Robert Zubrin,
First Landing
(Ace, 2001)

If you like science fiction, you will more than likely enjoy First Landing by Robert Zubrin. While this is Zubrin's first novel, it is not his first book. He is also the author of The Case for Mars as well as Entering Space.

First Landing is set in the not-too-distant future -- just under a decade away. The story focuses on the first group of astronauts to land on the "red planet." The Beagle (a play on the Eagle?) carries a crew of five led by Col. Townsend, a gruff military pilot who has a little more trouble than he would like controlling the civilians on board. The only other military person onboard is Major Guenevere Llewellyn, a young, ultra-religious, ultra-conservative mechanic. Dr. Luke Johnson is a geologist who has less of a personality than the rocks he studies. Dr. Rebecca Sherman, the ship's biologist and doctor, was blessed with both beauty and brains; both are overshadowed by her ego. Finally, there is Professor McGee, the mission historian.

The story starts out with fast-paced action right off the bat. The Beagle has started its entry into the Martian atmosphere and it is time to disconnect from a spent booster rocket. However, out of thousands of mission critical functions that have been working flawlessly throughout the trip, separation cannot be achieved, despite three redundant backups. Was something overlooked or is it sabotage? At this point, you don't have time to think about it as the crew reacts quickly to save not only their lives, but the mission itself.

The reader will soon find out that there are elements on Earth that would like nothing better than for this mission to fail. The reasons why might surprise you. As if losing trust in Mission Control isn't bad enough, the personalities of the five main characters start to grate on each other during their time of stress. Townsend knows that the only means of survival is keeping his people together as a team. But when all looks hopeless, when crewmembers feel that others are out to kill them, how is he supposed to accomplish that? Will any of the Beagle's crew ever set foot on Earth again, or are they marooned on Mars for the rest of their lives?

Zubrin definitely has the background to write a credible science fiction novel set on Mars. He is the former head of the Mars Direct program at Martin Marietta. He has an Ph.D. in nuclear engineering and an M.S. in aeronautics. If you remember the Disney film Mission to Mars, Zubrin was a technical consultant based upon his work in The Case for Mars. He is the founder and current president of the Mars Society, so you can see just how focused he is on Earth's sister planet.

Fortunately, not only does Zubrin have the technical background, his writing skills as a novelist are better than a lot of science fiction writers out there today. First Landing is a good read. There are only a few times when various characters start making speeches in the guise of dialogue. All that is missing is a dramatic background track to bring a tear to your eye (or a groan and a roll of the eyes). But other than a few over-the-top spots of melodrama, the story is truly entertaining! And unlike most science fiction, this story is completely believable. I am interested in seeing how close this vision of man's first visit to Mars might actually be (even if I have to wait a couple decades to find out).

- Rambles
written by Wil Owen
published 1 February 2003

Buy it from