Ben Bova Interview
Is there life on Mars? What does the planet look like? Will earthlings have sex in space? These were among the important questions TBR and its almost-200 guests posed to BEN BOVA when the MARS author visited us on August 11. Bova's answers may surprise you. . . as they did TBR interviewer Sean Doorly (Bookpg SD). Unflappable, as always, was our host BookpgXena.
Bookpg SD: Welcome to The Book Report, Mr. Bova.
Ben Bova: Thanks for inviting me here tonight. It's nice to be here chatting with you.
Bookpg SD: In light of the success of the Sojourner mission, which is better... manned or unmanned missions?
Ben Bova: There is no distinction between them. There are some jobs better by unmanned and some that can only be done by humans on the scene. Sojourner will tell us a lot about Mars, but undoubtedly we will want to send people to Mars. Just as our scientists here on Earth teach us about our own geology.
Bookpg SD: Could explorers live off the land as some have suggested? How could it be done?
Ben Bova: I think they can. We know enough about Mars to know that the basic elements that we need for life support are there. The real question: Is there any carbon, any native organic material there? But we could, knowing what we know today, bring food and seed and grow food hydroponically there. There is water and plenty of sunshine on Mars. So we could grow our own food.
Bookpg SD: Would that be cheaper than the mission you propose in your novel?
Ben Bova: I think it would be cheaper now that you're talking about missions that stay on Mars for a long period of time. Maybe even a permanent mission on Mars with teams of explorers rotating. In my novel MARS, I wrote about an expedition that was driven by Earth's politics. I'm just starting to write the sequel in which the expedition is driven by good science. The working title is RETURN TO MARS, but I don't think that's going to last.
Question: What inspired you to write the book MARS?
Ben Bova: It goes back to my very earliest discoveries of astronomy when I was a junior high school kid going to the planetarium. I thought it would be fascinating to go explore that world. And 30 or 40 years later, I wrote the novel. Actually, it was 50 years later!
Question: If you were given the chance to go to Mars, would you?
Ben Bova: In a hot second!
Question: I have heard a lot of reports that Mars was once an earthlike planet... could this mean that terraforming is a more likely possibility?
Ben Bova: I don't like the idea of terraforming. It's an idea whose time has gone. I don't think we should be messing with a planet that might have living creatures on it. If we need more real estate, we can build colonies elsewhere. Terraforming is the riskiest and most expensive way of creating new real estate I've ever heard of. It is just not a good idea.
Question: How real do you feel the movie CONTACT is in our future?
Ben Bova: I think that we will eventually make contact with intelligent extraterrestrials. It could be a thousand years. It could be tomorrow. I think the novel was excellent by an excellent man. And the movie was one of the few that actually portrayed scientists as they really are.
Bookpg SD: Did you know Carl Sagan?
Ben Bova: I knew Carl in the 1960s when we were both working in Cambridge.
Question: Would it be more probable that they find carbon-based life forms rather than silicon-based life, assuming there is life on other planets such as Mars?
Ben Bova: From what we know of life on Earth, carbon seems much more likely. Carbon atoms can form long-chain molecules under a wide range of temperature and pressures. Silicon can form long-chain molecules over a much smaller range. At this stage, I think we're much more likely to find carbon life forms than silicon.
Bookpg SD: What exactly did scientists discover in that famous meteorite last year? Life?
Ben Bova: Well, that's what the argument is all about! The NASA scientists feel very strongly that they found fossils of bacteria that lived beneath the surface of Mars three-and-a-half-billion years ago. Others claim not. We don't know. This is how science works -- one side amassing enough evidence until the other side says "Yes, you're right." I suspect we'll have to go to Mars with our own pails and shovels and dig until we figure out who is right.
Question: How does it feel to be on the New York Times bestseller list?
Ben Bova: I wouldn't know. Really.
Bookpg SD: You deserve to be.
Ben Bova: I agree! I've been on other bestseller lists.
Question: How is your new book selling worldwide?
Ben Bova: MOON RISE is apparently doing quite well. The British edition is doing very well. Several foreign language editions are in the works and the American edition has sold extremely well.
Bookpg SD: The Russian space program plays an important role in your novel. In light of recent events, do you think there will be one in ten years?
Ben Bova: Oh, yeah. I think the Russians realize that space is an important contribution to the economy. You can't be a modern industrialized nation without using satellites. As far as I know, they have every intention of continuing space efforts in partnerships and on their own.
Question: Do you write on any kind of schedule -- set a number of words or hours as a daily goal?
Ben Bova: I start writing first thing in the morning after the coffee. I keep on writing until it starts looking stupid. You run out of gas eventually -- sometimes after an hour or two, sometimes after the whole day.
Bookpg SD: Any particular reason for having a Native American as your lead character in MARS?
Ben Bova: I wish I knew. I couldn't start writing the novel -- even though the synopsis had been accepted -- until the main character came together for me. I didn't realize at first -- until I struggled with it -- that the character was part Navajo. Once I realized that, it was easy.
Question: What is the daily temperature on Mars?
Ben Bova: It's cold. In mid-summer on the equator, the temperature on the ground would be 70 degrees. But at the height of your nose, if you were standing on the ground, it would be zero.
Bookpg SD: What do you think of the three Yemeni men who filed a lawsuit claiming they owned Mars?
Ben Bova: Lots of luck! I don't think their claims are being taken very seriously. International law wouldn't take their claim of precedent. I wrote about a case like this in a story called SAND WAR.
Question: I read MARS some time ago and am surprised to see you talking about it now. Is it enjoying new interest because of the current expedition?
