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The world is not enough

Illustrations: Chesley Bonestell

When moving to Mars, it’s vital to get your landing right. The atmosphere is much thinner than Earth’s, so decelerating to a soft landing is no straightforward task. Landing something as heavy as a manned spacecraft on the surface has never been attempted. The location needs to be spot on too: no more than a kilometre from where two Mars Rovers will have set up inflatable habitats with their own micro-climates. One minor miscalculation and four astronauts could inadvertently land a 500-kilometre trek away from supplies of breathable air.

Water is too heavy to be brought on board the spacecraft, so it will need to be extracted from Mars’ rocky soil, and later split into its constituent parts to produce oxygen for breathing. Food must be produced on site too, in LED-lit greenhouses covered in a thick layer of Martian soil to keep cosmic rays out. These high-energy radiation beams aren’t just detrimental to plants – they could kill unprotected humans within a year.

You get the landing wrong – you die. The machines producing oxygen and water break – you die. The underground harvest fails – you die.

Applicants had to upload a one-minute video in which they answered three questions: why they want to go to Mars; what would make them a good candidate and, oddly, what their sense of humour is like”

This might sound like a tough sell, but it’s what 202,586 individuals from 140 countries signed up for when they submitted their astronaut applications to Mars One in 2013. The Netherlands-based venture aims to establish an outpost on the red planet by 2025. Four colonists will make the initial journey, with subsequent crews landing at two-year intervals. Tickets are one-way only.

“Oh, how fun!”

Bas Lansdorp leads the Mars One operation from an office opposite the train station of the small city of Amersfoort. A serial entrepreneur with a background in mechanical engineering, the 37-year-old founded an experimental wind energy company in 2008 and sold part of his shares to start Mars One. Lansdorp thinks he can raise the $6 billion he budgeted for the mission by turning it into a reality TV spectacle, a sort of Big Brother in space. By his logic, if the London Olympics can generate nearly $4 billion in three weeks, $6 billion for televising an open-ended colonisation of Mars should be a breeze.

But Mars One isn’t just about generating profits – it is being presented as a serious attempt to establish homo sapiens as an interplanetary species. Applicants had to upload a one-minute video in which they answered three questions: why they want to go to Mars; what would make them a good candidate and, oddly, what their sense of humour is like.

A promotional image for Bas Lansdorp's Mars One project. Image: Bryan Versteeg, Mars One

A promotional image for Bas Lansdorp’s Mars One project. Image: Bryan Versteeg, Mars One

In his video, Willard Sollano Daniac describes himself as “a joker person”. The 37-year-old Filipino national working in Qatar as an electrical engineer believes that “someday, somehow, I can help the human race to save its life around the universe.” Daniac has a wife and two kids – a daughter of 13 and a son of five. He has no illusions about what life on Mars will be like. “If you’re not careful, if you don’t know what you’re doing, your life is only just a fraction of seconds,” he says. He mentions the super tornadoes known to sweep the planet’s surface as a particular peril. Nevertheless, he is keen to make the trip and is certain he won’t regret it. Daniac’s wife finds his participation hard to accept, but ultimately, he thinks, she supports him.

For Daniac, and for many other applicants, space travel was a childhood dream and Mars One has given him a new shot at making it a reality. He may get the opportunity. In May 2014 he discovered he’d made it through to the shortlist of 705 potential candidates.

American software engineer Joe Martin also made the cut. “Oh, how fun!” was his mother’s initial response. A few days later, having thought it through, she sent him an email. “You’re not allowed to leave the planet before I do,” she wrote. Martin considers himself to be in a perfect position to make the permanent move to the red planet: the 41-year-old from Virginia is divorced with no kids. “I’ve always felt this drive to do something with my life that’s outside of the normal bounds of family and career,” he tells me. “I just figured I’d give it a shot.”

Martin has amassed 2,370 “supporter points”, one of the highest scores in the ‘Mars Community’, an online database of applicants and supporters who have made a donation of some kind. He’s not clear how the points are distributed, although he did contribute to Mars One’s crowdfunding campaign and bought a souvenir, a “big laser-engraved block of glass.” It’s available for $85 in Mars One’s webshop alongside ‘Aspiring Martians’ T-shirts, sticker sets and mugs featuring an image of what the settlement will look like: a series of white pods in an infinite red desert.

Nazis and Nasa

Even if their life spans do end up being shortened, Mars pioneers are guaranteed immortality. Still, it’s difficult to see what humanity as a whole stands to gain from establishing an outpost on a desolate planet that, with current technology, is about eight months of space travel away.

Professor G. Scott Hubbard was Nasa’s ‘Mars czar’ for ten years, directing the US space agency’s Mars programme from 2000 to 2010. He says that part of the attraction of Mars lies in national prestige and scientific research. But there’s also an element of exploration for exploration’s sake, he adds, in the same way that George Mallory wanted to climb Mount Everest “because it’s there”.

