Venus was named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty because of its own beauty and brilliance. It is the second brightest object in the night sky after the Moon. It is bright enough, in fact, that on a clear, moonless night, it can cast shadows upon the surface of the Earth. It seems like a welcoming world to us Earthlings, as it is the closest to our planet and the most Earth-like in size and composition. It is almost the exact same size as the Earth in terms of mass and diameter, it is made of the same rocky material, and it even has an atmosphere with similar (albeit more extreme) properties as the one that we breathe.
All these truths, coupled with the golden clouds that hid its surface from our telescopes led many fanciful astronomers and science-fiction writers to believe that this world harbored life of its own. It was only logical that such a beautiful and inviting world would host equally beautiful and inviting creatures. But as the decades progressed, our technology got better and better and with it our understanding of the universe increased as well. This increase in understanding extended to our knowledge of our closest neighbor, and we now see it for it really is: a hellish world with a jagged, black, lifeless terrain. Those beautiful golden clouds that hid the surface from our view turned out to be clouds of pure carbon dioxide gas, the presence of which we fear in our own atmosphere. Those clouds trapped the heat of the Sun in a runaway greenhouse gas effect, which superheated the planet’s surface to a scorching 460℃ (860℉), hot enough to melt lead. The destructiveness of these clouds do not stop there. They are so dense and plentiful that they exert a pressure equal to the pressure exerted by the Earth’s ocean on a submarine 1 kilometer below its surface, pressure enough to crush a human skeleton.
Mars, our second closest neighbor, was named after the Roman god of war because of its blood-and-fire-red hue as seen from the Earth’s surface. We equate that color with the blood of war, with pain and suffering, with heat and flames, with the devil and hell itself. This world is one that is far from welcoming, and science-fiction film producers quickly took to depicting its surface as one of intense heat and jagged peaks, as can be seen in films produced as recently as the 1960s, like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, in which our marooned protagonist must overcome the planet’s cruelly hostile terrain as he awaits the arrival of a rescue crew.
In time, just as it did with Venus, our understanding and perception of the red planet greatly transformed. Our landers and orbiters have found that not only is it not the world of hellfire that we once thought, it is actually quite cold. The surface can experiences lows of −153 °C (−243°F) at the poles, and highs of 20°C (68°F) at the equator. Its days are only 40 minutes longer than our own, so Martian settlers would experience very little in the way of cosmic jetlag. Scientists have even found there to be liquid water, the very stuff that sustains us and all life as we know it, flowing upon the surface of that red planet.
From world leaders like President Barack Obama to great minds like Stephen Hawking to captains of industry like Elon Musk, Mars has come to be seen as a lifeline for the human race. Mars, not Venus, is the only planet that truly welcomes us. It is the only planet other than Earth upon which we can make a true and lasting home. Our nightmarish image of Mars that we held so tightly for hundreds of years was one that actually reflected the reality of Venus, whereas our heavenly, welcoming image of Venus turned out to be more fitting for Mars. We are flanked by these two worlds which serve as constant reminders to us of how little we truly know. They are constant reminders that, what may seem to be true based purely upon the most superficial and shallow observations, can turn out to be further from reality than we could ever imagine.