/ 1 May 2013

Mars One: Reality bites

For a shot at a one-way trip to Mars you need to volunteer online with Mars One
For a shot at a one-way trip to Mars you need to volunteer online with Mars One

For a shot at all this excitement and fame you need to volunteer online with Mars One, the non-profit company behind the initiative. Requirements include "intelligence, adaptability, and a good sense of humour". "We will train you," Mars One says. To the relief of many parents, you have to be at least 18 years of age to register.

There is a catch: It's a one-way trip. You will help to establish humankind as a multi-planet species, a pioneer in the truest sense of the word. Every other year you will be joined by another equally adventurous set of pioneering couples until a proper community has taken root on Mars.

But first you have to survive de-selection by the human race, and a fickle lot we are. We will scrutinise your online video application to decide whether you have the "right stuff". Your "candidacy" will depend substantially on whether you can impress without annoying. Anti-socials and aspergics need not apply. Hint: do a quick online marketing course and may the best networker win.

Once selected for the training phase, you will find yourself gobsmack-bang in the centre of the biggest reality show ever. Mars One will engage "everyone on Earth" in a 24/7/365 broadcast of your mission. This is Big Brother meets Space Exploration writ large. We will watch you and 39 other aspirant emigrants jostle for elbow-space in remote and cramped simulated Mars conditions; observe your efforts to find a suitable sexual partner and gain a place on "Team 1". Big Brother meets Survivor and the meek shall not inherit.

Your every step from here down to the surface of Mars will be scrutinised by billions. We will have a better idea of what makes you tick than your own mother, our interest in your fate generating viewer figures exceeding those of the recent London Olympics. This will cover the projected $6-billion per interplanetary trip needed, including at least a decade's worth of dental floss and sanitary wipes.

Sixty-four South Africans had volunteered even before Mars One opened up formal applications. Five of these have already submitted online video applications. Racing test driver, Donovan Taylor (26) from Gauteng has hands-on mechanical skills. He wants to "do something profound" with his life, "something like executing the next big step for humankind". He mixes and matches easily and has the "mental strength" to endure the tin-can conditions of the seven-month flight to Mars.

Johan Viljoen (28) from Bloemfontein, an IT and robotics enthusiast with an engineering background, wants to be part of "a great technological leap for humankind". He draws his inspiration from series like Star Trek and Babylon 5. "This is the closest I could ever get to travelling among the stars. It would be a dream come true."

Taylor has watched several space movies and knows that "anything can go wrong and one cannot plan for everything". Mars One will use "existing technologies", nothing fancy, which reduces the risks. And the health risks? "Oh, things like loss of bone density and such?" Yes, and things like weakened immune systems, pathogens behaving strangely, the high levels of radiation on the way across and on Mars itself. "Perhaps they could thicken the hull of the space ship against the radiation," Taylor thinks. Viljoen still wants to read up on stuff like that.  

In an NBC interview Mars Society president and Mars settlement advocate Robert Zubrin say that the Mars One plan is technically feasible. However, some space analysts point out that the DragonX space craft on which the plan relies, still have to be developed and that there would be little time for the technology to "mature". There are good reasons why the space establishment develops "mission architecture" in such a boring, step-by-step manner.

If, therefore, you make it safely down to the surface of Mars as we your supporters desire, then you and your fellow settlers will be more remote, exposed and vulnerable than anybody in the history of humankind. With the nearest hospital several million kilometres away, Viljoen thinks that medical care could become an issue, though "Mars One will train us to deal with emergencies". He knows that they would grow their own food and that there would be no meat. "Perhaps," he concludes, "we could eventually fly over some chickens".

Bass Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One, has certainly managed to make going to Mars real – so real that one can almost taste the home-grown carrots. But this reality show has bite in it. You run a real risk of becoming an "interesting" medical textbook case or simply adding to the growing amount of anthropogenic litter on the surface of Mars.

Our aspirant interplanetary migrants, it seems, will cheerfully face these and other risks. Yet, once the fine Martian dust has settled, the excitement has died down and the opinionated bloggers and commentators are feeding off new topics, what then? Unlike in Big Brother, you can only leave the Team 1 habitat feet first. It is, says prize-winning poet Annesu de Vos "bona-fide freaksh*t insane". At the recent Mars One media launch somebody comments online: "What the f**k are you going to do on Mars for the rest of your life?"

But then, these two are clearly not pioneer material at all, and I could personally think of quite a few things to do on Mars. Besides, everybody knows that going to Mars is a good idea. Stephen Hawking said so – argue with that. It can be done and most of us lunatic fringe types want it to be done.

Sadly, the cyber chatter is homing in on what could be the soft underbelly of this story. Zubrin and others are sceptical about the Mars One business plan. Will the project achieve the Olympian viewer figures needed to foot the billion dollar mission bills? Now, this author will definitely be watching Team 1 "24/7/365", but what about the rest of you? Hell, I don't even know whether you are reading this.

Mars One Timeline

  • 2013: Astronaut selection begins. Forty astronauts begin training at a simulated Mars base.
  • 2014: Preparation for a series of supply missions and the development of the first Mars communication satellite begins.
  • 2016: The first supply mission lands on Mars in October with 2 500 kg of equipment in the general location of the future settlement.
  • 2018: A settlement Rover lands on Mars to identify an ideal spot for the settlement.
  • 2021: 6 separate landers deliver two living units, two life-support units, and another rover. The rovers transport the equipment to the settlement location.
  • 2022:  Water, oxygen and atmosphere production is ready. Mars Team One gets the go-for-launch. Mars transit vehicle is assembled in orbit and the first four astronauts depart in September.
  • 2023: Mars Team One lands and start linking individual capsules and activating food and energy production. Five cargo missions arrive with additional living units, life-support unit and a third rover.
  • ?2025: Mars Team Two arrives … Hereafter a team arrives every two years.

Mars One already states that there could be delays in achieving the milestones on time.