Life, etc

Mars Attracts!

By Rebecca Davis 30 April 2013

Mars One, a private Dutch spaceflight endeavour which aims to launch a colony on Mars by 2023, opened for applications from would-be colonists last week. The not-for-profit foundation is offering you a ticket to Mars in 10 years’ time, and the chance to star in what it says would be the most audacious reality TV show ever dreamed of. The catch? There’s no coming back from Mars. But this apparently is no deterrent to the more than 30,000 people who have applied over the past week – including six South Africans so far. By REBECCA DAVIS.

There are few things that make you feel that maybe – just maybe – you’re living in The Future that sci-fi novels promised us half a century ago, than the news that someone is recruiting for people to live on Mars. And if you go by the timeframe of pop culture, this news is way overdue: when Ray Bradbury wrote his Martian Chronicles, in 1950, he envisaged that the first attempts by Earth’s humans to colonise Mars would take place in 1999. At the point when the Chronicles end – in 2026 – Bradbury pictured Mars becoming the home for the few humans who survived nuclear war on Earth.

Yet when Mars One  finally put out the call for humans to line up for the Red Planet, as late as April 2013, many have responded with skepticism. It’s quite clear at this stage that the most commonly-put question to Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp is, simply: Is this for real? Mars One is Lansdorp’s brainchild, and he has been at pains to stress in recent media appearances that this is very much for real. To appease those who think that the project might be some sort of money-making scheme, Mars One is now registered as a Dutch non-profit organisation, and Lansdorp has said that if the project fails to make it into space, gathered monies will be distributed to other planetary exploration organisations.

The idea is very simple. Four colonists will take off from Earth in 2022. After a space journey of an estimated seven or eight months, they will arrive on Mars in April 2023, almost exactly 10 years after the call for astronauts was launched last week. Two years later, four more colonists will arrive, and by 2033, it’s hoped that the Mars colony will reach 20 settlers. The reason why Mars will be ready to accept humans by 2023 is because supply missions will be launched by Mars One from 2016 onwards, travelling ahead to carry at least 2,500kg of food, living units and life support units.

Introducing Mars One’s recruitment drive at a live-streamed press conference in New York last week, Lansdorp explained: “This technology is possible because we will use existing technology. No new inventions are needed to land humans on Mars.” Mars One is not an aerospace company, Lansdorp said. “We are not going to build a single component for this mission in-house.” Instead, private companies will tender to supply the equipment required for the project. The capsule in which the first four humans will arrive on Mars, for instance, is likely to be something along the lines of SpaceX’s Dragon – the first commercially-built spacecraft to be recovered from orbit. (SpaceX, the company currently leading the way in private space transportation, was dreamed up and is owned by the South African-born Elon Musk.)

It has been clear for some time that the next frontiers of space travel will probably be breached by private companies. Nasa no longer has the appetite for long-distance staffed space missions, and there is a healthy degree of competition within the space private sector to get things done first. Part of why the Mars One project has attracted raised eyebrows, however, is because of Lansdorp’s conviction that humans can be settled on Mars for a relatively trifling $6 billion. At the press conference, he declined to elaborate on how this figure was arrived at, saying only that “The exact prices that we are expecting to pay per component we will keep confidential”.

Mars One is accepting private donations – and has reportedly received around $80,000 thus far – but the project has two major funding streams: revenue from the intellectual rights over the technology developments that will presumably ensue; and revenue from the broadcast rights. And not just any broadcast rights: the plan is for the settlement of humans on Mars to become the biggest, most extraordinary reality TV show in human history. Lansdorp points out that huge amounts of revenue are generated from the broadcast of global events like the Olympics. “Imagine what will happen when the first people arrive on Mars,” he said last week. “Literally everyone on the planet will want to see it.”

The manner in which Mars One ultimately selects the four humans who will set out to Mars in 2023 will also be what sounds like quite a drawn-out reality TV experience. Online applications close in August 2013, and then regional and national weeding-out processes will take place. By July 2015, six teams of four astronauts will have been selected, who will become the stars of a reality show where they will be broadcast training for the mission in a replica of the Mars settlement, set out in isolated conditions in a desert on Earth. When the time comes in 2022 to choose the first four people to send to Mars, the public will vote for their favourite team. The question of whether the public is best equipped to judge what personality types might survive a move to another planet is one that might bear a little more thinking about.

Because the thing is, you see, that there’s an awful lot at stake. The humans who get sent to Mars are never coming back. “The technology to send humans back simply does not exist yet,” Lansdorp explained breezily in New York. The Mars One website addresses the issue in a similarly blasé fashion. “Because our astronauts are likely to spend the rest of their lives on Mars it follows that they will probably pass away there as well,” reads their FAQ on the matter. “When that day comes there will be a memorial service and cremation ceremony.”

