A unique competition for humans seeking to inhabit Mars has prompted more sign-ups than you might have ever imagined. Inside a space program with the most pioneering of spirits.
GENEVA — Say you were offered a one-way ticket to spend the rest of your days, all-expense paid, lost in an endless desert, where the unbreathable air makes it impossible to go out without a space suit, and accompanied by people you hardly know. Oh, and you’d also have to grow your own food. On Mars. Interested?
Believe it or not, between May and September 2013, 200,000 people applied to do just that. The Mars One foundation, a private organization that aims to establish a human colony on the neighbor planet by 2025, just selected 1,000 candidates — including five Swiss citizens. In the end, six teams of four people will be recruited and will begin the project full-time in 2015. For these individuals, the next nine years will be spent training, before a seven-month journey and finally an entire life in a setting similar to that of the picture above.
If Mars is often the subject of dreams, the idea of a one-way trip raises many eyebrows. But “I never understood why,” says Bas Lansdorp, co-founder and CEO of Mars One. A 37-year-old engineer, the Dutchman sold his wind-energy company Ampyx Power in 2011 to launch his Martian plan.
“Seventeen years ago, when I saw the images sent by the Mars Pathfinder, I decided I would go,” he remembers. “Not being American, I knew I would never be selected by NASA. So I started imagining my own mission. For me, it was always obvious this would be a one-way trip — or a permanent colony, to put it less dramatically. It’s the only approach that is technically and financially feasible, unless we wait for decades.”
Returning from Mars is indeed problematic in terms of a rocket. It seems hardly possible to transport the necessary propellers or to assemble them there. Gravity is another issue: It’s absent during the journey, and on Mars it’s only 40% of what exists on Earth. These variations would reduce muscle and bone mass, making re-adaptation to life on Earth particularly risky.
“Whenever I speak at a conference, I see how the public is divided on the issue of returning,” Lansdorp explains. “For seven or eight out of a hundred, it’s obvious. For the others, it’s beyond understanding.”
Three years of solitude
The team of specialists associated with the project includes several people who work with NASA, but the settlers being recruited are not required to have any experience, and the search for them took place outside the astronautics’ networks.
“We looked for candidates for a very specific task: to leave the Earth forever,” Lansdorp says. “To do that, astronauts are not necessarily the right people. And we also wanted to give a chance to the whole planet, with candidates from Congo or Tajikistan. This project concerns the whole human race.”
What is the fundamental human quality that Mars One is looking for? “Being able to work in a group. At the beginning, the journey to Mars will take seven months in a very limited space,” Lansdorp says. “Then, the first team will be alone on the planet for 26 months before other groups arrive, one every year. For the first settlers, that means three years of isolation. That’s why we’re not choosing individuals but teams.”
The fundraising is as open as the recruiting: Anybody can participate via the crowdfunding website Indiegogo. The total planned cost is $6 billion. “Less than the budget for the London Olympics,” Lansdorp jokes. “Since the company Lockheed Martin, which builds modules for NASA’s missions on Mars, joined the project in December, it’s become easier to find partners. Brands will also provide funds. For them that will be the biggest PR operation of all times. And for TV channels as well.”
On this point, a strange rumor has been floating around since the project was presented in March 2012: that the settlement project would in fact be a reality-show operation, a sort of Big Brother on the red planet. “It’s partly our fault,” Lansdorp explains. “Our message wasn’t clear enough, and that allowed for this rumor to emerge. But that would be the most stupid thing one could imagine doing on Mars. It will simply be about showing how the candidates prepare for the mission and what their work there is, but in the form of news reports. Broadcasting their private lives is out of the question.”
A human refuge?
Will this represent a new giant leap for mankind? Marc Attalah, the director of Maison d'Ailleurs — a museum of science fiction, utopia and extraordinary voyages — is not impressed. “I cannot understand wht anybody would want to go there,” he says. “When you look at the pictures, all you can see is desert. Who would want to live there? The planet was born dead, and everything is already over. There once was water and an atmosphere, but there scarcely is any now.”
He notes that the idea of mankind’s future being in the stars has been a cultural subject since the 19th century. “Before that, some like French dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac wrote about going to the moon, but these were merely literary exercises to offset readers,” Attalah says. “It’s only with popular literature from the 19th and 20th centuries that we saw heroes travel to Mars, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter. In these works of fiction, Mars is protrayed as a decadent or even dying planet. In H.G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds, Martians have left their planet because there’s no more water on it.”
But people still dream of this possible future “to start again from scratch,” Attalah asserts. “The idea is that Mars could be a way out from a planet we’re destroying, a second Earth that could accommodate us. In the 1940s, science fiction invented the word ‘terraforming,’ which was adopted 20 years later by scientists. It describes a way of transforming an uninhabitable planet to make it more like ours. It’s not so much Mars that interests us, but rather its capacity to become like Earth,” he adds.
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The idea of Mars as a refuge for humans was exploited by Ray Bradbury in his short story collection The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950. “Mars gives us the impression to have a new planet at our disposal, but it’s more of a sign of helplessness with regards to what's going on on Earth,” Attalah says. “It’s a refusal, a flight. This is actually what worries me: that as we start imagining ourselves on Mars, we’re starting to let go of Earth.”
One-way at issue
The Mars Society was founded in 1998 to continue making the red planet a priority at a time before Mars One, when publicly funded aerospace organizations started to turn away from the possibility of making manned interplanetary flights. The president of its Swiss branch, Pierre Brisson, explains that he’s ambivalent on the question on human colonies.
“Sending people to Mars without planning their return seems extreme,” Brisson says. “It’s asking a lot from them, even though they choose to do it and even though it’s true that in the 16th century, people left for America without a return ticket. That said, I can’t wait for flights to Mars as long as they include a return to Earth.”
Brisson says that we do have the technical means to travel to Mars and then return. He notes that Mars Society experts formulated several possibilities to do it. “Considering the conditions favorable to a return to Earth, we would stay on Mars either one month or one-and-a-half years,” he says. “The second option seems to be the best one for us.”
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He says the urge to travel to Mars is the same that has been driving mankind for hundreds of thousands of years: “to see new places, expand our field of possibilities. It’s the human adventure, even though in the blasé times we live in, it’s become almost embarrassing to say so.”
Despite being opposed to a one-way trip, Brisson supports a permanent human settlement there. “It’d be a declaration of intent, saying that we’re not limited to planet Earth. If we don't settle on Mars — the only place worth considering outside our planet — I fear that the enthusiasm for space exploration will fade, defeated by the idea that we have so many problems on Earth. We have a window now: If we don’t use it, maybe we’ll never get to it.”
Though Attallah predicts that Venus will replace Mars as the planet that fascinates us most, Lansdorp still has his sights set on Mars. “Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come,” he says.