Mars: the next giant leap for mankind

By mars one

Planet Mars may seem a long way away for most of us, and travelling there is the stuff of science fiction. The Netherlands-based Mars One project aims to change that by es­tablishing a human colony on Mars by 2024. Palatinate speak to Han­nah Earnshaw, an Astronomy PhD student at Durham University who has reached the second round of se­lection to join the mission.

What’s the plan for getting to Mars and what are you planning on doing when you get there?

The idea is to send out some modules that will become habit­able, that the astronauts will live in; they’ll be rather like Space X’s Dragon capsules. A number of them will be sent out, a couple of rovers will move things into position, and they’ll set up production of water and oxygen.

So they’re going to be generat­ing the water and oxygen in situ?

The plan is to set up a working base that astronauts can then land on, and the idea is to minimise the risk to human life. Once we’re confi­dent that that’s alright then the first manned mission will be in 2024.

That’s quite a long way away, isn’t it?

Yes and no. I mean, in terms of life it’s a long time, a decade, but in terms of the space industry it’s actually quite fast progress. The advantage of the way Mars One works is that the technology that’s needed for the mission already exists, and it’s just a case of bringing together the peo­ple that can make it possible.

Presumably candidates like you are those people?

I’m one of the applicants who goes there and becomes part of the colony. When we get there, the aim is to set up the colony, to make a running settlement that will even­tually become self-sustaining, so to get [it] to a point where it will be able to make its own food.

It’s a one-way trip. I won’t be seeing anyone I know on Earth ever again

Will they be cultivating crops there, in biomes perhaps?

The first plan is to use hydro­ponics; I imagine that once people reach the surface, we’ll be doing a lot of science; one of the main goals is to grow food.

What sort of “science” would that be?

A whole range of things: it could be geology, doing ex­cavations of the surface; biology, looking at the soils, can we grow plants in it, can we adapt plants to cope and grow and adapt to that chemical envi­ronment? [We’ll be] looking at the effects on the human body; the people there, they’ll be in a habitat that has normal air, eating normal things, but the main impact is going to be the reduced gravity. Gravity on Mars is 40% of the gravity on Earth, more or less. The long-term effects of a low gravity environment we don’t know anything about. There’s a huge amount of potential for re­search.

How prepared are you for it being a one-way trip?

I first found out about Mars One back in January last year, and they opened applications in April, with a deadline of the end of August. I took from finding out in January all the way to midway through August thinking about it, considering the aspects of danger in the mission, and that it’s a one-way trip. I won’t be seeing anyone I know on Earth ever again. The main conclusion I came to is that I’m quite an inde­pendent person; I enjoy spending time with people but at the same time I can cope well with distance contact, like the Internet. My needs for face to face contact can be met by the crew itself. I think I’ll be able to manage, sending emails and vid­eos.

What do your family think about it?

I’m really lucky to have a family that are really enthusiastic. My par­ents are thrilled to see me involved in something that I believe in quite passionately, and have supported me all the way. The same with my two little sisters as well, they’ve been telling all their friends.

There’s a huge amount of potential for research

What kind of training and as­sessments will you be required to do?

The psychological aspect of it is going to be the most important; you need the correct personality in order to cope well with the mis­sion. I’ve just recently had a medical exam, which confirmed that I’m fit and healthy; I’ve got good eyesight and hearing. Later this year there will be an interview with a selec­tion committee, which will again be more in-depth psychological things. Once it’s been narrowed down into the final group of people who will be part of the colony, then next is 7 years devoted to training. All of the skills that you need: medical skills, dentistry; engineering, operation of vehicles; psychology, so we can help each other stay sane. Then lots of scientific aspects, like geology and astrobiology.

Which parts of those scientific aspects do you personally want to focus on?

I’d really like to get into geology, see how the planet was formed and what its history is, and see if we can find further evidence of a period where there was a lot more water; whether we can even find evidence of fossilised life, which could be the case.

Is there life on Mars?

Maybe not now, but there might have been in the past, so evidence for that would be really good. In the long term, I would like to build the first Martian observatory; ground based astronomy in the thinner at­mosphere would be really interest­ing.

What would you like to be asked, but no-one ever asks?

Gosh! Something that’s not talked about is the kind of relation­ships that candidates will have with the rest of their crew. Once the final candidates have been selected they will be in crews of four; two men and two women, one from each continent, so each person from a different country. They will be re­ally diverse teams, and they will be committed to each other for the rest of their lives. They will be spending their training together, flying out together, spending 11 months in space together – in a small space – then they will be on Mars together. Especially for the first four that are going out, they will have close to 3 years completely alone, before the next crew arrives a few years later. The friendships between crew members will need to be so trust­ing and close, and in many ways the crew will become each other’s second family. I’m quite interested in and excited for that aspect, and the people who I may eventually be spending the rest of my life with. I would almost compare it to a mar­riage, actually.

What else do you want the stu­dents of Durham to know?

I encourage people to investigate the website, and keep an eye out for the TV shows. Mars One depends on the public, so if you are interest­ed, please show some support!

Photograph: Hannah Earnshaw / Viking Orbiter Archive / Palatinate

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