Mars? Who needs Mars?

For as long as I can recall, I’ve fantasized about exploring other planets.

An impossible dream? Possibly not.

Among my earliest memories was watching episodes of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, raptly, in black-and-white, on the tube, which only recently had become available to the masses. Lost in Space, Stargate, Star Trek to the nth generation — I consumed them all.

I mainlined books by Heinlein, Bradbury, Clarke, et al., like an addict. I still make it a point to see every halfway decent sci-fi movie that comes out, though my favorite is still “Forbidden Planet,” from 1956, with Robbie the Robot, Walter Pidgeon as Morbius and Anne Francis as the babe. Monsters from the id — it doesn’t get any better.

In addition to the big ideas these works struggled with, I was entranced by their efforts to imagine the technical details of surviving, exploring and, ultimately, settling other planets. Whether the dingy and claustrophobic (like the home bases in Red Planet and Mission to Mars) or the rustic but comfy (the desert compound of Luke Skywalker’s uncle on Tatooine in Star Wars Episode IV), all solutions fascinated.

An interplanetary buccaneer, however, I was not to become. Other interests intruded. Meanwhile, it became clear how poor the odds were of getting even a chance to make a “great leap for mankind.”

NASA stats show that only seven of the first 500 applicants in 1959 got the job, and the odds haven’t improved. The last human to set foot on alien soil — the moon — was Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, on Dec. 14, 1972, accompanied by New Mexico’s own Harrison Schmitt.

Still, the idea of contending with planets habitable by — but hostile to — humans is enormously appealing. Give me an environment where every drop of water, every breath of air, every crack in the window counts, every minute of every day, and every waking moment is a revelation — sort of like the American Southwest, in a way.

Come to think of it, scenes for Tatooine were filmed in Tunisia, at the edge of the Sahara Desert. And there are a growing number of places on Earth where one can practice living in extreme environments.

The Sahara is expanding lately. In just the past few days, a city in the cool, moist U.S. Pacific Northwest recorded a high temperature of 110 degrees — not far from the 120s routine in Death Valley.

Global warming aside, temperatures in the Antarctic have gotten as low as minus-128 degrees — lower than the average minus-81-degree surface temperature of Mars.

Mars. Its atmosphere, 100 times thinner than Earth’s, is 95 percent CO2. Water is rare. Its landscapes look like the West Mesa desert. Dust storms cover the planet.

Not even Al Gore, in his film about global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” claims Earth is headed the way of Mars. The movie’s not science fiction. But the sci-fi fan in me wonders: Maybe if I wait long enough, I won’t need to fly to another planet to experience otherworldly challenges.

(Jack Ehn is opinion editor of the The Tribune in Albuquerque, N.M.)