Sending humans to Mars is an accepted objective of the space programme of the United States. We need to put our money where our mouth is” – Buzz Aldrin

The first technical study on how to send humans to the most Earth-like planet in the solar system appeared as early as 1948. Das Marsprojekt (‘The Mars project’) was written by Wernher von Braun, the technical director of the team that developed the V-2 rockets which pounded London at the tail end of the Second World War. As the Red Army approached Peenemünde, a town by the Baltic Sea which was home to a Wehrmacht research facility, von Braun fled and surrendered to US troops. Despite being a Nazi, he was brought to the US as part of Operation Paperclip, which saw more than 1,500 German scientists flown over to give the US an advantage in the Cold War.


Using nothing but a slide rule as a computational device, von Braun made calculations for a flotilla of ten space vessels manned by 70 astronauts to journey to Mars as early as 1965. The spacecraft were so heavy they would have to be assembled in Earth’s orbit, requiring 950 launches of 46 reusable rockets from Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean. Later in life, von Braun developed the Saturn V rocket, which put Apollo 11 on the moon.

Both Nasa and the Soviet Union carried out studies into manned Mars missions in the 1950s and 1960s, but none made it past the drawing board. On 20th July 1989, the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, George HW Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative, which was to culminate in “a journey into tomorrow, a journey to another planet: a manned mission to Mars.” But without the context of the Cold War, Congress was hostile to the proposed $500 billion budget and the plan was eventually abandoned in favour of robotic missions. Still, Nasa never stopped looking into human Mars exploration. In 2010, president Barack Obama said he thought it would be feasible to send astronauts on a flyby mission to the red planet by the 2030s. “A landing on Mars will follow, and I expect to be around to see it,” he said.


‘The landing craft raised into takeoff position’ by Chesley Bonestell, 1956

Buzz Aldrin was in the room when Obama spoke those words at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The second man to clamber out of Apollo 11 and onto the moon’s surface in 1969 is an avid campaigner for establishing a permanent human presence on Mars. Aldrin thinks Americans have lost interest in expensive space projects and fears they will only re-engage after other countries overtake them, as the Soviet Union did with Sputnik. “I hope it doesn’t require such drastic disruptions,” Aldrin tells me. “Sending humans to Mars is certainly an accepted objective of the space programme of the United States. We need to put our money where our mouth is.”

“Mars is not the final destination”

In the absence of public funding, several private Mars initiatives have sprung up. Billionaire Elon Musk has said he wants to retire on the red planet and hopes to put boots on Mars within ten to 12 years with his commercial space exploration company SpaceX. Inspiration Mars aims to have a married couple orbit the planet as soon as 2018. Its founder, the billionaire businessman Dennis Tito, was the first space tourist and paid £14 million to spend eight days holidaying in the International Space Station in 2001.

Elon Musk and his commercial Dragon V2 capsule. Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP/Press Association Images

Elon Musk and his commercial Dragon V2 capsule. Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP/Press Association Images

Robert Zubrin’s Mars Society has less money to play with, but seeks to further Mars exploration through public advocacy. The organisation now has two “analogue research stations”. Located in the Canadian Arctic and Utah desert, these cylindrical white habitats allow for small crews of researchers to simulate life on Mars, conducting experiments, wandering around in space suits and finding ways to coexist peacefully in a confined space. One of their first findings is that in order to maintain basic hygiene and morale, crew members will need 12 litres of water each per day, with a sponge bath every other day and one “navy shower” (water on, water off, soap up, water on, rinse off) a week.

For Zubrin, establishing a society on Mars is a logical progression for a human race that started out in Africa. “It’s through our development of technology that we were able to transform ourselves from a local species into a global species,” he says. “[Humankind] differentiated into hundreds of nations and hundreds of languages and literatures, with a very complex and rich history that would’ve been vastly poorer and perhaps much shorter if we had stayed in Africa as a local curiosity.” Ultimately, he envisions a space-trotting human civilisation. The red planet is the critical breakthrough point: “Mars is not the final destination, it’s the direction.”

A researcher of the Mars Society's research station in the Utah desert. Photo courtesy of The Mars Society

A researcher of the Mars Society’s research station in the Utah desert. Photo courtesy of The Mars Society

When it comes to Mars One, Zubrin – an adviser to the project – is not confident they’ll get to their destination on TV advertising revenues alone. Buzz Aldrin also has concerns about Lansdorp’s business model. “Whether it’s a boy chasing a girl, or a girl chasing a boy, [reality shows] seem to be very popular in generating an audience and an associated cash flow,” he says. “But I’m just not sure that is adequate for the commercial development of the technologies needed to get the candidates to where they can actually be pioneering survivors.” So far, Mars One has raised several million dollars in application fees, which ranged from $5 to $75. As of 8th May 2014, a further $573,923 had been raised through merchandise, donations and an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. A country by country breakdown on the project’s website shows that supporters from the US had contributed $236,831 to this total. Mongolia had chipped in
just $4.

