For tens of thousands of years, humanity would set its sights on a reddish god which would approach Earth every two years. Many of the thoughts associated with this observation would have, no doubt, have elicited wonder and fascination. Spurred on by this curiosity and gifted by technological innovation, mankind would look at the god, which would eventually turn into a sphere. Features would be noticed; moons, even. Each discovery from our fixed position on Earth would lead to more questions about the makeup of our solar system. Foremost, what goes on “out there”: Does life such as our own exist outside our world? The red sphere would be understood to be a planet; one of many, but one close enough and similar enough in type to that of Earth to warrant exploration. But for all their advances, mankind was still held up by the capability of its best optics. We had seen as much as we could with the best telescopes available. To answer the original questions, as well as the new ones that had arisen, mankind would need to touch this planet, or at least accomplish this by a proxy presence with the wild science fiction idea of robots. Though for all of mankind’s progress, the sheer distance between here and there would keep this red planet out of reach. “Exploration” of our planetary neighbor would remain a foolish idea; impractical until advances in rocketry, which came as a byproduct of war. Competition would foster technological innovation and proposals once considered fiction would now make this dream of exploration feasible.
Mars would come “closer” to humanity through a series of expensive experiments in one-upmanship. The two rival powers of their time would embark on a “Space Race” that would introduce great feats in many fields. The progress of mathematics, design and engineering would propel one superpower to first launching a vehicle outside of our confines. The other power, obliged to match, would do the same. Lesser species would make the journey before man; to test the theories of whether or not life could survive beyond our atmosphere. Very quickly, mankind would share the view of Earth witnessed by the first artificial satellites and primate space explorers—finally, testing space for himself. While these tests of “possibility” were being conducted, both powers kept in mind as an objective of their efforts, the exploration, and possible colonization of first the Moon, then Mars. Because one power, the United States, could not achieve an early victory, they went after the prize of landing their men on the Moon. However, while preparations for that endeavour were being made, both civilizations were formulating ideas for Mars. The civilization in competition with the United States, the Soviet Union, would try first for the red planet.
The Soviet Marsnik program, first launched in 1960, resulted in what would be the first of many failures by both the Soviet and the American space programs in their attempts at reaching Mars. Nonetheless, either threatened or inspired by the actions of their rivals, the two programs would continue until they both saw success. The Americans would counter the Soviets in 1964 with the Mariner probe. While the first probe proved a dud, the Mariner 4 would complete the seven month journey to become the first manmade object to flyby Mars. On July 14, 1965, the Mariner 4 probe sent back the first close up photographs of the red planet. A clue as to who our neighbor really was, was revealed. Signs of impact craters were observed, dimming the hopes of some optimists who clung to the dream that life existed there, despite indications of a most negligible atmosphere. Mars was a battered world, much like our Lunar companion. The Mariner 9 probe would be the first to enter into orbit, and along with two Soviet probes that would arrive within a month, provide an up close visual reference of the red planet. The probes arrived in the middle of a planetary dust storm. The images sent back when the storm subsided showed the unexpected—the gigantic volcanoes of Olympus Mons and Valles Marineris, a grand canyon stretching 4,800 kilometers. The Mariner 9 probe would map 100 percent of the Martian surface, as well as study the two moons, Phobos and Deimos. Riverbeds would also be discovered, teasing mankind with the possibility of water (and by extension, life) elsewhere. The probe would function for almost a year in orbit before terminating. It still occupies an orbit around the red planet, while the Soviet probes would become the first human debris on a foreign world. 
After a series of high profile setbacks, the Soviet program would stagnate, leaving the exploration of Mars to the hands of the Americans. The United States would now attempt to position orbiting satellites as well as planetary landings with the Viking program. On July 26, 1976, in their first attempt at a landing, the Americans were successful. Experiments aimed at finding evidence of organic life were a failure, but the data collected sparked intense debate. Among the many photographs taken by Viking 1 and the subsequent lander, Viking 2, revealed clear imagery of frost on the Martian surface—possible evidence of water. Along with these photographs, many soil samples would be taken and analyzed robotically and entry science would be essentially perfected during the Viking missions. The Viking 1 lander would continue to function for over six years, sending valuable information about the Martian soil back to Earth. The orbiter would last almost four years, photographing the surface of the planet and its two moons. While not as long lived as is sister orbiter/lander, the Viking 2 mission would be successful in its own right, providing a plethora of information to supplement the growing reservoir of Mars data.
