ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
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RATH: A few months before astrophysicist Carl Sagan died in 1996, he recorded a message to the future human inhabitants of Mars.
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RATH: Some of the earliest science fiction, back in the 19th century, imagined voyages to the Red Planet. We have spacefaring technology today. And getting to Mars actually seems within reach. But it would involve massive resources and a lot of danger. There are a lot of people, though, willing to risk it all for that chance.
LIEUTENANT HEIDI BEEMER: Everything I have done academically and professionally has been for one reason: to leave this Earth and represent humanity on Mars.
RATH: Army Lieutenant Heidi Beemer. To get to Mars sooner, she's willing to forgo the return trip. That's right, a one-way ticket to the Red Planet. We'll hear more from her later.
A private organization wants to start a permanent human colony with volunteers like Beemer by 2025. That's our cover story for today: Humans on Mars. The risks and the reward.
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RATH: A few years ago, President Barack Obama set out a more conventional goal for the mid-2030s.
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RATH: Earthlings have actually been visiting Mars since the 1960s, or at least our machines have. First, there were flyby missions, then orbiters. Early primitive landers in the 1970s sent back the first pictures from the surface. But the real excitement began with the robotic rovers that started exploring the surface of Mars in the 1990s. NASA took a big leap forward when it landed the rovers Spirit and Opportunity on opposite sides of the planet.
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RATH: John Grant is a planetary geologist at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and part of NASA's rover mission team.
DR. JOHN GRANT: I don't want to admit that I pretend that I'm a robot on Mars, but clearly, the science team kind of places themselves in the eyes and body of the rover when we look around, almost like we're there.
RATH: So we've learned so much about Mars in recent decades, you know, from the rovers and also from the orbiters that have been mapping the surface of the planet. But I imagine there's probably still a ton that we don't know.
GRANT: So think if you had all the continents on the Earth to explore and you've only been to a handful of places, would you say that you really kind of understand the Earth? And, of course, the answer would be no. And that's the situation on Mars. The surface area on Mars is about the same as the land area on the Earth. We feel like in some cases, we've been to a couple of national parks, but there's a bunch more we need to get under our belt.
RATH: You must be familiar with the old unsettled debate that, is it worth sending humans into deep space beyond Earth orbit when robots can do so much - and we've seen them do so much. Am I wrong to assume that you're with the robots?
GRANT: No. Actually, I'm, you know, I'm in both camps. I think that the robots are critical to setting the stage to understanding what's there and to doing the sort of precursor. But let's consider that Opportunity in 10 years has gone about a little over 38 kilometers, you know, a bit more than running a marathon on the Earth. You know, I'm no Olympic athlete, but over 10 years, I could certainly walk even very slowly many, many times that many marathons.
With the rovers, it's much more sort of dragged-out process simply because we have to tell them every day what to do. It just takes longer.
RATH: Even John Grant, a member of NASA's robotic rover team, thinks a manned missions is necessary. But there are a ton of concerns about sending people to Mars, not the type of stuff you can sort out after launch. And once you're off, it's a long trip. The shortest Mars trip would take more than a year roundtrip.
So here on Earth, scientists are conducting experiments at sites built to simulate these long-duration missions. Kim Binsted is the principal investigator at one of these sites, located on one of Hawaii's volcanoes.
KIM BINSTED: It's not the Hawaii you're used to thinking of and seeing ads for tourism.
RATH: Binsted, a professor at the University of Hawaii, says there's no plant life around, no human activity visible. For the studies, crews live inside of a geodesic dome for months at a time.
BINSTED: It's very small. It's about 1,000 square feet for six people, and that includes their workspace, their sleeping space, kitchen, laboratory and so on. And the crew can only go outside in spacesuits, mock-up spacesuits. So they really are in those tight quarters without a lot of relief for quite a long time.
RATH: And for a long duration missions such as that, one of the first things you think about is how do people eat. So how do they manage the food situation?
BINSTED: Right. Well, our first mission, which finished in August, was all about the food. We had both the completely pre-prepared food, which is similar to what NASA uses now, and we allowed the crew to do some basic cooking using shelf-stable foods.
RATH: I know another one of the big concerns when talking about a mission like this is the psychological concerns about having people being stuck in the same environment with the same people for a very extended period of time.
BINSTED: Right. And that's what our next three missions are looking at. We've got funding from NASA to do three more missions. And those missions are all going to be about psychology, crew cohesion, crew performance, basically how do you support a crew and pick a crew so that they don't end up wanting to kill each other.
