One-way trip to a Mars Big Brother

Space fans are excited by the prospect of manned missions to Mars some time in the next 50 years. But would these first explorers be prepared to make it a one-way trip?

An impression of astronauts in a Mars colonyThe Red Planet is an undoubtedly inhospitable environment. But it is also the world that is most like our own in the solar system.

A leading scientist famed for thinking outside the box has put forward the idea that pioneering visitors to Mars could stay there, survive and even be “reasonably cosy”.

Professor Paul Davies says such a mission would be much easier and cheaper if the crew did not need to be brought home again. And his idea, which involves broadcasting the mission like a TV reality show, sounds like Big Brother in space.

The professor’s vision, apparently originally delivered in a speech last year, is reported in NASA-sponsored online journal Astrobiology.

He says a one-way trip would slash up to 80 per cent of the cost of reaching Mars, but it need not be a suicide mission. Instead humans could shelter from deadly radiation from space in underground tunnels called lava tubes.

He adds: “How do we pay for all of this? I think that ultimately this would have to be an international collaboration or some sort of commercial venture. Nobody is going to set up a permanent presence on Mars without having some sort of commercial arrangement.

“Imagine the TV rights – think of what people pay for football rights – I mean, huge sums of money. So a spectacular like this, a real life soap opera from another planet, would be worth a lot of money.”

Describing Mars as the second-safest planet in the solar system, Professor Davies says the pioneering astronauts could live on water already on Mars plus supplies sent in advance by robotic spacecraft.

Professor Davies, who heads a taskgroup for SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, claims that cutting out the Mars-to-Earth leg of the journey will actually boost the spacemen’s chances of survival.

“Going to Mars on a return journey obviously involves a high level of risk. It shortens your life expectancy. As we know from the two Shuttle disasters, take-off and landing are the most vulnerable times. By eliminating half of these, you would extend your life expectancy.

“Radiation in space is also a serious factor for a Mars mission, and during the journey there and back you’d be exposed twice, for many months each time, to cosmic rays in space. It’s true Mars is also a high-radiation environment, but it’s easier to shield yourself once you’re on Mars.”

Professor Davies, now at Arizona State University, but previously at universities in the UK and Australia, adds: “I would envisage probably four people would go in the first instance.

“But a one-way mission to Mars would not just be a one-off exercise. They would be trailblazers. It would be the first step to establishing a permanent human presence on another world.

“Although they would go without the expectation of returning, they would have the expectation that sooner or later they would be joined by others and that this Mars base would grow and eventually become a permanent Mars colony that might take hundreds of years to establish.”

Professor Davies says there are plenty of adventurers who are ready to take much greater risks on Earth, such as round-the-world ballooning or climbing Everest without oxygen.

He says: “By comparison, a one-way trip to Mars would not be so risky. But it does need a spirit of adventure of the sort that the early explorers had, in particular the people who opened up Antarctica.

“And what I have in mind is not just four miserable people sitting around on the martian surface waiting to die. They would actually be doing useful work.

“People have said to me it would be horrible living in these conditions. And my answer is, it’s not as bad as Guantanamo Bay.

“Living in lava tubes or close to lava tubes will offer some measure of protection from radiation, and water ice and other resources are available. I’m sure that if we look carefully at the Martian surface we can find a location that would be reasonably cosy.

“And once they’re there, they can be resupplied every two years. We would send on the sandwiches and letters from home and all that to sustain this colony. Eventually there would be enough money to send on another four colonists, and another four, and so on.”

Professor Davies says it is vital to establish a presence on another planet as a kind of lifeboat in case a mega-disaster hits Earth. But he says they would also carry out science such as looking for life.

Picture: An artist’s impression of astronauts working in a Mars colony. (NASA).

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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