If you’ve never visited the campus of Butler University and enjoyed an evening at the Holcomb Observatory, you really should! It’s free (though they do suggest a donation) and fun, and on a clear night, the observatory’s telescope will be directed at Venus, Saturn, Jupiter or Mars (and some non-planetary objects too). You’ll be surprised at the level of detail you can see with a (relatively) small telescope in the middle of a light-polluted city.
One of my favorite experiences at Holcomb was seeing the polar caps of Mars, which got me thinking about the place of this red planet in our imaginations. Lots of authors have used our closest planetary neighbor as a setting for some great fiction.
The movie may have bombed at the box office last summer but you’ll still want to read Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter series starting with The Princess of Mars. Of course after reading the source material, you should also see the movie (since you, like most of America, didn’t see it in theatres). The library has it on DVD.
A recent homage to Burroughs’ iconic series comes from fantasy writer S.M. Stirling’s The Lords of Creation. Set against the background of the Cold War, this series journeys to both Venus and Mars, playing up the Soviet-American rivalry with all kinds of nostalgia.
For a futuristic look at the Red Planet, I highly recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (the first in the series is called Red Mars.)
Ray Bradbury also speculated about Mars colonization with The Martian Chronicles.
Dan Simmons combines the mythology of the Trojan War in an epic set on the Red Planet in two books – Ilium and Olympos.