The Mars One Initiative–Is it Real?

I’m sure you all heard about the call for volunteers last August (2013) for a one-way trip to Mars.  The call received over 200,000 applicants.  In December, the applicants were weeded down to just 0.5% of that number, a little over 1000 (one of my students made the initial application but sadly didn’t survive the first cut).

Is this exciting mission likely to really happen?  Are the organizer’s even serious?

I tend to think not.  If the organizers were serious, why not start with a colony on the Moon, where the logistics and health challenges of travel are much less, where the upfront cost is lower, and where the proximity to Earth greatly decreases the risks to life and success?  Most of the benefits of a Mars Colony would still be present on the Moon, such as the opportunity to learn how to live in space and the chance to invite tourists to come walk on another world.

You don’t have to travel half a year to get to the Moon, and, in an emergency, you might actually have some viable options.  It’s true that Mars has a very faint atmosphere, which provides a type of weather that you wouldn’t see on the Moon.  But the Moon has the compensating advantage of a living world always hanging in its sky–Earth.  The opportunity to see our world from a distance as the “fragile blue marble” might change us more as a species that a colonization of distant Mars.

Serious or not, the Mars One initiative is certainly exciting.  Does it mean a revival of human hunger for adventure?  It’s been 40+ years since humans traveled to another world–apparently we have “too many problems on Earth” to invest in such matters.  Interestingly, in that time, adventure stories haven taken a back seat to action and thrillers.  Likewise, during this time, adventure computer games never really took off after the initial boost from Myst–outcompeted by a variety of action and combat games.  More than action or thrillers, adventure stories are about discovery, exploration, and simple wonder.   Without a vision for human exploration of our solar system, our hunger for discovery, exploration, and wonder in our fiction appears to have waned.

So what is the destiny of Adventure?  Does the Mars One initiative signal a renewed hunger for discovery and exploration?  Or does its setting on far-off Mars only signal that we like to think we still love adventure, but in reality we choose grand goals which we can, in the end, decline with dignity, even while we leave the reachable Moon hanging in our sky uncolonized?

What’s your thought?

—Dr. C.

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8 thoughts on “The Mars One Initiative–Is it Real?

  1. The Mars One initiative is certainly real, haven’t you seen their T-shirts and coffee mugs for sale?!

    Kidding aside, what I fear about the Mars One initiative is what we as a society are saying about the value of human life. While I agree it is entirely adventurous to explore our solar system, what does it mean to send another human life out into space with not even a consideration of their return?

    There also seems to be a substantial lack of forethought associated with the Mars One mission. As Russ points out, a colony on the Moon is much more viable, cost-effective, debatably more science-rich since the Moon is believed to have formed from “Earth chunks” (not to mention that even after all the Apollo missions, our traverse across the lunar surface amounts to a little over a morning’s commute from Providence, RI to Boston, MA ~40min drive), and most importantly, would serve as a launching pad for all other future missions (as it would require much less fuel/energy to launch from the Moon than Earth).

    To me, the Moon seems like the obvious, sound investment. As an added bonus, we’ve already successfully returned humans from the Moon (proof of concept/proven method). Alas, much of planetary science is being driven by our incessant desire to search for extraterrestrial life. As humans, we can easily get stuck in searching for “likes,” that is to say we associate life with water – this is what we know! So where there is evidence for water as found on Earth (Mars, Europa, etc.) we will send our money liberally. As a geologist, I just can’t seem to wrap my head around this (I kid again). (Just pointing out that I apparently like using parentheses). Anyhow, there is obviously great evidence for life being associated with water, since Earth is highly populated. As often with science however, it is the discovery of “unknown unknowns” that propel our thinking. So if/when we send a robotic mission to Titan or Io, perhaps we’ll find methane-based organisms or extremophiles unlike the life we know. Pure speculation on my part, but the truth is that even “hard science” is largely driven by politics and hindered by a lack of effective scientific communication.

    There is an overwhelming amount of science yet to be discovered from returned missions to the Moon, but scientists need to get paid too so we are, in many ways, forced to “massage the data” to support continued research. That is to say, with effective communication it is actually quite easy to make anything “sound” more scientifically valuable. This leads me to a final thought regarding science in general that I overheard awhile back – “Trust the data, not always the interpretations. And not always the data.”

  2. Hi Tabb,

    Thanks for the post. I agree with you that there are many other questions of interest in our solar system, not well represented by our obsessive search for life as the holy grail of space science!

  3. Hey, Russ:

    Re: Whether or not Mars One is “real,” meaning whether it will succeed in setting up a permanent colony on Mars, is secondary, I believe, to the attempt itself. As you point out, we’ve had 40 years of (relatively) non-activity as far as the human exploration of space is concerned. As long as it is not a scam, to get money under the pretext of doing something grand, then I believe the effort to reshape reality is as real as it needs to be.

    Re: Whether or not Mars is the best choice, I think this returns us to more pragmatic considerations. While I would support any serious project to establish an extra-terrestrial human colony, either on the Moon or Mars, I think from the average person’s perspective, Mars would be the sexier choice. The Moon has, I believe, a “been there, done that” feel to it (as unfair an assessment as that might be), where Mars has an allure to it. In fact, I think it would probably be easier to get funding for a Moon base as a stepping stone to Mars than it would to get funding for a Moon base as the goal. Just commenting on what people (politicians specifically) are willing to spend money on.

    Re: A decline in an adventurous spirit, as evidenced by your observation of a decline in adventure stories, versus action and thrill oriented stories, I think that has more to do with the society that has evolved out of our technology than anything else. Adventure, I think, is a curiosity based hunger for experiences. People today are awash in experiences, brought to them by a multiplicity of linked devices, that feed that hunger the way fast food feeds physical hunger. There are endeavors out there that would be far more nutritious for the human soul, but which are passed over for the quick-fix convenience of some other interactive experience, such as a video game, you-tube video, etc. Why go to the Moon or Mars, or even another star, when you can open your account and upload something that passes for it with an increasingly high rate of fidelity. I think this trend is a greater obstacle to overcome than anything dealing with financial costs or political will.

    I’ve posted a (somewhat) longer reply to your blog on my own. Check it out if you get the chance.

  4. An update–I’m at a planetary science conference this week and David Scott (commander of Apollo 15), in answering a question from the audience about establishing a presence on Mars rather than the Moon, commented that he’s glad that people are excited about Mars, but “Mars–that’s going to be many, many generations in the future.” Although- I hope we can get rid of at least one of those “manys”.–Dr. C

  5. Hi Russ,

    I wish we were in a state to adventure out into space, but I have to say that I share the opinion that we should invest in dealing with some of the problems we have here on earth first. My first choices would be to ensure everyone on the planet has the basics of life, like food, shelter and education. (I guess I’m showing my socialist leanings.)

    However, I am also aware that the investment in research that occurred at the same time as the moon missions, back 40 years ago, did lead to significant advances in many areas that benefited us here on earth.

  6. Very interesting post.

    I thought this project was part of a reality TV show. As such, the choice of Mars and the fact that it will probably never actually launch was no surprise.

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