum-chum-woolies, to bring her prize back to Deep Welles, this South Polar gateway to the hollow Martian core. It would not do to let beings from Earth discover the vast civilization still thriving beneath the surface of Mars, especially on this, the eve of her coronation...."

O.K., I got carried away there, but isn't that the purpose of Mars--to carry away the dreamer inside us? There'll be time enough for chemicals that break down the molecular structure of the soil. Time enough to Terraform this red twinkling neighbor, to remake it in our own image. Meanwhile, let's make the most of this respite from reality offered up by the magnanimous failure of the Mars Polar Lander. It's been worth every red cent.