Moving to Mars: it’s life, but not as we know it

Earlier this year I was lucky to meet Bas Lansdorp, Dutch entrepreneur behind the MarsOne project to establish a permanent colony of human settlers on Mars. He was delighted that, in a lecture theatre full of Edinburgh Science Festival-goers, dozens of volunteer settlers kept their hands raised, even after he clarified that it was a one-way trip. (Later, Lansdorp’s venture would receive 78,000 applications in the first two weeks of its open call for volunteers).

As a science-fiction writer who’s taken Mars as my main topic, I’m struggling with the MarsOne concept, because I hate the idea of it. It’s not that I’m worried about contaminating the magnificent desolation of Mars (my storyline has settlers terraforming with impunity). Rather I’m afraid a team of four humans, given a life-sentence of co-confinement, will literally tear each other apart.

Experiments in extreme confinement haven’t always gone as planned: Biosphere 2 ended in interpersonal conflict, including clashes among the commercial management of the operation, which ended the experiment prematurely. During Mars 500, as covered recently by New Scientist, confinement contributed to psychological stresses that severely limited the productivity of certain participants. Admittedly, some good science was done, including the observation during Biosphere 2 that exposed concrete in a sealed biosphere is a very bad idea, as it depletes oxygen levels.

Thinking about this human element has led me to incorporate some isolation-related neuroses into the backstory of one my characters my SPACE KIDS book: an artist who’s developed a nomadic lifestyle, phobic about staying anywhere for too long.

Listening to Lansdorp, I was impressed with his obvious commitment to the project — his board plans to oversee the public’s selection (yes, X-Factor style) of the 200 groups of four who will be considered for the four-person mission crew in 2023.

Two-yearly missions to Mars will supplement the first four with additional crews. The first contractors (Paragon) and university partners (University of Twente) are already on board. Plans for radiation management (2 metres of soil over the Martian habitat should provide adequate protection) and diet (mostly vegetables, supplemented with insects) have been thought through.

But what on Earth will we make of the settlers — our ground-dwelling, bug-eating brothers and sister who we blasted off to a wildly inhospitable planet? They’ll be the best-known names in our history (“No one will remember who the Prime Minister was in a thousand years, but everyone will remember these people,” Lansdorp said in Edinburgh). But in time, how will the colonists as a whole be viewed?

I’ve been watching too much Battlestar Galactica

On Mars they will live in space suits permanently, never feeling wind on their faces, and physiological changes expected from the 40% gravity will probably make it impossible to survive a trip back to Earth. Have I just watched too much Battlestar Galactica, or does it seem possible that, with separation, this second human settlement will slowly change into a “them” (versus “us”), and eventually rouse that xenophobia that human society is known for? And that’s saying nothing of the physical hardships, and the thorny question of whether and how to have children in that environment.What kind of life will that be? Not life as I know it.

Then I started thinking: travelling to the new world in the belly of a rat-infested ship, nibbling hardtack probably wasn’t too attractive in the 1600s, but people did it. In fact that’s how and when my grandmother’s pilgrim ancestors came to live in America around 1740. Things in my book’s storyline — shiny space stations, smart robots, advanced propulsion and terraformed planets — don’t come first; pilgrims do.

What do you think of the MarsOne project and other planned missions to Mars? If you’re a sci-fi writer, have these real-world developments affected your stories?

Image: Mars Pathfinder images of Mars Twin Peaks, Dr. Timothy Parker, JPL, NASA