Ultimate one-way ticket
The very idea is almost beyond comprehension.
But 100 people earlier this year were short-listed to become the first humans to walk on Mars.
Selected from an initial field of 200,000, this group of 100 know that if successful they will leave Earth in a decade’s time and never return.
If the thought of climbing into a spacecraft part-funded by a reality television show is not confronting enough, the very notion of never coming back to Earth would be sickening for most of us.
Yet 100 people — including seven Australians — are now part of the Mars One mission to the Red Planet.
Perth man Josh Richards, 29, told Agenda he had no fear about leaving behind family, friends and creature comforts and moving to Mars. He said it was the one-way ticket that captured his imagination.
“For me it’s about the human species doing something great, ” Mr Richards said.
“It is Mars or bust for me, but it is more about being a representative of humanity.”
While his mother was initially horrified, his family are now big backers of their son’s ambition.
Mr Richards’ girlfriend is also supportive, with the couple preferring to live for the now rather than dwell on the idea they could have the ultimate long-distance relationship.
“I would try to not miss anything. It’s about embracing a new life, ” he said.
Mr Richards, along with the other contenders, will gather in the US or Holland later this year for intensive testing and training focused on how well they work together in groups of four.
Mars One organisers will then select 24 people to become full-time paid astronauts-in- training to prepare for the 2025 landing.
Mr Richards has a wealth of experience to draw on as he looks to put his best foot forward to take a giant leap for mankind.
He studied physics at Curtin University before serving as an engineer in both the Australian and British militaries, and then took a massive career left-turn to become a comedian and now public speaker.
But Mr Richards said it was attributes such as his resilience, ability to trust others to do the job, adaptability and natural curiosity that he felt would hold him in good stead.
Co-founder of Mars One and Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdrop linked the 100 contenders to the explorers of the past.
“These aspiring Martians provide the world with a glimpse into who the modern-day explorers will be, ” he said.
The logistics and the science are astonishing.
The company’s plans go beyond landing four astronauts on Mars.
Almost every two years a new group of inhabitants would arrive. Mars One says this “will eventually lead to the base becoming a small village”.
Of course, that’s a village in which you will die if you leave the living quarters.
There are enormous technical doubts about getting the astronauts to Mars, landing them on the planet, setting up their camp, and then dealing with any problems that might develop.
When James Cook left on his three-year journey in 1768 to the other side of the world in search of New Holland, he took with him more than 100 other people — a large number of whom died on the way back to England.
Mars One is looking to pick just four people for its first mission.
Apart from the mechanical issues facing the astronauts, there is the very real danger posed by radiation.
A flight to Mars would go close to exposing a person to NASA’s recommended maximum lifetime dose of radiation.
Factor in flares from the Sun and exposure on Mars itself (parts of the settlement will have to be encased in 5m of soil for protection) and the radiation problem is huge.
Mars One believes, with its protections on the spaceship and the colony, it will be safe enough for a person to live there for 60 years.
The habitat will also need to be self-sustaining. Crops would have to be grown in the Martian soil and water extracted from abundant sources of ice at or below the planet’s surface.
Doctor of psychology at Curtin University David Keatley said signing up for the mission sounds crazy but deeper down it is in keeping with the spirit of human endeavour and exploring new frontiers.
He said extensive testing would be required to select people with the right emotional make-up to cope in the isolated and highly pressurised environment.
People would need to be doing it for the right reasons, with fame seekers weeded out. They will all need to get along because one of the basic human needs is friendship.
“There needs to be a lot of attention to who the natural leader will be, ” Dr Keatley said, adding it could not be someone who was too domineering.
“You can’t have a mutiny up there.
“They will have to become more than colleagues.”
Mars One estimates that the cost of putting the first people on Mars will be about $US6 billion. That covers the hardware and operation expenditures plus some overruns.
Future trips should get cheaper — but it still thinks there would be little change out of $US4 billion every time a craft leaves the Earth’s atmosphere on its way to Mars.
The company maintains much of the technology is already available and would not require extensive modification. It says it has letters of interest from suppliers.
To pay for this, the company likens the mission to the financing of an Olympics.
Partnerships, sponsorships, sales of broadcasting rights and revenues from intellectual property are all on the financing agenda.
On its webshop, you can buy a “Meet the Martians” T-shirt among other pieces of merchandise.
The company also hopes to woo some of the world’s wealthiest people into sinking cash into the venture. Those of us with modest finances will be encouraged to join crowdfunding programs.
The broadcasting rights are interesting. Mars One has made no secret of its plans to turn the whole trip into the ultimate reality television program.
In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey’s character was the centre of an Earth-wide reality TV show.
The Mars One program would be The Truman Show but at an interstellar level. Unsurprisingly, this has sparked scepticism.
Graham Mann, from Murdoch University’s School of Engineering and Information Technology and a board member of the Mars Society of Australia, said colonising the planet one day was possible and a worthwhile goal.
“(But) I have some pretty grave reservations about this way of doing it, ” he said of Mars One.
“I’m concerned that technically, the mission doesn’t seem to be there and the business model that it is based on is highly dubious in my opinion. But the motivation of wanting to do it and the courage of people willing to step up and volunteer is not something I want to be cynical about.”
Dr Mann cites a study by the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology that has identified some major flaws in Mars One’s numbers.
MIT found that 15 heavy rocket launches would be required to send supplies to Mars before the arrival of the first settlers compared with Mars One’s expectations of just six.
Researchers also painted a grim picture that the first settler could die from suffocation after 68 days. To overcome a fire risk from crops producing too much oxygen, the habitat would need to be vented, which would lead to a deadly fall in air pressure.
“At least to begin with they are going to be working mighty hard just to stay alive, and not a lot of time for long in-camera soliloquies, ” Dr Mann said.
To learn more, visit www.mars-one.com
HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Mars Facts
- At their closest, Earth and Mars are 54.6 million kilometres apart.
- It is expected a trip to Mars would take 7 months.
- Communication between Earth and Mars will take about 6 minutes.
- The weather on Mars – daytime temperatures of between 35 C and - 150 C
- The Mars atmosphere is 96 per cent carbon dioxide, 1.9 per cent argon, 1.9 per cent nitrogen and 0.145 per cent oxygen
- A Mars day is 24 hours and 37 minutes.
- A Mars year is 687 Earth days.
Timeline of Mars One’s plan to send people to Mars:
2013 - Mars One launches worldwide search for astronauts.
2015 - 100 candidates selected.
Training of potential astronauts to begin.
2018 - Planned launch of demonstration mission and communication satellite.
2020 - Rover and trailer launched to clear area for Mars settlement.
Second communications satellite launched.
2022 - Six cargo missions to be launched.
2023 - Cargo missions land. Rover puts life support units in place.
2024 - Mars transit vehicle launched into Earth orbit.
First astronauts sent to transit vehicle. Mars ship with crew departs.
2025 - First astronauts land on Mars.
Second load of cargo is launched from Earth.
2026 - Second group of astronauts land on Mars, as does cargo.
Third load of cargo is launched from Earth.
© The West Australian