Features Interviews

A Future On Mars Part One

Words by: Trilokesh Chanmugam


In the year 2035, NASA successfully lands on the surface of Mars, setting down a crew of astronauts to explore the planet. During one of Mars’ notorious dust storms, one member is presumed lost and the rest of the crew is forced to take off, leaving him behind. Mark Watney must use every ounce of inventiveness, determination, and perseverance to stay alive and sane on the inhospitable planet.

This is the plot synopsis of Andy Weir’s The Martian; a science fiction novel and soon to be Hollywood blockbuster flick starring Matt Damon. Although it’s fictional, we’ll also see a crewed mission to Mars in the real world, and it’ll happen even sooner than 2035. There’s another difference too: in the real-world mission, all of the crew members will be left behind.

Mars One is a Dutch company, and the source of some impassioned criticism in recent years. Founded specifically around achieving the goal of permanently settling Mars, they have spent the past three years trying to gain support for their idea using soft-science infographics and riding the frenzied wave of incredulity that a crewed-mission to Mars inevitably generates. They haven’t done a very good job of convincing the world that their mission is feasible but, last month, Paragon Space released an independent report on their life support systems which, for the first time, suggested that Mars One’s plan is something more than just science fiction.

In the midst of countless differing perspectives about the ongoing story of Mars One, how is the interested observer to draw the line between cynicism and starry-eyed idealism?

Early in 2013, roughly 200,000 people applied for the one-way ticket to Mars. They applied with the knowledge that they were signing up to live, and die, no less than 55 million kilometres away from everyone and everything they had ever known or loved. The successful applicants were promised permanent accommodation in a pre-assembled outpost which would provide them with all of their basic needs; a refuge from the hostile conditions on the rugged surface of the red planet. The real estate would come with a lifetime contract and a view of Earth as a blueish speck in the sky of the Martian night.

The initial pool of hopefuls included Josh Richards, a redheaded 29 year old from Perth, Western Australia for whom space has always held numinous value. Based on the criteria of Mars One’s selection team, the applicants were filtered down to 1,058 candidates, and then 660 after a medical examination conducted by their own doctors. In February 2015, the successful third round candidates were announced. They were to become known as the Mars 100, and Josh Richards proudly counted himself among them. Scheduled to begin in September of 2016, the astronaut training process will cull the number of prospective colonists down to 24 – six crews of four people – who are to be employed full time as members of the Mars One astronaut corps. Of this number, only four will be sitting in the first crewed rocket which is scheduled to depart in 2026. Subsequent crews will depart every 26 months, at the point in their orbit where Mars and Earth are closest to each other.

In this way, Mars One plans to build a permanent colony on Mars, and claim recognition and responsibility for the milestone event of establishing humanity as a multi-planetary species.

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At this point you will either be asking yourself why you haven’t heard more about this wildly ambitious company or, if you have heard about them, you might already be dismissing them as a hoax. You might question the ethics of their plan, or the scientific feasibility, or the financial constraints. You might also wonder about the personal psychology of the Mars 100; do they really grasp the severity of what they signed up for? Perhaps you have doubts that Mars One is the most suitable company for such a serious undertaking. (Will NASA, SpaceX or Virgin Galactic beat them to it?) If you’re the type of person more inclined to star-gazing, you might simply be excited about the prospect of colonising another planet; an event which amounts to an enormous back-up plan for humanity. Or maybe you embrace the speculative elements of this mission; who can say what successful habitation of another planet might lead to?

I pressed ‘send’ on a tentatively worded email to Josh Richards a few months ago while these questions and more were racing through my head.

I heard back from Josh within 12 hours. He had recently moved to Melbourne, but was coming back to Perth for the weekend, so he said we could either meet up briefly in person, or talk at greater length on Skype. We decided that Skype was more convenient and, after only a few minutes of speaking to him, I came to the realisation that if Josh’s desire to fire himself to another planet in a rocket is symptomatic of an underlying madness, he does an excellent job of hiding it.

He’s friendly in an honest kind of way, laughing often and without reservation. He has a heavy Australian accent, and speaks about space exploration with a level of enthusiasm that’s more compelling than any of the Mars One promotional videos. And he possesses the clarity of vision which will eventually sustain him if he says goodbye to Earth.

In Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey’s character goes for a parent-teacher interview and winds up confronting his daughter’s teacher (who teaches moon landing denial as part of the syllabus) over the importance of space exploration. “If we don’t want to repeat the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century then we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it,” she says bullishly. Matthew McConaughey’s response is coolly resigned because he knows that in his apocalyptic world, as well as in our present day world, there are countless people with this viewpoint. Why build rockets when you can build hospitals? Why construct telescopes when people are starving in your own backyard?

Josh thinks that space exploration is important for humanity because of the perspective it provides us with. “We’re spaceship Earth,” he says, launching into a description of the psychological phenomenon known as the ‘overview effect’. “We’re a shiny blue ball in the darkness of space and we’re a bunch of, you know, hairless apes living on it.”

He has a bit of a chuckle at this last bit and I wonder whether his good humour will survive a lifetime in space, but he continues before I can bring it up. Josh talks about how the overview effect has been well documented among astronauts who, having seen Earth from above in all its borderless, fragile glory, have come back to Earth and become ardent environmentalists or campaigners for international cooperation and similar causes. “A lot of the stuff that stops us being a truly great species is the nationalist bullshit that we get involved with,” Josh explains. He doesn’t take much effort to sugar coat his disapproval of our collective decision making.

