The Romantic Venus We Never Knew

On the day that I was born—winter solstice, 1959—a headline in Life magazine proclaimed “Target Venus: There May be Life There!” It told of how scientists rode a balloon to an altitude of 80,000 feet to make telescope observations of Venus’s atmosphere, and how their discovery of water raised hopes that there could be living things there. As a kid I thrilled to tales of undersea adventure with telepathic Venusian frogs in Isaac Asimov’s juvenile science-fiction novel Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus. In 1975, when I was 15, a family friend—a planetary scientist—gave me a picture of the first-ever photograph taken from the surface of another planet: Venus. The Soviet Venera 9 probe had sent back a black-and-white image of a landscape with angular rocks and fine-grained dirt. A bright patch of sky made it seem much less unearthly than the Apollo moon shots I had obsessed over, and more like a strange, overcast desert land that you might hope to visit someday.

For many of my peers, though, Venus quickly lost its romance. The very first thing that scientists discovered with a mission to another

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