Why Earthlings Are Vying For A One-Way Ticket To Mars

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.

Artistic rendition of a human settlement on Mars
Artistic rendition of a human settlement on Mars
Nic Ulmi

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.

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.”

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.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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