Of course, the Mars One colonists will not be returning to Earth to apply their newfound sense of perspective in person. But the overview effect also works indirectly, and colonisation of another planet is an achievement so monumental that all of mankind will jointly reap the benefits. The entire exploit will be documented, and video of the Earthlings settling into their new home on Mars will be streamed back to Earth for all to watch. It promises to be the biggest media spectacle in history, with estimated viewership dwarfing coverage of the Olympic games. People on Earth will observe the trials and tribulations of the first four and share in their wonder as they go about life on the red planet. As expected, there are plenty of critics who are quick to roll their eyes and shake their heads at the thought of “Big Brother” producers Endemol teaming up with Mars One, but Josh makes it abundantly clear that this is not going to be reality TV. “Ultimately this is about documenting the first people who are going to be representing our species on another planet,” Josh explains. “I see the TV element as vital… people should be able to watch.”

Ten years ago, Josh couldn’t have told you that he aimed to spend the rest of his days inhabiting another planet. Space was always the dream, but like many people who seek a purposeful life, he spent his early adult years jumping between careers before properly realising it. He finished a degree in Physics and started working in the mining sector. Finding it lacking, he joined the military as an engineer, which proved similarly unfulfilling. Then he pursued a career in comedy and music, gaining recognition for a bizarre stage persona: Keith the anger management koala. Eventually Josh thought up a way to bring his interests together – a comedy routine about sending people to Mars one-way. He aimed to make people laugh, but he was not joking about the idea. So he started researching the concept, and found out that just three days earlier, Mars One had made their first announcement. “The timing was extraordinary,” Josh says of his origins with the company. He signed up, flew through the application stages, and now stands on the verge of filling a previously unheard of role; not an astronaut, not a colonist, but a hybrid of the two.

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I ask him how he rates his chances of sitting in the first rocket that leaves in 2026. “One in twenty-five at the moment,” he replies, laughing at his own answer (it took me a little while to get the joke). “But that’s just me being a smart-arse.” There’s a hundred candidates, and countless unpredictable variables to take into consideration when choosing a team of four. Josh would be a fool to raise his hopes above 1/25 – and he knows as much – but he speaks like a man who’s found his calling.

He’s sitting in his house in Melbourne, and the Skype connection is smooth as we exchange words in real time from a distance of a few thousand kilometres apart. It’s something we take for granted, but the luxury won’t be afforded to the settlers on Mars. Depending on the distance between the two planets, communication signals which travel at the speed of light can take between 3 and 22 minutes to travel from Earth. The settlers will be able to send text, voice, or video messages, but a phone conversation is out of the question. Nonetheless, instantaneous communication is one of the more minor luxuries that they will have to give up in order to fulfill their dream of planetary colonisation.

Mars is a cold and inhospitable place. Within our solar system, it’s the closest analogue to Earth – days are only marginally longer than 24 hours and gravity is roughly one third of that felt here – but it’s a bleak desertscape which offers none of the life-sustaining beauty that we take for granted on our home planet. The atmosphere is unbreathable. The highly eccentric orbit creates extreme seasonal variation between the Northern and Southern hemispheres. It’s so cold that the polar caps consist of frozen carbon dioxide (also known as dry ice). Solar radiation will force the residents of Mars to live the majority of their lives under a protective layer of dirt. However, amid the desolation there is great majesty to be found – the red planet hosts some of the most impressive geological features in our solar system.

Olympus Mons is three times as large as Mount Everest. Valles Marineris rift makes the Grand Canyon look like a scratch in the dirt. And if you need more reasons for why the planet is worth visiting, the tantalizing possibility of finding life’s footprints makes the place invaluable for those who study the origins of life. Current scientific theory suggests that the planet might have hosted living organisms at some point in it’s history, with speculations even being made that life on Earth came from Mars via meteor. These ideas are informed by the presence of frozen water on the surface of the planet and biosignatures such as Methane and Formaldehyde in the atmosphere. So the Mars One settlers are going to have their work cut out for them; even subsisting in the Mars outpost will be an achievement, let alone donning Mars suits and exploring the planet. But achievements aside, they’re not going to be living in style.

Their life on Mars will be a very spartan form of existence. They’ll be in a confined space, following a monotonous routine, with no hope of ever returning to Earth. The journey alone will involve seven months in a spacecraft roughly the size of a small bus, with only three other people for company. The whole affair is going to be hellishly difficult for them, and I tell Josh that I think as much.

“It’s part of it,” he concedes. “If you don’t see the challenges as part of it, then it’s going to suck. It’s going to suck anyway, but you make the most of it.”

He says all this with an oddly chipper acceptance. Before speaking to Josh, I had considered the possibility that the Mars 100 consisted mainly of a type of person who reside in the realm of ideas rather than reality. Although many of the initial applicants probably were, it doesn’t seem like Josh Richards is driven by ill-considered ambition. He didn’t sign up in ignorance of the conditions on Mars, but he does consider the lack of creature comforts a small price to pay. He’s also come to terms with the fact that it’s going to be risky – people have died trying to reach goals closer and more conquerable than Mars. “Yeah, but that’s what you do,” he says.

“If you die in space, then you die trying to reach another planet. You die trying to go somewhere that no ones ever gone before.”

Part 2 continues here.