(USA TODAY by Britt Kennerly) MELBOURNE, Fla. -- It might take a rocket scientist to land a rover on the Red Planet, but it doesn't take an astrophysicist to explain why people have a soft spot for Mars.
Mars is cool. No, not that kind of cool, though it gets nippy on a planet with temperatures that can dip to 200 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
Rather, it's an indefinable but unifying sort of cool that for centuries has inspired literature and legend. Sparked music and movies. Blended fact and fantasy in a way that's earned Mars a kind of "Pop Culture King of Planets" crown.
Let's get down to Earth: You don't see Neptune or Uranus getting this kind of play.
"What kid isn't fascinated by Mars?" said Rick Shey, 35, owner of a comic book store in Melbourne, Fla., whose popular titles include "Mars Attacks."
Sure, science-based excitement is heating up as a sophisticated, car-sized spacecraft named Curiosity edges toward Mars to help Earthlings figure out if its environment is, or ever was, a life-friendly place. Curiosity is slated to arrive early Monday in a daring landing that itself seems inspired by science fiction worthy of Ray Bradbury and "The Martian Chronicles."
But even without our imminent return to Mars, there's always been something new under (or 141 million miles away from) the sun for those whose imagination has traveled to a place called "Ares" by the Greeks and "Harmakhis" by ancient Egyptians.
Pop culture experts say widespread public interest in the planet really took off after H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" was published in 1898, making plausible -- or at least not out-of-this-world -- the idea of Martian invaders.
After the turn of the 20th century, readers devoured Edgar Rice Burrough's novels known as "The Martian Tales," in which Confederate Civil War veteran John Carter navigates life after he's transported to Mars.
Then, on Oct. 30, 1938, Martians stormed the radio and Earth via Orson Welles. The famed director and actor updated "War of the Worlds" for a Mercury Theatre radio broadcast that caused panic among listeners sure those invaders had attacked.
Today, most everybody of any age has a "My Favorite Martian"-style moment: Lucy and Ethel of "I Love Lucy" atop the Empire State Building, dressed as Martian women. Marvin the Martian cartoons. Singing along to "Rocket Man" with Elton John: "Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids."
Rick Remender, 39, a writer and artist of the "X-Force," ''Punisher" and "Fear Agent" comic books, first heard the "War of the Worlds" broadcast when he was in elementary school.
"I don't know if I was inspired by or loved the idea of other people's fear of alien invasions and things like that -- I was more drawn to the high-adventure aspect of it all, the 'Star Trek' aspect of exploring new worlds," he said.
Now, Remender says he appreciates how space exploration "puts everything into context," makes humans aware of "how lucky this planet is; how wonderful and precious everything is."
The appropriately named Charlie Mars has pondered the possibilities in space, too, for most of his life.
The 76-year-old retired engineer, who at one time was chief of the Shuttle Project Office at Kennedy Space Center, was among those sent to Denver to work when the Viking rover went to Mars.
"Thinking back, I pretty much thought people from Mars would look like us. They didn't have big eyes or big heads or 10 legs," he said. "None of that was in my head until the movies and comic books started having different-looking creatures."
For an idea of what Mars envisions today, rent "Mission to Mars," a 2000 movie starring Tim Robbins and Gary Sinise.
Even with his stellar space background, Mars wasn't critiquing the plot line.
"At the very end, there's a Martian lady who's tall, slender, good-looking, but very out-of-this-world," he said.
"And I thought, 'That's what aliens ought to look like.' "