Our Stories Features

“I’m Not Afraid To Die At All”

Story by Rachel LaChapelle

Photos by Sam Richards

I.

A footprint in the red sands of Mars would soon be swept away. Winds whip the surface at hurricane speeds, raising a layer of rust as fine as smoke. Dust storms can cloak the planet in a cloud for days at a time. Behind the haze is a pair of dark moons dancing on the distant horizon, the peak of Olympus Mons, the tallest known mountain in the solar system at three times the height of Mount Everest, and a cratered landscape on which no human has set foot.

If the Mars One mission succeeds, that first fleeting footprint could belong to Joshua Jonas. Jonas is one of the aspiring Mars One astronauts who might be counted among the ranks of the great explorers someday. “The idea of leaving my mark on history for the betterment of mankind inspires me,” Jonas, a 30-year-old applicant from Springfield, Oregon, says.

The Mars One star-sailors plan to set course for the Red Planet in 2024 on a several months journey through space. Their mission: To establish a permanent human colony. Their ticket to Mars will be one-way.

While NASA thinks it could take 19 years to develop technology that would allow human travel to Mars, the co-founders of the Dutch-based not-for-profit Mars One, Bas Lansdorp and Arno Wielders, believe they can get a spacecraft off the ground in a decade. Unhindered by the costs of a return trip, Lansdorp and Wielders have slashed NASA’s astronomical $100 billion price tag to a budget of $6 billion for the first team of four voluntary astronauts. They plan to fund the expedition by televising every aspect of the event, from the selection of the astronauts to their planetary progress, in what they hope will become a global media spectacle.

With the countdown to liftoff just ten years away, Mars One is busy choosing the ideal candidates, six crews of four astronauts each to be launched over a period of ten years. But instead of selecting from the expected pool of highly trained scientists and engineers, Mars One opened its astronaut application to the public. More than 200,000 people from around the world applied for the extraterrestrial opportunity. The applicant pool has since been narrowed to 663. The remaining candidates will be put through rigorous rounds of interviews, tests, and simulations to see which select few are fit for the challenges of life in a cosmo-colony.

For the 663 possible interplanetary pioneers, the chance to live on Mars is no longer astronomical. Onaje Abayomi, Dan Carey, Bea Henington, Joshua Jonas, and Dianne McGrath are still in the running, and their odds of making the top twenty-four are 1 in 28.

It might be easy to think that an open casting call for a televised one-way trip to Mars would provide eccentric candidates. But, if these five are in any way representative of the larger pool, then the Mars One applicants are decidedly normal. The open auditions to be an astronaut have drawn people with exceptional qualities: perhaps it’s intelligence, courage, drive, or the thrill of adventure that propels them forward and makes them well suited for space travel.

Abayomi taught himself quantum mechanics and astrophysics while working at a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. Henington is a high school teacher with police academy, firefighting and EMT training, who describes herself as the kind of person who runs into a fire when everyone else is running out. Carey is a sharp and experienced data architect. Jonas is a self-described “jack of all trades” whose Chinese language skills would be an asset on a multicultural Mars colony. McGrath, an adventurous Australian who grew up in the Outback, is used to the “red, sandy barrenness in the middle of the desert” that resembles her hopeful new home on Mars.

These five and their compatriot candidates are people with ties here on Earth. Most have families and careers – things not easily given up. Carey is a happy husband and father, reluctant to leave his family but resolute that the mission is for the good of mankind. The candidates have concerned mothers who are still getting used to the idea of their child leaving the planet. Henington’s mom is fine with her daughter going to Mars – as long as she doesn’t live to see the day. For those without familes leaving Earth raises tough questions as well: Do you start a family? Do you marry? Do you root yourself further into Earth through connections with others while the possibility of leaving forever hangs overhead?

Besides their personal connections to Earth, they’ll miss the creature comforts too. Abayomi ranks playing video games and eating meat high on his list. “The things we take for granted, all those niceties in life, having a coffee with your best friend. We won’t get those lovely luxuries on Mars,” McGrath says. But she says it’s a small sacrifice to make for such an extraordinary experience.