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RATH: And getting to Mars is only half the problem. Getting back is another thing entirely. Just think about all it takes to get a simple satellite into Earth orbit. Now, imagine launching a trip home from Mars. How do you pack your own launchpad, rocket, and the ridiculous quantity of fuel it takes to get home?
One group of Mars enthusiasts is getting around all of that by saying forget going home. Mars One is a Netherlands-based nonprofit. They have the goal of establishing a permanent, sustainable human settlement on Mars by 2025. First, they'd send a series of robots to build a habitat and stockpile water. But their plan still faces a ton of serious problems, like potentially lethal levels of radiation on the Martian surface and the extreme Martian weather. There's still a lot of money to be raised, and the company is looking to crowd-funding for some of it.
John Logsdon is the former director the Space Policy Institute, and he says the idea is more fantasy that fact in his mind.
JOHN LOGSDON: It's not clear what they would do once they get there except be there. You know, it's not impossible, but I think it's very highly implausible.
RATH: But that has not deterred more than 200,000 people from around the world from applying. Just over 1,000 made it to the second round. Twenty-five-year-old Heidi Beemer is one of them.
BEEMER: I actually decided and told my parents when I was 8 years old that I was going to be an astronaut and I was going to go to Mars.
RATH: Heidi Beemer is in the Army. She's a lieutenant and chemical defense officer with Fort Campbell's 63rd Chemical Company in Kentucky. To most, the concept of a one-way trip to another planet seems daunting and disturbing, even crazy. Beemer's mind is made up.
BEEMER: The thought of being afraid or having the fear of the fact that I'm going to die on a different planet, it doesn't really bother me because this is something that will help out humanity for years and years and years to come. So if I'm going to die anywhere on Earth or anywhere, I might as well die doing something that's going to help out future generations.
RATH: Her passion for the Red Planet goes back to an article she read in 1997 about the landing of NASA's Sojourner rover.
BEEMER: From this newspaper article on the top was this giant panorama that was taken of just the Mars surface. And as a little 8-year-old kid, I'm looking at this going, wow. Like, this is awesome. We need to continue to explore this. And this little rover can only do so much. We need to send people.
RATH: Mars One still has a lot of details to work out. But here's the plan for now: The final round of astronauts will be selected in 2015. Forty to 50 astronauts will be selected. They'll spend the next decade training at stations just like the one in Hawaii. Starting in 2024, the first set of four astronauts will set off on the one-way journey. Beemer says she's already connected with some of the other applicants.
BEEMER: So there's a Facebook group called the Aspiring Martians Group. And this is a community of over 3,000, 4,000 people that all have aspirations of one day going to Mars. We've been talking, we've been communicating, we've been discussing what-if situations. We've been kind of being really supportive of each other.
RATH: And these people seem a lot like the type of people that you would literally like to spend the rest of your life with. What do you think about the social aspect of this about, you know, having a life and a family eventually?
BEEMER: I think moving forward, I'm OK with it. Creating a new family that I am ultimately going to bond with for the rest of my life is kind of a good consolation to just settling down with one person and having a family of my own. I'm really looking forward to it kind of growing into a giant extended family.
RATH: How does your family feel about the prospect of you going to Mars and never coming back?
BEEMER: They're super supportive. They, of course, are nervous, and they're a little afraid. But my senior of high school, I told my family, hey, I've decided that I'm going to go to a military school. And then after my senior year, I came home and said, mom and dad, I've decided that I'm going to serve my country and I'm going to be joining the Army.
So once I finally sat down and said, mom and dad, I've applied to go to Mars on a one-way trip, I think this is kind of the point where they realize, OK, this kid's going to continue to surprise us and continue to do great things. So they're coming to realization with that.
RATH: So even though you've got through to this cut, it's still pretty long odds at this stage. If Mars One doesn't work out, do you have a plan B?
BEEMER: If this doesn't work out, it's just a matter of time before more opportunities come across. Regardless, my goal is to continue getting people excited about space. For me, just spreading the word about it and getting the younger generations excited about the project is something that I'm going to continue doing for the rest of my life, whether I'm on Earth or on Mars.
RATH: Heidi Beemer is one of 158 applicants still in the running for a one-way trip to Mars. And by the way, Kim Binsted, the scientist from the Mars simulation habitat in Hawaii, is also a finalist for Mars One. As she put it, how could she not apply?
With all of the unknowns, engineering and funding challenges, and safety risks, there's still a hope pulsing through the scientific community that humans will soon walk on Mars.