What is it like writing about the search for life on Mars?

Writing about space exploration is arguably as important as the exploration itself. Without communicating what has happened and why it matters, support for space exploration dwindles. In order for engagement with space to be sustainable, there must be a continual renewal of interest in the endeavor among people. To learn more about being a space author, we spoke to Nicholas Booth and Elizabeth Howell, who recently published The Search for Life on Mars: The Greatest Scientific Detective Story of All Time. We asked them about their experiences writing the book and more generally about being reporters covering space.

In the process of writing your book, what is one of the most interesting things you learned about the search for life on Mars?

Nick:I was lucky enough to cover the saga of the Allan Hills meteorite in 1996 on The Times in London. It was an extraordinary story. Coming back to it now, what is interesting is that the work done then essentially spawned the modern field of astrobiology – that is, scientists looking at the question of life right across the board and in many different ways. All this, you might say, has culminated with the instruments that are now being carried by the latest rovers which are – or soon will be – en route to Mars.

Elizabeth: Nick showed me that much of the science of astrobiology dates (in part) back to ice studies on Earth in the 1990s. He had some material to show me from that era, and upon reading it, I was amazed that the work of a generation ago still echoes through today. This taught me to take a longer view of science studies. Before, I was thinking a timespan of ten or 20 years when doing background research. At times, though, it really serves you to go back further to see what people were doing. 

What made you decide to write this book?

Nick:It just seemed the right time. With all the new missions like Perseverance and the Hope, we knew there would be greater interest in the Red Planet. And there is. So, we have aimed to write something that anyone can understand and actually tell a story – through the experiences of the people doing the work. It’s been great to be back on Mars.

Elizabeth: I grew up knowing I wanted to write books, but you need to build up to that as a journalist. Before Nick and I discussed a collaboration, over the years I had written hundreds of articles on Mars – including a deep dive on the Curiosity mission science just before its landing in 2012. I had all this experience that I wanted to share with the “next generation” of readers so that they can make Mars even more awesome in the years to come. I think the timing for the book was also perfect, as the ever-growing fleet of cubesats above Earth makes space cheaper to access. Now, we’re starting to send the first of these smaller, cheaper missions to Mars and other planets. I expect Mars will be a diverse planet, with countries all over the world participating. Best yet, it’s already starting to happen.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors, particularly those interested in chronicling space exploration?

Nick: Write what you know. If you know about space, or some part of it, then put pen to paper and let the world know. Keep practicing. Then when you feel ready, start sending your stuff to editors. The worst thing they can say is no. Also: keep a note of everything. Never throw anything away. You never know when it will come in handy. And just keep writing!

Elizabeth: That old joke about the “overnight” success taking ten years or more is very true. I’m fast approaching 20 years working in the space field, and it really does take that long to get to know the subject matter well. When you start your career, you may need to write about space on the side of a “main job” that brings in the money. That is exactly how I started. So that’s okay. Just keep working at it, and know that you may be doing the gig approach for many years. But hang in there. As long as you have enthusiasm and are willing to be generous with your audience and your interview subjects, your reputation will build and you will eventually find yourself doing fun things you never expected. This book was one of those unexpected, fun things for me!