It is important to note that while there were great triumphs in human ingenuity, there were also devastating setbacks for both the Soviet and the American space programs that threatened the future of their Mars projects. So much so that there appears to be a “Mars Curse,” dating as far back as the first Marsnik 1 attempt. Nearly 60 percent of the missions have either failed or have been only partially successful. The Soviets flew only two orbiters that were successful, and none of their landing attempts succeeded. Countries that would enter the space race late would lose missions as well. Though mostly triumphant in their attempts, the United States has had its share of high profile and costly failures. When the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) returned to their Mars objectives in the early 1990’s after focusing on the Space Shuttle program, they had a demoralizing failure in the Mars Observer Mission. Another critical failure would follow because of careless math, and the public image of the agency would (and the tax dollars they consume) be called into question.
On an ambitious return to the red planet, the Observer mission was to spend nearly a year in orbit studying the climate and geoactivity of Mars. The satellite was inexplicably lost three days prior to orbital insertion. Communication was never regained, and the fate of the Observer remains unknown. The total cost of the Mars Observer mission, including development, construction, launch, and ground support was estimated between $800-$900 million dollars. A less costly, but equally disappointing mission, the Mars Climate Orbiter, was carried out by NASA nearly five years after the Observer incident. This is likely the most embarrassing mistake of the space program. The failure of a contractor to use metric units in their trajectory models caused the Orbiter to burn up in the Martian atmosphere. The models were constructed using imperial measurements of feet instead of industry standard meters. These setbacks would result in wide ranging managerial and technical actions throughout the organization. Although detrimental to the image of the agency, the mistakes were learned from; NASA and its Mars program would push forward with exciting new projects and an increased robotic presence on the red planet.
Looking for a return to glory after setbacks in both the Mars and Shuttle programs, the Mars Pathfinder program would deliver just that. The mission’s primary objective was to demonstrate the feasibility of low-cost landings on the Martian surface. On the Fourth of July, 1997, the probe delivered a stationary lander and a surface rover, named Sojourner, which would explore the Ares Vallis. Knowledge of this area, a valley thought to be carved by liquids—maybe even water—would be crucial to mankind’s understanding of the red planet. The data collected would suggest that three Billion years ago Mars had large lakes along its equator. Volcanic activity spurred atmospheric density, which would cause the lakes to overfill and create channels that would go on to create new lakes. Gigantic floods ran downhill, carving a deep canyon. Rocks eroded from the canyon walls were milled into smaller fractions and carried in the running water where they were deposited into the valley. This has changed the preexisting notion that the Martian surface was too arid or cold to support liquid water during that time period. In the search for life, past or present, outside of Earth, these ancient lakebeds and channels would be an ideal place to look.
Building on the success of the Sojourner rover mission, NASA would again achieve victory with their next project. The rovers Spirit and Opportunity would be launched in 2003. Together, the tiny robotic representatives of humanity would explore over 17 miles of the Martian surface. Originally, they were designed to cover only 600 meters, but to this day, Spirit and Opportunity have been hard at work analyzing soil and rocks. The hope is that they can find clues to the history and existence of water on Mars. The rovers have braved inhospitable terrain and climate, weathering out massive dust storms that threatened the capabilities of their solar panels. More recently, Spirit became stuck, but the machine and its programmers pulled out another trick and now Spirit functions as a stationary science platform. Opportunity has defied the odds, trekking along the Martian surface, far after its expected lifespan. This success has come at a price, however, with a cost of over $800,000 million dollars for the 90 day primary mission alone. When the rovers outlived expectations, the decision to keep the mission alive comes at a cost of $20 million dollars a year since 2003.