II.

The purpose of the Mars One expedition is not just exploration, but emigration. The astronauts will attempt to establish a permanent human colony where they will live until, of course, they die. A group of MIT PhD students predict the Mars One astronauts could last about 68 days, and die from starvation, suffocation, or incineration. Whichever comes first.

CEO Bas Lansdorp defended the mission’s feasibility after the MIT analysis, saying that the students had based their study on wrong assumptions and incomplete data. The students admitted this in the report stating, “As a result of the lack of relevant data and operational experience, several assumptions have had to be made to analyze the Mars One mission plan.” Mars One has yet to release complete technical plans for the mission. Until they do, it will be difficult for experts and engineers to accurately evaluate possible risks and the likelihood of its success.

Greg Retallack, a professor of geology at the University of Oregon, has studied Martian soils using data collected by the Curiosity rover, the car-sized NASA robot that landed on Mars in August 2012. In samples of 3.7 billion-year-old soils, he has found evidence that Mars once had a much warmer and wetter climate that may have been habitable for microbial life.

Does this research imply that Mars could sustain life — especially of the human variety — at some point in the future? Not necessarily, but Retallack believes it may be possible, if the settlers can find water.

Retallack compares the Martian landscape to the Atacama Desert in Chile or the dry valleys of Antarctica, the driest, most extreme places in the world. “The planet looks bone dry. Really, really parche,” he says. The Curiosity rover did find evidence of water and hydrated minerals in the soil, but the water on Mars is locked in permafrost deep within the ground making it difficult and expensive to extract. Ice could be mined in the polar zones and then brought back to thaw in the warmer equatorial areas. A successful Mars colony would need to be set up at an oasis of sorts where water is available.

Will a human colony be established on Mars by 2024? Retallack’s answer: a matter-of-fact “Nope.” Rover exploration will continue, but human colonization is a different matter. “The technology isn’t there yet. We’re a long way from being able to put humans on Mars,” he says.

Mars One claims the technology it needs for the mission already exists. They will purchase equipment from private contracting aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin and Space X. They will buy spaceships, rovers, landing capsules, communications systems, inflatable habitats, solar panels, and anything else needed to sustain life on Mars. The plan, as of now, is to send rovers before astronauts to set up the colony’s living quarters in advance. To facilitate survival of the astronauts, they will need space suits, food, and Life Support Units, which generate electricity, recycle water, grow food, and provide breathable air.

Sustaining a colony on Mars is no small task, and there’s much room for error. “The more complex a system is, the more things there are that can go wrong,” Carey says. “We’re going to have very complex systems keeping us alive — getting up into space, going in transit to Mars, landing on Mars, and surviving on Mars. Something could go wrong anywhere.”

Carey and the other candidates are interested in the technology, and they plan to evaluate it before trusting it with their lives. “If I’m not comfortable with all the technologies, I’m not going to go. I’m not going on a suicide mission,” Jonas says. “Ideally, I don’t want to be remembered for being blown up.”

Lansdorp emphasizes that Mars One, as a company, is more concerned about the financial rather than the technological feasibility of the mission. Small application fees from each of the 200,000 applicants, a crowdfunding campaign, and contributions from private investors began their fundraising process. The Mars One business model hinges on creating a documentary television show that would become a global phenomenon, drawing billions of viewers and revenue from sponsorships and broadcasting rights. They’ve based their projected figures on the marketing revenues of the Olympic Games and believe the numbers will be sufficient to meet the majority of the $6 billion budget.

To meet those goals, Mars One needs to attract widespread attention and public interest, and positive press coverage would help to provide that. So far, media buzz has been mixed: some of it critical, some of it sensationalist. In terms of space-celebrity endorsements, Mars One has won some and lost some: Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, has voiced his support, while Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield thinks the moon —  not Mars — should be humanity’s next home away from home.

