The First Martians

William Sims Bainbridge

Analog 120(7): 81-89, 2000.

The first Martians may already be alive, here on Earth. Dan Goldin of NASA says he hopes to begin serious work on a human expedition to Mars immediately after completing the International Space Station. If so, the people who will establish a permanent base for science and development on the Red Planet could be teenagers today. Somewhat generously, therefore, we can define a Martian as a young person who wants to go to Mars. This article identifies the general qualities of these future Martians, based on data from an innovative web-based survey carried out late in 1998 by the National Geographic Society, with responses from 3,185 youngsters aged 13-15. Before we get to that cutting-edge research, we need to go back in time a dozen years to the modest study that suggested it was worth looking for Martians.

The 1986 Pilot Study

On January 28, 1986, I was sitting in the pressroom at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, watching the latest pictures beamed down by Voyager 2 as it passed Uranus, when the TV monitors switched over to NASA's direct feed from Cape Canaveral. In a few moments, we science journalists were watching the ill-fated launch of the Challenger and its explosion. Each of us had his or her own reaction. The Sky and Telescope reporter who had the desk across from mine stared grimly into space for a long minute, then picked up the telephone and changed his travel reservations. I began outlining a questionnaire that might help us understand what ideas would convince the public to support increased investment in spaceflight.

Later that spring, I administered one of a series of questionnaires to undergraduates at Harvard University, and the survey included the following item: "If you were asked to go along on the first rocket trip to the planet Mars, would you want to go or not?" The data analyzed here are from 512 students, 256 males and 256 females. The same database is included in my software and textbook package, Social Research Methods and Statistics, so anyone who wishes may replicate these results or try other analyses. Altogether, 55.9 percent said YES, 38.7 percent said NO, and 5.3 percent said maybe.

What does this mean? Certainly, we were not asking the students to sign a binding contract, and most of them probably knew that there were no serious plans for a Mars expedition at that time. Thus, this item measures a very general attitude about a flight to Mars rather than a firm intention to participate. But the item is not entirely abstract, and it asks the respondent in effect to say how the idea of Mars flight fits with his or her personally. Data from other items in this survey contributed significantly to my book, Goals in Space, and it is quite clear that most of the respondents possessed some real knowledge and many complex attitudes about spaceflight. As Harvard students, imagining themselves to be the elite of their generation, they may believe that they are capable of accomplishing almost anything, including conquest of the Red Planet.

The male students are more likely than the females to say they might go to Mars, 66 percent versus 46 percent. In part, this reflects the fact that men express more enthusiasm for having a Mars expedition in the first place. Another item in the Harvard survey asked, "There has been much discussion about attempting to land people on the planet Mars. How would you feel about such an attempt-would you favor or oppose the United States setting aside money for such a project?" About 54 percent of males and only 43 percent of females were in favor. Interestingly, both sexes seem more willing to consider going to Mars than to have the government appropriate money for the project.

Slightly deeper insight can be achieved by looking at the connections between preferences for various college subjects and being willing to go to Mars. Fully 73 percent of those who loved "astronomy" (rating it "6" or "7" on a 7-point preference scale) wanted to go, compared with just 46 percent of those who hated it (rating it "1" or "2"). Four other fields had positive correlations: geology, physics, engineering, and - surprisingly - anthropology. On the other hand, three fields were negatively related: art, sociology, and foreign languages. For example, 72 percent of the people who hate foreign languages want to go to Mars, compared with 49 percent of those who love them. Presumably they don't anticipate learning the Martian language ("kaor" means "hello," according to Edgar Rice Burroughs). Assuming that Mars is uninhabited, the positive correlations are all with sciences that actually would gain from an expedition to Mars, with the interesting exception of anthropology. It might be said that anthropologists wish to escape their own society, whereas sociologists are mired in it, and leaving the Earth is difficult for those who are stuck in the mud.

