Want a one-way ticket to the red planet?

by Josh Davis

The Observer

Since its announcement in May 2012, the Mars One project hasn’t had an easy ride. Critics have questioned all aspects, from the technical feasibility to its funding model. But recent developments from the project seem to be bringing the goal of starting a human colony on Mars by 2025 a little closer.

Last month (DEC), Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, the project’s founder, announced a partnership with Lockheed Martin and Surrey Satellite Technology to build a satellite to put into orbit around Mars by 2018. This was a strong statement of intent for the project, which aims to send four volunteers on a one-way ticket every 26 months to spend the rest of their lives on the red planet.

Assuming they can overcome some of the technical issues — such as minimizing the astronauts’ radiation exposure and landing a heavy manned craft safely on the surface — the main issue faced by the project seems to be one of funding. Mars One aims to raise the majority of its estimated $6 billion costs by selling television rights and sponsorship deals.

Using as a model the Olympics, which made about $8 billion between 2009 and 2011 through broadcast, sponsorship and ticketing deals, Mars One claims that with an estimated 4 billion people expected to have access to video media within a decade, this sum could be easily surpassed if everyone was watching. The mission recently launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign — although at the time of writing it was less than halfway toward its $400,000 target.

While he thinks we should be seeing people land on Mars by 2035, the second man to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, is very skeptical about the timing given by the Mars One project.

He says: “I don’t think there’s that much technology that indicates that the Mars One corporation really knows how to get four people to Mars by 2023 [sic], even if they don’t bring them back.”

He said that while he believes private corporations do have an important role to play in space exploration, something as monumental as sending people to Mars will be achieved only through international cooperation.

So where next for the project? Mars One recently announced that, after receiving more than 200,000 applications during phase one of selection, it has cut the applicant pool by 99.5 percent to 1,058 candidates who will go through to phase two.

What these applicants (who include the three below) will have to undergo in round two has not yet been agreed, as the project is currently in negotiations with media companies for the right to televise the selection process.

Maggie Lieu, Ph.D. student, 23

Why did you sign up?

I just think it’s a really good opportunity to advance science. It’ll have such a big impact not just on the scientific community but also on the whole world. The last time mankind went to the moon was in 1972 and we haven’t been back since. This mission would have a similar effect on people’s imagination.

Has getting through to stage two changed how your family feel?

It’s more real now. They’re more scared. My mum was like, “You’re not going to be able to use your Mini when you go up there. Can I have it?”

Do you think the Mars One project is feasible?

It is definitely feasible but delays are pretty much inevitable. So we will be able to go to Mars one day, but on this time scale? I’m not so sure.

Doing a PhD with the Astrophysics and Space Research Group at Birmingham, do you think you have a better perspective on the mission?

With the Mars One mission, the main goal is not really science, and that’s a problem. If you want the science community on board, you have to give them some results. So just going to Mars for the fun of it, or a TV program, which is what they’re trying to make it out to be, would cost a lot for not very much. Even though we’re not expected to do science there, it would easily be possible. Once you’re on Mars, they can’t make you do what they want.

You seem very dubious about the project, so why put your name down?

I’m enthusiastic about it, but there are a lot of things that need to be worked out. Obviously I don’t work for Mars One, so I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. However, I’m definitely interested in getting involved — I just love inspiring younger generations to take part in science.

Is that what you’d see yourself doing?

Yes, kind of like Chris Hadfield. I think what he did in space was fantastic.

Does any part of you think that Mars One is just a big gimmick?

No, it’s not a gimmick. I mean, when Neil Armstrong went to the moon, they didn’t have anything particular in mind, it was just testing if we could make it to the moon. When they came back, they brought samples of moon rock that turned out to be really important for science, but I don’t think they had any specific scientific purpose when they went there. I see this project as the same, testing man’s capability.

Ryan McDonals, Physics student, 20

Why did you sign up?

The main reason for me is that I think that on Mars I can accomplish more than I could on Earth. In three weeks, a single person on the surface of Mars could accomplish all of the science that all of the rovers over the past five years have already managed to achieve. If we want to ever prove definitively whether there is life on Mars, we will have to send someone there.

