Aug 272013
 
Artist depiction of habitats to house Mars One colonists. Image courtesy Mars One Foundation

Artist depiction of habitats to house Mars One colonists. Image courtesy Mars One Foundation

No, but maybe sending colonists first is the better way

If you want to go to Mars, you only have a few days left to apply.

But if you want a round trip ticket, you’re going to have to wait a while longer.

The plan of the Mars One Foundation to send would-be colonists to Mars on a one-way trip, four colonists at a time, seems at first glance an audacious if not cruel endeavor. Yes, they will be volunteers, but can anyone truly understand ahead of time what it would be like for four individuals to arrive on a barren planet, a land more inhospitable than any colonist has attempted to settle before, and come to grips with the reality that there is no chance to return to Earth?

At a second and even third glance, that may still seem audacious and cruel. The publicity from Mars One stresses the famous quote from President John F. Kennedy he gave at an address at Rice University in September 1962: “We choose to go to the Moon … and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Mars One, however, chooses to ignore a vital point Kennedy made in an address to Congress a year earlier: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

You might think that last point was a given, but there actually was a proposal to make the trip to the Moon one way to assure we beat the Soviet Union there. Maybe Kennedy needed to circumvent that idea from ever being seriously considered. Yet even that one-way-trip idea held out the hope of recovering the man safely in two or three years to give the U.S. time to develop the rockets with enough power to go the Moon and bring him back.

Concept deserves a look

As it turns out, Mars One isn’t the first group to suggest sending permanent colonists to Mars rather than explorers that have to be returned home to Earth. It is simpler and cheaper in the short term to cut off the return and instead commit the explorers to making Mars their new home.

Mars One, however, is the first group to ask for volunteers to be the first Martian colonists and set a definitive timetable to land there. As of Aug. 21, the not-for-profit foundation reported receiving 165,000 applications to be among the four colonists who are scheduled to begin landing in 2023, and in additional groups of four every two years after that. The deadline for applications is Aug. 31.

Does it make sense? The discussion of a Mars to Stay mission has been going on for more than 20 years, prompted by the presentation of a “One Way to Mars” mission outline at the Case for Mars VI workshop in 1990. Since then, several variations have surfaced, including plans by the second man to step on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin, and a “Strive to Stay” plan where emergency return craft would be placed on Mars. The Strive to Stay plan gives the colonists the option to return home, but the explorers would decide at each Mars-Earth conjunction to either return or stay on Mars for another 550 days until the next launch window.

One of the things these plans have in common is not being dependent on NASA to decide, control and fund the mission. Mars One’s business plan is to fund the mission in part through advertising on a TV reality show following the colonial applicants as they work their way through the selection process with assistance from the audience on deciding who should advance and who gets voted off the planet, so to speak. It may seem like a crass way to fund and gain public support for the mission, but the Mercury 7 astronauts, and later the Gemini astronauts, went through much the same thing with Life Magazine’s exclusive contract to cover the astronauts’ training and personal lives..

Whether it’s a one-way trip to Mars or a strive-to-stay mission, the key element is to begin the human colonization of Mars from the beginning and commit the human race to spreading out throughout the solar system, a commitment that could eventually lead us to the stars.

That commitment makes Mars One more than a curiosity in our dreams and plans of leaving Earth. It is a serious, well thought out concept that deserves consideration, and whether successful or not, may inspire even grander, more audacious plans for our future off Earth.

Resources

The Call of Mars,” op-ed by Buzz Aldrin, The New York Times, June 13, 2013

Deadline approaching: Ten days remain to join aspiring Martians from 140 countries,” Mars One press release, Aug. 21, 2013

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