Eight years before the Challenger disaster, I had administered questionnaires at the world science fiction convention in Phoenix, Arizona, for my book, Dimensions of Science Fiction. It made sense to include some of the questions in the Harvard survey to see if the distinctions that are important to SF fans are also meaningful to college students. The traditional "hard-science" brand of SF is most relevant to a Mars voyage. Fully 74 percent of students who love "fiction based on the physical sciences" would go to Mars, compared with 39 percent of those who hate it. This difference of 35 percentage points is the largest positive correlation. Other strong connections are with "science fiction," "stories about scientific progress," and "stories about new technology." The fantasy wing of science fiction also favors going to Mars, and there are moderate correlations with "fantasy stories involving swords and sorcery," "stories about magic," and "myths and legends." The social science and experimental literature wing of science fiction - what used to be called "New Wave" - is weakly connected, at best. Students who love "fiction based on the social sciences" are somewhat more likely candidates to become Martians than those who hate this literature, 60 percent versus 47. For "avant-garde fiction that experiments with new styles" the figures are 55 percent versus 44 percent. Liking four kinds of literature is strongly associated with not wanting to go to Mars: "fiction that deeply probes personal relationships and feelings," "essays critical of American society," "fiction that is critical of our society," and "Feminist literature."

Whatever its intellectual meanings, an expedition to Mars would involve tremendous physical risks. The second-strongest predictor of being willing to go was preference for "taking physical risks." Of those who love taking physical risks, 68 percent would jump on board the spaceship, compared with 34 percent of those who hate such risks. Enjoying "driving fast in a car" is also positively correlated, whereas "complete personal security" is negatively connected. There is no connection either way with "taking risks in your relationships with people."

The modest results of this pilot study were quite reasonable, providing confidence that respondents really do communicate something meaningful when they say they are willing or unwilling to go to Mars. Apparently, young people who would consider joining the first Mars expedition enjoy astronomy and other sciences they might get to practice on the Red Planet. They like science fiction, especially the traditional hard-science style. And they seem to thrive on physical risks.

But there are two problems with these findings. First of all, they are pretty obvious. Social scientists frequently experience a "Catch 22" when they share their findings. People who believe the findings will say they are so obvious that there was no need to do the research. People who disagree, often on political grounds, accuse the social scientists of incompetence or data fudging. It's a no-win situation. This pilot study at least showed that a simple question about willingness to go to Mars could yield reasonable correlations with other questionnaire items. Maybe a more ambitious study could turn up results that were more interesting.

The second problem is that we cannot be sure how much the results merely reflect the fact that enthusiasm for going to Mars is more common among males than among females. Possibly variables like "driving fast in a car" merely distinguish boys from girls. Think of it this way: Men quite incidentally want to go to Mars. (Maybe the women want to go to Venus, for example.) Men, on average, are more likely to seek physical risks. When the social scientist runs the correlations, it looks like future Martians are risk-takers. In a sense they are, but only because they are disproportionately male. This is the methodological problem of spuriousness - the distorting effect of an unmeasured third variable (sex) on the correlation between two other variables (risk-seeking and being Martian).

A study of future Martians could turn up interesting results if it had a sufficient number of respondents to control statistically for the sex factor, and if it had a range of fresh variables that correlate with being Martian. Unfortunately, large-scale surveys are extremely expensive, especially if carried out in the traditional manner. For example, the periodic General Social Survey costs a million dollars to collect data from 1,500 American adults, interviewed face-to-face in their homes. Thus, for a dozen years I had no practical way to follow up on the tantalizing findings about young Martians, until the opportunity came along to participate in the National Geographic Society's web-based survey.

Survey 2000

"Survey 2000" was a web-based questionnaire focusing on migration and regional culture, sponsored by the National Geographic Society and organized by sociologist James Witte. From late September through early November 1998, more than 50,000 adults and 15,000 children responded to this half-hour online survey. Although the "National" in "National Geographic Society" refers to the United States, this was a truly world-wide study. Four nations contributed more than 1,000 adult respondents each: Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Thirty-one others contributed more than 100 each: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, China, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland. Turkey, and Venezuela.

The project was remarkable not only for being done cost-effectively over the World Wide Web, but for being one of the most technically complex questionnaire studies ever carried out by any means, exploiting many of the exciting new capabilities of computer-based electronic communications. Early questions tracked the US and Canadian adult respondents' residential moves, and the computer selected later items on the basis of the individual's history of geographic mobility. Questions about preferences in food and literature were automatically tailored to the regions of birth and current residence, and one battery of music preference items actually let the respondent hear samples of the music. Other questions concerned the respondent's Internet use versus involvement in the local community. I myself added only one item to the adult survey, asking people to write in their thoughts about what the world will be like a century from now. The roughly twenty megabytes of text I received will take months to analyze.