Getting to the surface is a very challenging and complex technical issue. It’s like hitting a golf ball in Los Angeles and making a hole in one in London”

The idea of a televised Mars landing is vaguely reminiscent of ‘Space Cadets’, a TV show aired in Britain in 2005. In the programme, volunteer astronauts were tricked into believing they had taken off in a rocket and were orbiting the Earth, only to discover that they had in fact spent five days in a space shuttle simulator at a disused airfield in Suffolk. If Mars One fails to raise the money it requires, there’s a chance the project will stop short of a real mission only after applicants have immortalised themselves on television as they go through the next stages of the selection process. The project has a long way to go before it raises its target of $6 billion and many think this budget is on the low side to begin with. It cost Nasa $2.5 billion to put the Curiosity Rover on Mars, and former Mars czar Hubbard says that as a rule of thumb, human spaceflight is anywhere between ten and 100 times more expensive than robotic missions.

On top of that, Hubbard thinks that the details of the Mars One mission still leave “more than a little bit” to the imagination. Only a third of the 45 robotic missions to the Mars orbit that have been launched in the past 60 years have been successful. “Getting to the surface is a very challenging and complex technical issue,” he says. “It’s like hitting a golf ball in Los Angeles and making a hole in one in London.”

Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin hopes Mars One doesn’t overstretch itself by setting an overly tight deadline, with only ten years remaining until blast-off. He has a warning for the project. “If their difficulties or their failures result in a delay of sending a mission that’s more capable and more permanently prepared for eventualities than their rather sparse systems that support getting there in a big hurry, they may threaten the entire effort of humanity to establish a growing outpost on another planet,” he says.

“As far as I know, this is not a hoax”

Despite having already suffered a two-year delay – Lansdorp had initially envisioned the first crew landing in 2023 – Mars One is forging ahead with its plans. It has commissioned Lockheed Martin to draft a concept study for a Mars lander that, if realised, should land in 2018 to test some of the technologies necessary to sustain life, like extracting water from Martian rocks.

Gerard ‘t Hooft, a Dutch theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner, was initially skeptical about the project but changed his mind when he heard it was designed as a one-way mission. He now publicly backs Mars One as an “ambassador”. ‘t Hooft says there are many obstacles still to overcome, but that in terms of the laws of physics, a Mars colony is not an impossibility.

“All elements of the periodic table are present on Mars so you can get hold of everything you need,” he says. “The question is what’s the best way to do this.” More research is necessary on all aspects of the mission: how to land safely, how to protect the astronauts from radiation, how to pollinate crops without bees. ‘t Hooft tells me that dieticians are currently looking into how to provide the pioneers with balanced meals. “At some point in the future you can think about bringing livestock to set up food production,” he says. “Bas [Lansdorp] is a vegetarian, so he doesn’t see any use for meat production, but I think some chicken or a fried egg from time to time isn’t such a bad idea.”

‘t Hooft is still not sure whether Lansdorp and his team will manage to put a crew on Mars, but he believes that identifying and tackling hurdles is useful in itself. He rejects the idea that Mars One intends to end in a similar vein to ‘Space Cadets’, deliberately crushing the dreams of its candidates. “As far as I know, this is not a hoax. The organisation is looking very seriously into the possibilities,” he says. “So far we haven’t seen any obstacles that can’t be overcome. As long as that’s the case, we’ll keep going.”

A concept drawing of the interior of Mars One's habitat units

A concept drawing of the interior of Mars One’s habitat units

The next round in Mars One’s selection process is an interview with the Mars One committee. After that, the remaining applicants will be broken up into groups of four and start a full-time training programme for the mission. Willard Sollano Daniac says he now spends most of his free time getting ready for the competition that will see the final 705 candidates whittled down to a crew of four. He has also launched a website, the Philippine Marsian Society [sic], which petitions the government of the Philippines to fund a Mars mission that could save the human race from extinction when catastrophe strikes. “We don’t need to rely on Nasa, JAXA, ESA for our survival,” it says. “Many Filipino are brilliant to operate the space mission.”

Joe Martin has also started preparing for the competition. He now does a lot more exercise than he used to and he’s reading up on electronics. He has also applied for a volunteer position at a hospital so that he can learn basic medical skills. He says that he’s ready to accept the risks that come with settling on a planet that’s almost entirely unsuited to human existence. “You’re donating yourself,” he says. “Either you live and a lot of the time you’re pretty miserable, or you die. But what you accomplish, what your life means – as short or as long as it might be – extends far beyond just me and what my family and work mean.”

Daniac agrees that a shot at setting foot on the red planet outweighs all other considerations. “This is what I want and I’m going to spare my life for this mission,” he tells me. “I’d love to die because of this.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #15 of Delayed Gratification

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