"You could say that most people would rather lose a leg than live the rest of their life on a cold, hostile planet, having said goodbye to friends and family forever, the best possible video call suffering from a seven minute delay—one way."
True enough, I thought upon encountering this statement on the website of Mars One. Mars One is a Dutch non-profit organization that intends to establish a human colony on Mars by 2025. (You can follow Mars One's plans on Twitter).
For 202,586 people, though, the idea of living forever on that "cold hostile planet" is apparently no nightmare but rather a cherished dream. That's precisely how many applications Mars One says it received during its open call (April through August 2013) for future Mars residents. The hopefuls hailed from 140 countries, with the United States (24 percent), India (10 percent) and China (6 percent) leading the pack.
This massive group has now been whittled down to 1,058 finalists, ranging from a woman who is a first lieutenant in the United States Army to a man who is a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Next, a final group of 24 astronauts — the ones who will establish human life on Mars — will be chosen.
If these plans to launch for Mars become reality, the interplanetary journey will take 7 to 8 months. So why the one-way ticket? An obvious constraint is the ability to assemble the right-stuff technology, on Mars, to launch a rocket back home again. There's also an intense 8-year training period, and thus a big investment in these 24 individuals. Mars One explains that the astronauts, before leaving Earth:
"will be isolated from the world for a few months every two years in groups of four in simulation facilities, to learn how they respond to living in close quarters while isolated from all humans except for the three crew members. In addition to the expertise and work experience they must already possess, they have to learn quite a few new skills: physical and electrical repairs to the settlement structures, cultivating crops in confined spaces, and addressing both routine and serious medical issues such as dental upkeep, muscle tears and bone fractures."
Perhaps, also, it makes sense to seek only those hardy souls who are prepared to make a permanent commitment — no escape clauses! — to life on Mars.
I don't know a single one of the applicants. I do admire their courage. Yet might there be an elephant-in-the-room type of question that needs to be asked?
Mars One CEO Bas Landorp told The Huffington Post earlier this year that "the most important skill" considered in the selection process is an applicant's "ability to function in a team." (The full selection criteria is available online.)
Still, my question is this: Are people eager to leave behind everyone they love — for the rest of their lives — good candidates to succeed at forging a tight-knit colony on Mars? A colony that surely will require great sociability, shared good feelings and cooperation to succeed?
Of course, explorers, pioneers and emigrants from one land to another have, throughout human history, engaged in some version of making this commitment; we are the beneficiaries today of their adventurous spirit.
No one before, though, has opted to live "off world" in the way that the Mars One mission requires. The record for the longest continuous time in space, as far as I can determine, is held by cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, who spent 437 days in space flight aboard the Mir space station. It was big news even in 2012 when plans for a future one-year stay on the International Space Station were announced.
A scenario in which 24 people, previously unknown to each other, leave the Earth in order to live and die elsewhere is truly unprecedented.
Later this month I'll be writing a second post about the future of human life on Mars. For now, I'm going to try and think this one issue through.
I invite your thoughts.
Barbara's most recent book on animals will be released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape