When the list of finalists for the Mars One mission was released on February 16, I was relieved to see that my boyfriend wasn’t on it.
From an initial pool of 202,586 applicants, Mars One, a nonprofit with the mission of establishing permanent human settlements on Mars, has whittled the pool of Martian-wannabes down to one hundred contenders. Having gone through thousands of application videos, medical statements, and video interviews, Mars One is now undertaking the task of narrowing their pool down to six groups of four “lucky” individuals. The first cohort will travel one-way to Mars in 2024 (to be followed by a steady stream of four participants every two years), after two additional rounds of screening: first by the Mars One selection committee, then through a reality-show involving training challenges and audience participation. The price tag for the first trip? Six billion U.S. dollars.
Though I don’t often take my boyfriend’s space aspirations seriously, I have to admit I knew what I was getting into. He fully disclosed his zest for “leaving this rock” in the burgeoning stages of our relationship.
In our early heart-to-heart pillow talks, we asked each other, as couples will do, some of the more usual questions, like “how do you define love or happiness?,” “how would you want to die?,” and “do you believe in God?” (or in our case, “how did you come to not believe in a god?”). One of the more atypical questions we asked each other was, “if given the chance to leave Earth to explore space, knowing that you are leaving forever, would you go?”
My answer was a hesitant no. I’d be reluctant to leave Earth when there is so much I have yet to do here. For example, I‘ve only visited two continents so far and have yet to try sky-diving. I haven’t seen the deepest parts of the ocean, I haven’t been to the tropical forests of the Amazon, or seen a lion in the wild. (For some contenders to Mars, enjoying Earth to the fullest is not a problem—they’ve either already accomplished everything on their Earthly bucket list or intend to in the ten years before they have to leave.)
I also worry about “practical” feasibility issues. There’s no proven track record for getting people to Mars—how could there be? Though both manned and unmanned Mars missions have been proposed since the 1950s, and the latter carried out with questionable success, Mars One would be the first actual attempt to land humans on Mars (NASA’s plans project manned missions in the 2030s). For me, the risks are too great.
What if the capsule explodes on atmospheric entry or life can no longer be sustained in the capsule before I even get to see or do something worthwhile (loaded, I know), like meet extraterrestrial forms of life or touch Mars dust?
In theory, we have the technology to land people on Mars, and possibly sustain their lives, but such technology has never been tested in a real Mars or “deep space” environment. In October 2014, students from MIT released a study citing concerns with the practicality of Mars One based on best available information, indicating that, according to the mission plan, the growth of crops on Mars as the only food source would “produce unsafe oxygen levels in the habitat” leading to the first crew death within sixty-eight days of inhabiting the planet. They also indicated in an open letter to Mars One that they “look forward to the day when humanity becomes an interplanetary species” and that they have “great respect for the enthusiasm for space exploration that the Mars One program has generated and [their] goal is not to detract from this, but rather to drive it forward—towards enabling affordable, sustainable Mars colonization.” They received a brief response from Mars One CEO/founder Bas Lansdorp lauding them for their work but also citing that their conclusion was based on faulty assumptions, ending with: “There are many problems between today and landing humans on Mars, but oxygen removal is certainly not one of them.”
Still, the very real possibility that Mars One may be sending four people into premature death has sparked ethical concerns from all spectrums of ideological and religious belief. While humanism itself entails support and respect for science, the strangeness and newness of the idea that the Earth doesn’t have to be our only home is hard even for many humanists to wrap their heads around.
There is also a broader question about the meaning of life and death. Are the Mars mission contenders simply not afraid of death or do they fear death without a grander purpose? Who are others to decide how much risk these Mars dreamers want to incur on their own mortality?
But neither the participants nor the program’s engineers intend to fail. The cost is too great to suggest Mars One would recklessly send people to their deaths. Before the first attempt at landing a crew on Mars, they plan to log eight successful cargo missions in order to perfect the first human spaceflight as “far as is humanly possible.”
As far as only offering one-way trips off Earth, Mars One gamely offers this rationale:
Despite all of the above, it still sounds rather extreme nowadays to only offer a one-way trip, but it bears mentioning that thousands of Europeans agreed to do just that—they took all they owned and moved to Australia, for example. That agreement did not come with a return ticket. The boat went back, but that did not mean they could afford to go with it. Maybe they could buy another ticket after saving up for a few years—just like our astronauts could build a rocket after some time.
The emigrants of the 60s could never have imagined that, 30 years later, they would be able to fly back to Europe for a small amount. Perhaps, at some point, a trip to Mars will become just as commonplace.
One might expect that the space enthusiasts who’ve applied for this mission must be nontheists, however one contender, interviewed in a short documentary by The Guardian and Stateless Media, calls it “God’s mission” along with humanity’s mission. His father says that he is unafraid for his son because he knows they will “meet in paradise” again someday.
Interestingly enough, Mars One has addressed its position on religion and lack of religious affiliation very fittingly on its website, strongly distinguishing its Mars colonization mission from religion (and humans’ Earth history of colonizing for religious conversion missions):
Religions normally involve belief in some sort of spiritual entity or deity that guides behavior and helps people to develop ideas about how to live. The aim of Mars colonization is guided by careful planning, investment in appropriate technologies, and use of scientific knowledge and method to support the settlers and ensure success.
Religion normally involves some type of faith, usually directed at a higher being. Mars colonization is not about faith, but about human ingenuity and vision. The inhabitants will rely upon science, research, and technology to ensure their well-being and the success of the mission.
Religion usually involves a focus on something that a group of people deem sacred. Mars colonization will be focused on human survival and the formation of a society on a new planet. The extent to which people attach notions of the sacred to this will be a matter of individual choice.
Other questions critics of the Mars One project are asking: Is it ethical to use a reality show format to select participants, and why are we spending money on space exploration instead of using it to improve people’s lot on Earth?
Mars One adviser Mason Peck, former chief technologist at NASA, addresses the first question, saying that it would be unethical if the show was being filmed without the knowledge of the participants and that people will always be driven by their curiosity towards exploration, whether that be through the TV in their living room or by actually taking part. “The goal is to settle the solar system. So reality TV is about funding, a means to an end. Frankly, if the public or philanthropists would put up the money … I’m sure Mars One would be glad to accept it!” (An interesting perspective put forth by The Economist argues that much of space exploration’s history was showmanship, a space race fueled by an “expensive public-relations battle between capitalism and communism.”)
As for why we should spend so much money on space exploration instead of addressing problems on Earth (which is nearly equivalent to asking why spend money on research in a new field that may or may not directly benefit humankind in the immediate future), the question assumes that the two are mutually exclusive. In fact, a number of innovations have come from developing technologies for space exploration (for example, aircraft anti-icing systems, medical therapies, memory foam, solar cells, and water purification). In a Freakonomics quorum, Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA’s life sciences division, stated that “space exploration is not a drain on the economy; it generates infinitely more wealth than it spends,” referencing the many economic, scientific, and technological improvements to human wellbeing stemming from space exploration.
And, exceedingly, space exploration is being taken over by private corporations. In a 2006 TED talk, aerospace engineer Burt Rutan estimated that investment into commercial space flight would be half of what U.S taxpayers spend for NASA’s manned spacecraft work and would be spent more efficiently by a factor of 10 to 15.
Ultimately, I have to agree with my boyfriend on principle. The Mars mission is a fantastic ambition for humanity. For people like him—who are well-versed in current events surrounding space exploration, can tell you the difference between rocket models, and can guide you through the nearest solar systems in the Milky Way and beyond while also fact-checking how much potential science is in science-fiction—to be a pioneer for science and thus for humanity is reason enough to leave his life and his loved ones back on Earth. And though he claims he applied for this mission prior to meeting yours truly and that I have changed his plans (he’ll kidnap and smuggle me into space instead), I have accepted that he is indeed a flight risk. And that’s somewhat okay—for the good of humankind. As the Mars One Astronaut Selection Round Three trailer puts it: “If we can look up at Earth and see human beings living on another planet, will we ever again be able to tell ourselves that there is anything we can’t do?”