They will settle on Mars – in ten years time
It’s just after 6pm on a Thursday night in Somerville, Pennsylvania. Sara Director, a 27-year-old copy editor, has had a busy day working and cleaning the house, so she’s now relaxing in her pajamas, giving herself a manicure and watching Netflix. About 10km away in Stoneham, Pennsylvania, software engineer Peter Degen-Portnoy, 52, is leaving the office after a long day. He meets with his personal trainer for a 45-minute workout that leaves his arms and legs “feeling like jelly” before he heads home.
Meanwhile, in England it’s 11pm and Hannah Earnshaw, 24, is on her sofa in a warm dressing gown, drinking rooibos tea. While the Durham University astronomy PhD student is catching up on the day’s news, in New Delhi, India, it’s 4m and Dr. Bhupendra Singh, a 36-year-old physics teacher, is asleep.
Over in Taringa, a suburb of Brisbane, Australia, math and science teacher Natalie Lawler, 37, has already been awake a few hours. She got up for a 5am CrossFit class before heading to work. At the same time, Sabrina Surovec, 37, is waking up in Asaka, Japan. She runs her own music company so she works nights and would like to sleep in but has been awoken by trucks with loudspeakers blasting campaign advertising for Japan’s upcoming elections.
These six seemingly random people from around the globe are part of a small, elite group that is hoping to blast off from Earth and move permanently to Mars. They are the Mars 100.
The six have already made it to the group of 100, down from the 200,000 applications received by Mars One. The Dutch company was founded in 2011 by wind energy entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp. His vision is to send the first Mars colonists on a one-way trip to the Red Planet in 2026. A voyage that is estimated to cost US$6 billion.
That’s right. Six billion. And yes, that’s right, it’s a one-way ticket.
It may sound dramatic, but a permanent colony on the Red Planet has been Mars One’s goal from the start. A one-way trip means that there is no need to bring along a return vehicle and fuel, thus reducing the mission infrastructure and making the price tag smaller. In comparison, NASA’s plan for a round-trip Mars mission is estimated to cost US$30 billion.
The Mars 100 consists of 50 men and 50 women from around the globe with a wide range of backgrounds, and ages ranging from 20 to 61. In September, according to Mars One, this group will be whittled down to a final 24 candidates who will then spend a decade preparing for the mission. This will involve an extensive training program that will cover areas such as medicine, dentistry, agronomy, electronics, political science, law and scientific exploration. They will be trained in a remote location – Iceland and Antarctica have been mentioned – to simulate Mars.
During this ten-year training period, the company hopes that the technology that will enable cargo to be carried to Mars will be sufficiently developed. This cargo includes robots that will assemble a series of pod-like homes for the first outpost.
After a projected nine-month voyage, the first four Martians will arrive in 2027, followed by another group in 2029, and another every two years after that, steadily increasing the colony’s size.
Mars is an incredibly harsh environment to survive in. About 95% of its atmosphere is carbon dioxide and the atmosphere is 100 times thinner than on Earth. The temperature fluctuates significantly. On a warm day, near the equator it can be as warm as 20C. The average temperature, however, is about –60°C. And let’s not forget the radioactive solar flares and dust storms, which can blanket the planet for months.
These conditions alone would put most people off the idea of going there. But then there is the fact that the trip will be one way and involve leaving family and friends forever.
“A lot of people have told me that this is a crazy dream, to which I usually reply that all dreams are crazy until they become real,” says Sabrina Surovec.
Surovec is, unsurprisingly, adventurous and bold, and she’s led the life of a nomad. Born in the US, she went to school for a while in Germany before becoming a permanent resident of Japan. She’s studied music and theater, and hopes to someday be the first musician to play a concert on Mars. She’s a typical Mars 100 candidate. They seem to be people who have already lived more than one life.
At the age of 16, Australian teacher Natalie Lawler was in a car accident that resulted in the death of her boyfriend. She was told she might never walk again.
Lawler pursued an education in business and became a property evaluator. By the time she was 24, she had started and managed businesses for years. At 30, she needed a change. She sold off her businesses, got divorced and went back to school to study education and mathematics so that she could teach.
“If I can represent humanity on Mars, why wouldn’t I go? That would inspire more students to invest in the knowledge of science and the wonder of space,” she says. “We can’t stand around saying ‘Why didn’t someone go to Mars?’ because we are that someone.”
Some of the candidates are attracted to the mission by an innate desire for space exploration and to live a life in the stars. “This is a call from above,” says Dr. Bhuphendra Singh. “I decided to become an astronomer when I was ten. I rolled down the hills on sleds, then lay on my back and looked at the stars.”
The final 24 candidates will be put into six groups of four for the ten-year-long training period, in order to prepare them for a future where they will spend all of their time together.
“If one team member changes their mind about going to Mars, becomes ill, or is deemed unsuitable for the mission, the whole group will leave the program or start again with a new member,” says Lawler. “We will know long in advance if our personalities, abilities or chemistry don’t work.”
As for missing family, the candidates say it will be difficult, but they have faith in modern technology on that front as well.
“Already, you can keep in touch with people from far away so it’s less of a deal breaker than people make it out to be,” Hannah Earnshaw explains, adding that she communicates with friends and family online more frequently than in person.
If Peter Degen-Portnoy is chosen for the final mission, he would leave his wife and five children on Earth. “I’ve told my children I won’t ever stop being their daddy. I’ll be their daddy who lives and works on Mars,” he says.
When asked what things they think would miss on Earth, the Mars One candidates mention a lot of small things we usually take for granted, such as our landscape and even the weather. Sabrina and Sara mention their cats. Peter Degen-Portnoy says he would miss the still of a spring morning, the sound of an orchestra filling a music hall and the beauty of his wife’s eyes.
But it is the things that they won’t miss that are perhaps more significant. “War, prejudice, violence,” says Dr. Bhupendra Singh. Sara Director adds, “Money and everything around the expectations of earning it, spending it and deserving it.” While Sabrina says, “Religious and political squabbling. It’s my hope we can get away from all that and start with a clean slate on Mars.”
Text: Tea Krulos
Published: July 18, 2016