My main interest was the youth survey, especially the version administered to children aged thirteen to fifteen. Others had already adapted the section of the adult survey concerning preferences in music and had developed a long section asking about the child's favorite activities and interests. In addition to consulting on the overall content of the youth survey, I added items about science and technology. Each was a statement, such as "There should be a law against cloning human beings," and the respondent was supposed to respond either "strongly agree," "agree," "disagree," or "strongly disagree." One was a variant of the key item from the pilot study: "If I were asked to go along on the first rocket trip to Mars, I would go."

Table 1 shows how 3,185 children responded. About 33 percent of all children express a strong interest in being a part of the first Mars flight. Again, we should not conclude that a third of them are really ready to step aboard a spaceship to Mars, with or without their parents' permission. Rather, this is a measure of a generally positive orientation toward the idea. Actual future Martians will be a tiny minority, of course, but they should be found among those who "strongly agree" that they would go on the first rocket to Mars. The table confirms that there is a significant difference between the sexes, about 40 percent of boys wanting to go, compared with only 26 percent of girls. Given the large numbers of both boys and girls who gave each possible response, we are in a good position to learn more about the gender differences in the following analysis.

Table 1: "If I were asked to go along on the
first rocket trip to Mars, I would go."
Strongly Agree32.539.9%26.0%
Strongly Disagree15.0%12.7%16.6%

Interests and Preferences of Martians

The youth version of Survey 2000 contained 53 questions about the child's favorite activities or interests, from acting in dramas to watching TV. Really this set of items was just a list with an HTML checkbox next to each, so the respondent could use the computer's mouse to check off his or her favorites. Of these 53, there were 19 that showed some statistical connection with wanting to go to Mars, and they are listed in Table 2. Of those respondents who clicked the box next to "Astronomy," indicating it was one of their favorites, 47.1 percent said they wanted to go to Mars, compared with 27.0 percent of those who did not dick the box. This is a difference of'20.1 percentage points, and I have arranged the 19 items in Table 2 in descending order of this difference.

Table 2: Favorite Activities or Interests and
Percent Who Want to Go to Mars.
 Percent Who Would Go to Mars
for Those Saying Activity Is:
A FavoriteNot a Favorite
Rock Climbing41.0%29.5%11.5
Martial Arts42.3%30.9%11.4
Scouts or guides41.9%31.4%10.5
U.S. Football37.5%30.1%7.4
Video Games35.3%29.2%6.1
Soccer Football34.9%30.8%4.1

The inclusion of some of the activities and interests listed in Table 2 is a mystery, but several make perfect sense. Certainly going to Mars would be an adventure in practical astronomy, contributing to science in general, but it would take unusual optimism to believe one would really do archaeology there. Several of the activities would be required during the mission, including rock climbing, hiking, and exotic versions of camping and being a boy scout or girl scout. The organized sports listed in Table 2 have nothing to do with Mars, but the pilot study implies these items may primarily reflect willingness to take physical risks which one would surely do on the first rocket trip to Mars. On the other hand, perhaps many items merely distinguish the boys (among whom there are many potential Martians) from the girls (among whom there are fewer).

Consider video games. For all the children, knowing whether a child likes to play video games improves your ability to predict whether he or she is a Martian. A higher proportion of video-game players are Martians than of non-players. But this is entirely a reflection of the fact that boys tend to like video games. When I analyzed the boys and girls separately, there was no connection whatsoever for video game players of either sex to want to go to Mars more than non-players.

The situation is quite different for skateboarding. Among boys, preference for skateboarding has absolutely no connection with wanting to go to Mars. But among girls, there is a big connection. The definitive sociological study of skateboarding has yet to be done, and I'm sure it has profound significance for many young people. My own (Martian) daughters sometime enjoy watching out the window, sharing derisive comments about the boys skateboarding in the street near our house, as the boys spectacularly fail to make the jumps and spins they attempt. Conceivably, skateboarding is a better measure of willingness to take physical risks for girls, few of whom skateboard, than among boys, where many do.

This is not the place to go into a deep technical analysis of the statistics, but it is worth taking a quick look. One of the tools social scientists employ to examine relationships between variables is a measure called gamma, which ranges from -1.0 (a perfect negative correlation), through 0.0 (no correlation) to +1.0 (a perfect positive correlation). For example, the gamma between liking astronomy and wanting to go to Mars is +0.35, a very solid positive correlation. If we separate the two sexes, gamma drops for boys to +0.28 and rises for girls to +0.39. For all students, there is a gamma of +0.20 between liking martial arts and wanting to go to Mars, but the correlation is only +0.12 for boys and fully +0.23 for girls. The overall skateboarding correlation is +0.14, but just +0.01 for boys and fully +0.22 for girls. These are actually very important findings, because they show that some factors which distinguish Martians work more powerfully for girls than for boys.