Yet despite the fact that what is on offer is a one-way trip, Mars One has been deluged with applications since opening up the process last week. Pretty much anyone can apply: any nationality, as long as you can speak one of a number of specified global languages; any profession, and any age, as long as it’s above 18. You don’t have to be science-y, though good physical and psychological health is required. Also, no couples need apply, though the final foursome will comprise two men and two women.

As of Monday night, there were just 6 South Africans signed up to apply for the Mars gig out of more than 30,000. Xabiso Gxoyiya, a 23-year-old DJ, explains in his application video that he realises the mission has dangers, but “the more risks, the more rewards”. Gxoyiya says that he is “confident, I’ve got guts, and I really believe Mars can be our second home and I can play a role in building that home for us.”

Dominic, 21, appears to be largely in it for the bragging rights. “What better story to tell than being one of the first people to walk on Mars?” he asks in his video. Exactly who he’s going to tell his story to may be a bit of a tricky one – though Mars One promises that with the requisite communication satellites, it will be perfectly possible for the Mars colonists to WhatsApp and Skype their loved-ones back home, although there will be, on average, a seven-minute delay one-way.

Richard, a 19-year-old engineering student whose video is the most popular so far, explains: “I want to go to Mars because I have this terrible fear that I will get stuck behind a desk all my life and never have an impact on history at all.” Peter, a 32-year-old whose parents emigrated from South Africa to the UK when he was a child, is sanguine about the dangers: “I understand that there are a lot of risks in all this, but I feel that they’re acceptable.”

Of all the South African entrants, Kobus, 30, is the only one who shows signs of really having come to terms with the fact that, if chosen, he would never return to Earth. “I don’t want to live on this planet any more,” he explains. “Not because I hate Earth, but because I feel our future is up there among the stars and I’ve had a lifetime fascination with Mars.”

Kobus isn’t alone. Such is our cultural fascination with the idea of Mars that in 1980, astronomer Carl Sagan could write in Cosmos: “Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.” In the works of sci-fi writers like Bradbury, Mars is alternately figured as a place of doom and of hope; both heaven and hell. Bradbury also suspected that it was we humans who might make of heaven a hell upon arriving on Mars, by doing what colonists do everywhere: trying to impose our own ways of life on to a foreign context.

The four humans who make it to Mars in 2023 will live in inflatable pods which will be quite generously spaced – 50m² each – and contain bedrooms, working areas, showers, kitchens and so on. In essence, the Mars One website states, they will “lead typical day-to-day lives”.

But of course, they won’t, at all. Mars is not exactly ideally suited to human habitation. For one thing, as the pictures sent back from the Mars rovers have proved, it is an extremely bleak space: no liquid surface water, no vegetation. Future Martian travel brochures may trumpet, however, that Mars boasts what is thought to be the largest mountain in the solar system: Olympus Mons, more than three times the height of Everest, in the upland region of Tharsis.

Atmospheric pressure is too low on Mars for people to survive without pressure suits, and it’s really cold – the mean surface temperature on Mars varies between -87°C and -15°C. Mars does have seasons which are quite similar to Earth’s, but they last almost twice as long. A Martian year is 687 days: in Earth terms, one year, 320 days, and 18,2 hours. Dust storms also frequently swirl around the planet, sometimes for months at a time. This could pose a severe problem to the proposed power source for the Mars One settlement, which will be photovoltaic solar panels.

There’s no doubt that even landing humans on Mars would be exceptionally difficult; it’s much harder to land on Mars than the Moon. Expeditions from Earth to Mars have failed so frequently that Time suggested in 1997 that a “Great Galactic Ghoul” existed out there: a fictional space monster which subsists by eating only Mars probes.

Sceptics say that another potential problem with the Mars One project is the idea of the ongoing reality show that will be broadcast of the Mars settlement. “Mars One would not allow 24/7 coverage… the people of Mars wouldn’t allow it,” Lansdorp said last week. “If they don’t like a particular camera, they’d put a piece of duct tape over it and there’s nothing we can do about it. They are in charge.” That approach bodes well for respecting the privacy of the Mars colonists, but not well for ratings.

To our mind, the central problem with the idea is that everything that makes reality shows compelling – dysfunctional relationships; alcohol-fuelled misbehavior; Snooki – would scupper this mission. On a space journey, you presumably want the best-adjusted, calmest personality types imaginable: otherwise, as a contributor to Reddit put it, “What happens if one of the first four kills the others and then eats their faces?”

Another Reddit sceptic brought up another issue. “What if your mission is a success for the first 2-4 years but after that it is found to be financially unsustainable?” he or she asked. “I can only imagine the season finale ratings will be huge when the astronauts find out no more supplies are coming.”

At the press conference in New York, a journalist asked whether Lansdorp himself would be heading to the Mars colony. No, no, Lansdorp replied. “I have a really nice girlfriend, and she doesn’t want to come with me, so I’m staying right here.” DM

Read more:

  • A one-way ticket to Mars, apply now, on CNN

Photo: An artist’s concept of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft approaching Mars. (Reuters)

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