Our understanding of “the universe” now reaches far beyond our sky, our solar system, and our galaxy. Still today, Mars is considered maybe too far away. The distances of space are still difficult to overcome. The challenge now, as was at the beginning of Martian expeditions, is funding. Concerns hinge on the practicality of a project that takes billions of dollars yet yields no near term rewards; the projects planned could take decades to complete. These projects are still part of a larger NASA vision that requires funding and these other programs force the Mars planners to compete for ever scant federal dollars. There is not a consensus on what the main objective of the space program should be.  Programs that cover old ground could perhaps be left to private enterprise, freeing NASA to continue their exploratory aims, rather than being a mostly maintenance organization. In the midst of a global economic crisis, dollars spent on faraway planets can be argued a wasteful expense. It would be necessary to argue the importance of a Mars program, and that argument rests solely on the premise that on Mars, information and resources exist that we cannot get here.
ESA: Mars Express. “Ancient floods on Mars: Iani Chaos and Ares Vallis.” June 1, 2005. (Accessed April 26, 2010) http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Mars_Express/SEMIKO0DU8E_0.html
Isbell, Douglas and Don Savage. Mars Climate Orbiter Failure Board Reaches Results.” November 10, 1999 (Accessed April 26, 2010) http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msp98/news/mco991110.html
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National Space Science Data Center, “The Mariner Mars Missions,” (Accessed April 26, 2010) http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/mars/mariner.html
National Space Science Data Center, “Mariner 9,” (Accessed April 26, 2010) http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraftDisplay.do?id=1971-051A
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Wilford, John Noble. New York Times. “U.S. Launches a Spacecraft On a Mars Trip.” September 26, 1992 (Accessed April 26, 2010) http://www.nytimes.com/1992/09/26/us/us-launches-a-spacecraft-on-a-mars-trip.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1
O’Neill, Ian. Universe Today. “”The Mars Curse”: Why Have So Many Missions Failed.” March 22, 2008 (Accessed April 26, 2010) http://www.universetoday.com/2008/03/22/the-mars-curse-why-have-so-many-missions-failed/
 Marsnik is a blend of the words Mars and Sputnik (the first Soviet satellite); the word does not exist in the Russian language.
 National Space Science Data Center, “Marsnik 1,” (Accessed April 26, 2010) http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/masterCatalog.do?sc=MARSNK1
 National Space Science Data Center, “The Mariner Mars Missions,” (Accessed April 26, 2010) http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/mars/mariner.html
 National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “Solar System Exploration: Mission to Mars: Mariner 9.” (Accessed April 26, 2010) http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/profile.cfm?MCode=Mariner_09
 National Space Science Data Center, “Mariner 9,” (Accessed April 26, 2010) http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraftDisplay.do?id=1971-051A
 Klaes, Larry. The Astronomical Society of the Atlantic. “The Rocky Soviet Road to Mars.” Volume 1, Number 3. October, 1989.
 The art of entering an atmosphere and landing a vehicle.
 Wilford, John Noble. New York Times. “U.S. Launches a Spacecraft On a Mars Trip.” September 26, 1992 (Accessed April 26, 2010) http://www.nytimes.com/1992/09/26/us/us-launches-a-spacecraft-on-a-mars-trip.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1
 O’Neill, Ian. Universe Today. “”The Mars Curse”: Why Have So Many Missions Failed.” March 22, 2008 (Accessed April 26, 2010) http://www.universetoday.com/2008/03/22/the-mars-curse-why-have-so-many-missions-failed/
 Isbell, Douglas and Don Savage. Mars Climate Orbiter Failure Board Reaches Results.” November 10, 1999 (Accessed April 26, 2010) http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msp98/news/mco991110.html
 ESA: Mars Express. “Ancient floods on Mars: Iani Chaos and Ares Vallis.” June 1, 2005. (Accessed April 26, 2010) http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Mars_Express/SEMIKO0DU8E_0.html
 Sanjeev Gupta, Nicholas Warner, Jung-Rack Kim, Shih-Yuan Lin, Jan Peter Muller. “Hesperian equatorial lakes in Ares Vallis as evidence for transient warm conditions on Mars.” Geology, January 2010; Vol. 38, pp. 71-74
 National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Mars Exploration Rover Mission. March 12, 2010. (Accessed April 26, 2010) http://marsrover.nasa.gov/newsroom/pressreleases/20100324b.html
 Leary, Warren E. New York Times. “Committee on Space Is Optimistic On Devising Plan to Reach Mars.” February 12, 2004