For females, it could be said that these are the best of times and the worst of times. Choices for women in contemporary American society may paradoxically be both more numerous and more difficult than those for men. Superficially, we see that women have greater freedom to wear different kinds of clothing. Nobody thinks it strange when a woman wears pants, but a man who wears skirts had better be Scottish or he is in for a load of trouble. Many women, but few men, can choose between having a career and keeping house. However, at the job women still face discrimination, and housewives face a substantial risk of being put out of business by divorce. Those brave married women who decide to have both a career and children may have to work harder than their husbands.

Three of the more violent male sports - skateboarding, U.S. football, and soccer football - give extremely revealing results. For children in general, preferences for these three sports are significantly correlated with interest in going to Mars. Among girls, there are somewhat higher correlations. But among boys, the correlations are dead zero - no relationship at all. Nothing logically connects these sports with being Martian; they are merely good measures of masculinity. From this we might conclude that girls who want to go to Mars are "tomboys," young females with boyish habits. But that would be inaccurate. Rather, some girls may have a wide range of interests, combining traditionally feminine interests with those that are traditionally masculine. Among girls, being Martian is associated with a degree of liberation from traditional gender stereotypes. We can extrapolate that the future women of Mars will be highly cosmopolitan, possibly more so than their men.

Another section of the survey asked the early-teen children about their social worlds: "Among the friends you hang out with, how important is it to... have a steady boyfriend or girlfriend?... participate in religious activities?" Respondents were asked to rate ten different values or activities in terms of how important they were. Just two of them correlated with being Martian: "finish high school," and "do community work or volunteer." Among both boys and girls, children whose peers valued completing high school and volunteering for community work were more likely to say they were ready to go to Mars. I interpret this to mean that young teenagers who value accomplishment and who are willing to volunteer for their communities, see the first Mars voyage in the same terms.

Science and Technology

Traditionally, science and engineering have been masculine fields, although females have begun to make headway recently. A comprehensive source of information about women's involvement in science is a book-sized report, Women, Minorities, and Persons With Disabilities in Science and Engineering, issued every two years by the National Science Foundation. The latest edition says that in 1966 women received only 8.0 percent of all American doctoral degrees in science and engineering, but their proportion had risen to 31.2 percent in 1995. Professional women scientists tend to be concentrated in such fields as biology and the social sciences, and they are especially rare in fields more closely related to a Mars expedition. For example, in 1995 women earned only 11.6 percent of American doctorates in engineering, 18.6 percent of doctorates in computer science, and 22.9 percent in physical sciences-compared with 38.1 percent in biological sciences and 63.5 percent in psychology. At earlier points in their educations, males and females are more similar. In 1994, for example, 9.1 percent of girls graduating high school had taken calculus, only slightly lower than the 9.4 percent of boys.

Among thirteen- to fifteen-year-old respondents to Survey 2000, boys do show somewhat more support for science than do girls. The Mars trip item was one of twelve that presented kids with a statement and asked how much they agreed or disagreed with it. The first said, "Science will do more good than harm in the next century." Among boys, 35.5 percent strongly agreed with this statement, compared with 21.8 percent of girls. Two items focused on general support for the space program. More boys, 24.2 percent compared with 11.8 percent, strongly agreed that "Funding for the space program should be increased." Almost exactly equal percentages, 12.8 percent of boys and 13.0 percent of girls, strongly agreed that "Space exploration should be delayed until we have solved more of our problems here on earth." But a big gender difference shows up when we look at disagreement. Fully 27.0 percent of boys strongly disagreed with the idea that space exploration should be delayed, compared with only 14.3 percent of girls. On many of these items, boys show more of a tendency to strongly agree or strongly disagree, whereas girls merely agree or disagree. But looking past this tendency of boys to give more extreme answers, we find that boys also tend to agree with pro-science statements, and to disagree with anti-science statements.

