One day in 1986, while I was accompanying my mom to the supermarket, I stumbled upon a magazine that had the coolest cover ever. The popular science publication depicted a joint US-USSR space mission to the planet Mars, which could happen in the year 1992, to commemorate Columbus’s discovery of the Americas. I implored mom to buy the magazine for me and I took it home, devouring each page and dreaming on how a manned mission to the Red Planet was just around the corner. It would be the ‘Apollo’ moment of my generation, which would surely mark the dawn of Man’s colonization of other planets, to find our destiny among the stars.
I’m sure I still have that old magazine somewhere, yet I no longer hold the boyish optimism of my 13-year-old self. Yes, I’ve been lucky enough to witness the slow-but-steady incursion of NASA’s robotic probes, which have started to turn Mars into a charted world, giving it a certain sense of familiarity in the eyes of the public –to the point that a new photograph of its arid landscape barely deserves a like or a retweet– but at 45 years of age, I am actually uncertain on whether I’ll be alive to see humans leaving a historic footprint on the ochre sands of the nearest planet to ours. 1986 was, after all, the year the Challenger exploded, and in retrospect it seems the loss of America’s ‘space taxi’ inflicted a mortal wound to NASA’s ambitions, from which it never fully recovered…
But my bitter cynicism was not shared by the thousands of people from all over the world, who were all too eager to support a venture aiming to colonize Mars well within our lifetimes; the project did not originate on the blackboards of NASA (or any other space agency, for that matter) but was instead the brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp’s initiative called Mars ONE, which made a bold yet stark promise to its backers –to send humans to Mars, but not to bring them back.
Mars ONE’s goal sounded ludicrous from the get-go: to turn the colonization of a new planet into the greatest reality TV show of all history by no later than 2023, without guaranteeing the survival of its participants; sell the media rights first, worry about the ‘particulars’ (like *actual* Science and Engineering solving) later. It almost resembled the kind of ‘safety not guaranteed’ classified ad inviting you to join a time-traveling expedition.
But just like that ad, Mars ONE’s plea got a massive response which prompted science writers to giggle, and sociologists to expound on theories trying to explain what seemed to be a collective death wish. I remember my friend Darren Grimes coaxed his associate and co-host of the Grimerica podcast, Graham Dunlop, to sign up to Mars ONE as a joke and conversational topic for their show; yet other applicants were dead serious about it. Check for example this letter by PhD student Hannah Earnshaw, published by The Guardian on February of 2015, explaining why she wanted to be among the chosen few to set foot (and die) on the Red Planet for the first time:
I’m 23, and the past couple of years have been uncertain: stepping through the application for Mars One, even though I’ve made the shortlist of 100 I’m still unsure whether I’ll be selected. Hoping that I am suitable, but ultimately wanting the very best and most capable people to go, I have had to hold two possible futures in my mind.
In one, I complete my PhD, get a place of my own, pursue a career in research or maybe in politics. I get really good at playing piano, I find time to travel to Norway, Italy, Canada, and Japan, and maybe find a husband or wife.
In the other, I leave behind the possibilities of Earth for the possibilities of Mars. Alongside my crew I pioneer planetary scientific research and, as the founding member of a new civilisation, I plant the seeds of a diverse and generous society. I communicate our life to followers on Earth, help establish new policy through which humans explore and settle the stars ethically and responsibly … and maybe find a husband or wife.
In light of recent developments, here’s hoping Hannah chose to complete his PhD, after all: A user on Reddit was the first one to alert that the commercial arm of Mars ONE (Mars ONE Ventures AG) has just filed for bankruptcy on a court in Basel, Switzerland, in mid January. And although Mars ONE spokesperson Emma Sledge has told Ars Technica that the filing does not affect the non-profit Mars ONE Foundation, any kind of reassurance from this organization sounds as legit as a real estate claim on the Moon.
It is said Mars ONE received more than 200,000 applications since their official launch. Perhaps it was the pioneering genes calling on to those who wished to follow in the footsteps of their forefathers, and help settle the ultimate frontier. Maybe it’s the lingering realization things are gonna get really dicey real soon on our own home planet due to our reckless mismanagement, so we’d better start working on a plan(et) B for the species. We could even enter the ‘really fringe’ territory and speculate whether the New Age ‘starseed’ mythos is what drives some people to feel they never really belonged to Earth in the first place. Hell, maybe it was just the YOLO mentality!
Whatever the case, are there any other options for those who still dream of plum-colored skies and the spiders from Mars? It’s no big secret Elon Musk’s ultimate long term goal is to become a permanent Martian resident himself. Around the same time the first articles re. Mars ONE’s demise were published, Business Insider reported on one of Musk’s latest tweets –his favorite way to share the latest developments on Tesla and SpaceX– in which the real-life Tony Stark showed his confidence on how one day moving to Mars would be as affordable as securing a medium-sized home –I’m sure Millennials would have a thing or two to say about that…
While I’m confident Mr. Musk’s retro-looking Starship will have enough power to traverse the enormous distance between Earth and Mars, we now know keeping the crew alive during the journey will be no small feat. The amount of radiation they will be exposed to is so great, there’s serious consideration the first men and women sent to the Red planet will have to be either artificially sterilized, or be of an age beyond the reproductive years to avoid the risk of an unscheduled pregnancy.
And then there’s the issue of keeping those future colonists alive once they get there. Without a steady supply of food, water and provisions sent from Earth, the International Space Station would be impossible to maintain, and that’s just a distance of 400 kilometers! whereas it would take a minimum of 9 months for any re-supplying mission to reach a Martian colony. The failed experiment of Biosphere 2 went to show we humans have a lot to learn when it comes to fully self-sustainable facilities. Populating other planets is not measured in decades, but in lifetimes –lots and lots of them..
In the meantime, let the demise of Mars ONE be a cautionary tale to all people willing to give improbable space-related ventures the benefit of the doubt. Whether it’s an interplanetary version of Survivor or a crowdfunded revolutionary spacecraft, these ‘giant leaps for Mankind’ always demand an even bigger leap of faith.