With ten years to go, Mars One still has some time to drum up funds and fix the technical specs. The world will have to wait and see what they can do. As for the candidates, they’re betting on success.

III.

Yes, the Mars One astronauts could die.

At 27, Abayomi has a matter-of-fact outlook on death. “I’m not afraid to die at all. When I was younger, my dad told me, ‘Everyone is going to die. It’s going to happen. You can’t avoid it, there’s no point in trying to run from it. If you spend every day worrying about it, you’re just going to waste your life.’ It doesn’t bother me. It sounds morbid, but any way that I die, I will be okay, because I know it’s going to happen,” Abayomi says.

For all they knew, the 15th century’s Age of Discovery explorers could have sailed off the edge of the world. That didn’t stop them from trying. In the same vein, the Mars One candidates seem unwilling to let the possibility of failure keep them from pursuing their dreams. “There are a million and one ways that this mission could fail, but what if it succeeds? I’d be an idiot not to take part when I had the opportunity, just because I didn’t have the same vision they had,”  Henington says.

The astronauts not only face the possibility of an untimely death, they also must be psychologically prepared to leave behind their families and friends — forever. “My wife looks at it like a kind of abandonment,” Carey says. “But she doesn’t want to be the reason I don’t go. That’s real love.” His kids will be in their early 30s by the time Mars One would launch. Carey says he wouldn’t consider leaving if they were not grown.

And yet, Carey feels if he were to go to Mars he would be doing something worthwhile for human progress. “Every day, we ask people to give their time and talent and put their lives on the line for our communities,” Carey says. He says the Mars mission is no different, except in the scope of the community it serves. “This is the chance to dedicate our lives and our efforts to the improvement of all mankind.”

Each of the five candidates echoes themes of making a difference and serving the greater good. “We seek to almost immortalize ourselves as a species. People do that by having children, that’s their legacy. I’m not going to have children, so what is my legacy?” McGrath says. “I guess it’s to do something bigger than myself, something extraordinary.”

Along with the profound personal struggles will come the day-to-day challenges of life off of Earth, not the least of which is being cooped up in a tin can for the entire duration of the six to eight month journey. Abayomi imagines his space travel companions will become his new best friends, and Henington agrees that a crew that can make each other laugh and work well as a team would be ideal.

The astronauts would be under intense physical demands as well. Three hours of daily exercise is required in order to maintain muscle mass and strength in the reduced gravity of Mars. Exposure to radiation would have negative health effects, although the plan is to protect the astronauts from radiation in their habitat by covering it with several meters of Martian soil.

The Mars One astronauts will subside on some rations brought from Earth, but then must begin growing plants to eat. “Growing our own food is going to be critical. We can’t just duck down the street and pick up some milk when we’re out,”  McGrath says, who is currently pursuing a degree in food sustainability research. The Mars colonists will need to reuse, recycle, and reduce their waste, and McGrath sees her potential life on Mars as an opportunity to show people that more sustainable choices are possible.

For the Mars One candidates, emigrating to the Red Planet is their dream. Imagining their success and the moment of liftoff brings a tangible, almost physical response from all five candidates.

“I can imagine it to the point [that] I get butterflies in my stomach and the urge to pee. Flight or fight syndrome,”  Carey says.

“A rock in my stomach. Cold sweats. A plethora of emotions,”  Jonas says.

“I might be hyperventilating. My eyes would be wide open with what’s happening and what’s coming next,”  Henington says.

“I could feel the hair standing up on my arms. This will be a moment where I’m standing on a precipice, a moment of extreme challenge, it’s a moment when you either jump or get out of the way,”  McGrath says. “I’m a bit of a jumper.”

And for Abayomi: “My heart will be racing. I couldn’t put into words how excited I would be. That would be the single greatest moment in my life, knowing that I’m on a spaceship, when it takes off I leave Earth’s atmosphere and I will never come back.”

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