Ben Bova: Not only because of that. I have just signed a contract to do a movie of MARS. The news was on the front page of the Hollywood Reporter this morning. It may be a TV special and series, too. The ink is dry and things are moving ahead.
Bookpg SD: Why should we explore Space?
Ben Bova: Why should we breathe? We are an expansive species. Every species expands to occupy every space it can reach. It is a biological urge to expand and grow. For us humans, descendants of Curious George and other apes, we're curious. Are we alone in the universe? Is there other life? These are basic motives. There may be political, military, economic reasons. But the basic drive is fundamentally biological.
Bookpg SD: What about people who say spend money on Earth problems?
Ben Bova: There are two ways to look at that. One is that we don't spend the money there. We spend it here. The money an engineer makes goes out to the economy. Furthermore, what we have developed for space is filtering back into the consumer economy. Computers, for examples, used at home, owe it to the space program. If you ever are in the intensive care unit of a hospital, you'll be kept alive by machines created to keep astronauts alive. It's just part of the world we live in!
Question: Have you read any of the other sci-fi books about Mars? If so, what do you think about them?
Ben Bova: No, I have not. And it's been a deliberate decision on my part. I figured that sooner or later I'd want to do a sequel. Despite enormous temptation, I've steered clear to avoid the influence.
Question: Do you think we might be able to live on Mars in the next century?
Ben Bova: We could live on Mars next year, if we really wanted to do it, as far as the technology is concerned. In 10-15 years, when manned expeditions go to Mars, we will be able to sustain life there for a small group of scientists.
Bookpg SD: In your novel you explain that the space program doesn't want sex in space. Do you foresee this as a problem?
Ben Bova: No, I think men and women will engage in sex in space regardless of what controllers on the ground want. There's no evidence that this has happened, although there have been opportunities.
Question: You mentioned that you think we will one day make contact with intelligent extraterrestrials. What do you say to the statisticians who point out the extremely low possibility of that happening, even in a crowded galaxy?
Ben Bova: Even an extremely low probability could eventually come up. There's no telling when. I remember the early days of rocketry, when rockets would blow up in front of us all the time. Mathematicians said rockets were too complex and would never work.
Bookpg SD: What is the Space Society?
Ben Bova: The National Space Society is a grassroots organization of all kinds of people who are dedicated to making the human race a space-faring society -- all the factors that go into moving us into space in a major and productive way.
Question: Do you feel there have been goverment cover-ups about life on other planets?
Ben Bova: A government that couldn't keep a third-rate burglary in the Watergate a secret, couldn't possibly keep a secret about extraterrestrials from us. Our government leaks like a sieve. Never!
Question: What are your thoughts on the physics of chemical rockets and the enormous expense of getting out of gravity wells? Isn't this a hindrance to exploring Mars for the forseeable future?
Ben Bova: Yes. But
the next development in rockets will get the cost of getting into orbit
down considerably. Right now, it would cost about $10,000 per pound
for a ride on the space shuttle. The next generation will bring the
price down to $100 per pound. There is a possibility that tourists could
be interested in that. A market could open up in 10-15 years
Ben Bova: No, that's not me. That's a wonderful man. He's very modest, so I won't mention his name. But he is a real man.
Question: Did Mars look as you pictured it?
Ben Bova: In my novel, I made as accurate a representation of Mars as I could. I used a lot of help. The description is as accurate as I can make it.
Bookpg SD: What about the face on Mars? How did that get there?
Ben Bova: I think the chances are 99 in 100 that it is a piece of rock that was eroded by wind. We have ones like that on Earth. I would be delighted to find that the face was created by an intelligent being, but I'm afraid it will turn out to be a natural phenomenon.
Question: Will there be a sequel to DEATH DREAMS?
Ben Bova: I'm not planning one.
Question: What do you see in year 2050?
Ben Bova: That's a very broad question. I see, in general, that there will be significant numbers of humans living off the planet Earth. Millions of people will be virtually immortal because of medical technology. Death from old age will be a thing of the past.
Bookpg SD: So Bill Gates might rule the world?
Ben Bova: Doesn't he already? Somebody intelligent enough to rule the world is probably too smart to take the job.
Question: What do you feel is your best book?
Ben Bova: That's hard to say. Right now, the best book as a novel is BROTHERS, as a piece of writing. It's a contemporary novel about scientists.
Question: What do you think of the X-33 launch?
Ben Bova: It hasn't been launched, the vehicle that is. If it works as advertised, it will develop into a commercial long-range air carrier. It could go from NYC to Tokyo in 30 minutes.
Question: Do you foresee Mars as having any industrial value?
Ben Bova: I'm afraid I can't see that at all. The distance involved is too great. I see the moon as having industrial value. I've written about that. I just don't see anything we could get from Mars, besides information, that would have value on Earth. Depending on how much water is really on Mars, it could have some effect in that way. I suspect there are other sources of water in the asteroid belt itself, so you could explore it without going back and forth to Mars itself.
Question: Which sci-fi writers have had the greatest impact on your career?
Ben Bova: Alfred Bester. Robert Heinlein. Ray Bradbury is helpful and a personal friend. Fritz Leiber. I admire the writing of Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett.
Question: Are you still an important member of OMNI magazine?
Ben Bova: No, I'm not. I retired in 1982. I've contributed a bit as a writer, but not for a while.
BookpgXena: I'm sorry, but we've run out of time. Thank you for being here with us, Mr. Bova.
Ben Bova: It's been fun. Thanks for inviting me.
Bookpg SD: Thank you so much.
OnlineHost: Copyright 1997 THE BOOK REPORT, INC.; licensed to America Online, Inc.