In Table 3 we see that Martians tend to be found not only among those who want funding for the space program to be increased, but also among those who support research on human cloning, who don't worry much about environmental problems, who are generally optimistic about the future, and who think development of nuclear power should continue. In contrast, Martians are harder to find among those who believe there should be a law against human cloning and who want space exploration delayed until terrestrial problems have been solved. Thus, science issues not directly related to Mars, notably attitudes toward human cloning, predict where we will find Martians.

Interestingly, I did not find the same pattern within the genders for science attitudes as I did for interests and activities. The correlations between wanting to go to Mars and each of the items in Table 3 are almost identical among boys and girls. Even though interest in science is greater among boys than among girls, it is not a measure of masculine culture that distinguishes cosmopolitan girls from non-cosmopolitan girls. This could just mean that some of the apparently interesting findings reported above are just statistical flukes that have no real meaning. However it also could be that something very meaningful is going on here. Perhaps girls can remain "feminine" while becoming scientific. To put this another way, women may enter scientific fields and achieve within them without having to possess unusual personalities or radical values.

Table 3: Science Attitudes and
Percent Who Want to Go to Mars.
Do you agree or disagree?Strongly
Funding for the space program should be increased62.4%24.9%37.5
Research on human cloning should be encouraged, because it will have great benefits for science and medicine.57.4%25.9%31.5
We should not worry much about environmental problems, because modem science will solve them with little change to our way of life.56.5%33.6%22.9
All in all, the world's population will be better off in the next 100 years. 54.4%31.6%22.8
Development of nuclear power should continue, because the benefits strongly outweigh the harmful results. 55.5%33.4%22.1
Science will do more good than harm in the next century.49.7%40.6%9.1
We should accept cuts in our standard of living in order to protect the environment. 42.6%38.5%4.1
All nuclear power plants should be shut down or converted to safer fuels. 36.9%40.3%-3.4
Intelligent life probably does not exist on any planet but our own.38.2%44.6%-6.4
There should be a law against cloning human beings.32.2%45.9%-13.7
Space exploration should be delayed until we have solved more of our problems here on Earth.32.4%54.4%-22.0

The next thing on my own research agenda is to examine these science attitude variables more closely, and results cannot be reported here. But I should note one of the great advantages of a large, geographically dispersed questionnaire dataset like Survey 2000.1 can readily add many variables from other sources to it. For example, I can add statistics from the U.S. Census on what percentage of professional scientists are female in the state each American respondent lives in. This is a measure of how many role models a girl might have to become a scientist, and of how conducive the local culture is to female achievement in science. But while I am planning my next analysis, we need to bring the present article to conclusion.


We said at the beginning that our definition of "Martian" was extremely generous, merely saying, "If I were asked to go along on the first rocket trip to Mars, I would go." Now, at the end, we can seriously ask how many real Martians we have. We don't need many for the first rocket trip, maybe just half a dozen. Will they all be boys, or do girls now qualify for the Space Academy?

I developed some demanding criteria for inclusion in the ship's crew, then had my computer count how many boys and girls met these stringent requirements. Of course the person has to volunteer for the trip, so right away that reduces our pool of candidates to 583 boys and 435 girls who strongly agree they would go. Then, it seemed to me, we could whittle the group down further by using four of the favorite interests and activities. On the intellectual side, I selected astronomy and science (in general), and on the physical activity side, rock climbing and boy/girl scouts. These four were highly ranked in table 2, and strike me as good qualifications for the job. Now we have just 51 boys and 31 girls who love all four of these and also want to go to Mars.

Of course, somebody has to pay for the expedition, and the astronauts may have to sell the public on making the investment. At the very least, that implies that the crew members need to agree strongly that "Funding for the space program should be increased." Add that criterion, and we have only 15 real Martians, 4 girls and 11 boys.

Eight seems like a reasonable size for the crew of an interplanetary spaceship, and an equal balance between the sexes ought to reduce tensions. So, all four girls should be allowed to go. Rather than impose even more stringent formal criteria to weed out 7 boys, I suggest that each girl be allowed to select a boy for the mission, based on her observation of his character during the difficult weeks of training. There's a plot for a juvenile science fiction novel! Proposed title: The First Martians!


Bainbridge, William Sims
1986 Dimensions of Science Fiction. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
1991 Goals in Space. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.
1992 Social Research Methods and Statistics: A Computer-Assisted Introduction. Belmont, California: Wadsworth.

National Science Foundation
1999 Women, Minorities, and Persons With Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 1998. Arlington, Virginia: NSF.

The Question Factory, Online Survey Website: [Obsolete URL]