What are your expectations for the Mars One project?

The real thing that encourages me is the inspiration factor: what the impact would be back on Earth of my going to Mars. Remember, the Apollo program is what inspired the generation of scientists and engineers back on Earth who developed computers and smartphones and all the technology that improved our lives. Similarly, a mission to Mars would inspire a whole new generation of scientists on Earth, which would make life better for everyone.

What are you expecting when you first land on Mars?

Survival will have to be the first priority. Initially for the first year or so, it’ll mainly be construction; linking everything together, establishing the equipment, maintaining the solar panels, and things like that. We’ll be bringing some basic canned food to keep us going until we start actually growing our own food. In the long term it’ll be hydroponically grown vegetables and insects for protein. Potentially, later on you could bring some frozen fish eggs and start a little pond. I’d like to find a way to grow some tea on Mars. I think that’s very important for the sanity of all the people there. Once the tea is sorted out, the science would then begin properly.

Are you worried or scared at all?

There’s risk in everything we do in life. I say I’ve applied to go to live on Mars, not to go to die on Mars. We all die eventually, of course. Actually the fact is that because things are going to be so strictly controlled, for example the diet of the people who go and the air they breathe, assuming that there is no major equipment failure, people will live longer on Mars than on Earth.

You’re quite young. Does that not bother you?

The problem with sending someone who has already experienced most of their life, and they’re about 60 or so, is that you want to maximize how many years they will have on Mars so that they can do the most good. The best investment for the people who are sending you is to send someone younger. Fresh young minds would be able to be trained easily and be more able to deal with problems that might be unique to being on Mars.

You see this as being more of a universal endeavor and not a personal one?

I see it in the terms that we have to go eventually. If we are the only intelligent life in the universe, then in many ways we are like its consciousness. It’s too dangerous to keep that all on one planet.

Alison Rigby, lab technician, 33

Why did you sign up?

It’s an amazing opportunity — why wouldn’t you? The real reason is that I want to make a difference. If I prove I can do something amazing and I’m just an ordinary person, then anyone else can too. I can help people realize they can go beyond their capabilities, break out of living their lives and just doing the 9-to-5 thing.

So what makes you think you’d be the perfect candidate?

More than anything, I’ve got enthusiasm and drive. Those are the two most important things. They’ve already said they’re not going to be specifically looking for degree level-trained people. They’re looking for people with the ability to live and work with other people; everything else can be taught. Also, I’m a trained scientist.

How are you planning on preparing?

My partner and I decided to isolate ourselves over Christmas. I kid you not, we just locked ourselves in the flat with two weeks’ worth of food to see how we went with minimal communication. We turned off the phones and the only communication we had was through the Internet, because that’s all we’ll have on Mars. It was interesting, to say the least. Initially I was fine, but about 10 days in I started noticing that I had symptoms of cabin fever. It was definitely quite difficult to think that these walls are your world, that the furthest distance that I could see would be 15 feet (4.5 meters). So when I stepped outside, my eyes took a while readjusting to the world outside; the natural light was very bright. Preparing food took a long time, because we couldn’t just pop out to the shops. We were drinking UHT milk because fresh milk wouldn’t keep, and I had to bake my own fresh bread. I think that my menu wasn’t as interesting as I thought it was because I was craving Hobnobs by the end.

Has it changed your outlook on what the Mars One project will be like?

It’s definitely crystallized what to expect, at least initially. That was only two weeks. I can imagine after the first month, or the first six months, things will start to become more normal for me in that environment.

What do you think the biggest challenge for the project will be?

Goodness! We really need the public support, so the biggest challenge is going to be convincing people that this is real. Even my first question to Norbert Kraft [chief medical officer of Mars One] was: “Is this for real?,” and he seemed quite taken aback.

If you did get selected, how do you think you’d tie things off with Earth?

Me and my partner have discussed this, and we’re both fine with the situation. He’s applied as well, so if he gets through — and I get through — we’ll just meet up on Mars! The majority of my communication with my family is by phone or text anyway, so I’m used to having them at a distance. I’m just talking about extending the distance quite dramatically.

Obviously I’d have to get rid of my possessions, which would be very cathartic, I’d have thought.