When I was a kid back in the sixties, it only took watching a couple of episodes of Lost in Space to get my attention. I remember it aired each Wednesday night at 7:30 and you can be sure I was in place and ready for it to come on the television. With the debut of Star Trek a year or two later, my fascination with outer space was cemented. At some point along the way, I acquired an 80x telescope from my cousin, and found myself awestruck when I first viewed Jupiter with its four largest moons, Saturn and its rings, the Andromeda Galaxy, and the Horsehead Nebula in Orion, among others. It was amazing to me to actually view first-hand those objects I had previously only seen in photos, even if the images in my telescope were much smaller and less impressive. At least I was seeing them for real.
Then I saw Mars. Visually, it wasn’t anything you’d write home about, but knowing it was closer than anything I’d seen except the Moon counted for a lot, so I kept training my telescope on it when it was visible. It goes without saying I followed the space program closely, and by the time Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface, I was glued to to the TV. These early sights and experiences, along with my reading, left me with an interest in astronomy and space travel that remains to this day.
You can probably imagine my delight, then, when I read about the Mars One project at https://www.mars-one.com/, which aims to send four people to Mars – not for a visit, but to live the rest of their lives there. Their aim is to send the first four people sometime around 2024, followed by four more every two years until, over time, a community is built up.
Beginning in 2018, they intend to begin sending the living modules, equipment, and other necessities to Mars in preparation for the first four astronauts’ arrival. The astronauts will be civilians who have volunteered for the one-way journey and have been thoroughly trained and evaluated for a number of years, including extended time in isolated circumstances in an Arctic environment.
What makes me think they may actually pull it off is that it’s privately funded, and therefore not subject to the whims of congressional budget cuts that have happened so often before. Or the Dutch equivalent, because the organization is actually based in the Netherlands. The project also appears to have the backing of a number of corporations, most notably aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.
The thought that I might finally be able to see people going to Mars has a very powerful appeal. The thought that I might see someone go mad doesn’t. Why would I say that? Simple – they intend to put it all on TV as a reality show, presumably live, where we can all watch them as they go about their daily life; it’s one of the ways they intend to profit from the whole venture. But what does that have to do with anyone going mad, you might ask? Forgive me, “going mad” was perhaps an unfortunate choice of words, but let’s take a hard look at a few facts about Mars and about the reality of everyday life once they’re there.
Mars is cold. I don’t mean normal wintertime cold; I’m talking about wintertime in Alaska on steroids. The kind that would make Nanook of the North weep with despair. Assuming a spot near the equator is chosen as the settlement site (which it isn’t), on a summer day the mercury may get up to 70 degrees F, but once darkness falls the temperature often drops as low as -100 degrees. Near the poles, the temperature can drop to as low as -195. They plan, for good reasons, to set up the settlement about halfway between the equator and one of the poles, but either way you look at it, we’re talking frigid temperatures on a daily basis. In addition, the air is approximately a hundred times thinner than the earth’s atmosphere and is about 95% carbon dioxide, so they won’t be able to leave the living modules without wearing a pressurized suit for warmth and breathable air.
Mars is a desert. I’ve seen mountains, hills, canyons, and various topographical features in photos of Mars, but that appears to be the only variation there is. There is no plant life known to exist, no animals, and there’s never even been any hard indication that there is microbial life there. My guess is that they will choose a relatively flat area in which to locate the settlement, so again, the scenery won’t be very stimulating. Actually, it’s very likely that the view will get downright monotonous.
Now let’s look at what the settlers’ daily lives will look like. Immediately upon arrival, they’ll have to set up their accommodations, and once that’s done, they’ll have to check out all the systems such as the oxygen generators, the machinery that will extract water from the soil, and various other equipment. They’ll have to set up the hydroponic gardens in a greenhouse where they plan to grow their own food, and check out all the recycling processes so they don’t waste any water or other resources. Once they’re all set, there will be regular maintenance to perform on all the systems, for which they will have been trained. They intend to do research to try to determine if there is microbial life anywhere in the area, and also to try to determine if Mars was once a wetter planet with a milder climate that could or did support life. This should keep them busy, but is work all there is?
At their website they address the issue of leisure time and describe how the Martian settlers can spend their off duty hours: “They can do most of the indoor activities that people can do on Earth; read, play games, write, paint, work out in the gym, watch TV, use the internet, contact friends at home and so on.” Can they? Fine, let’s break it down once again and see what they can actually do. Imagine you were one of the settlers. You can read, but only on a Kindle or computer screen, as there won’t be any spare room to keep books or magazines. Even if there was room, just getting a hard copy of a book you wanted would take a long time, because they simply aren’t going to send up a rocket for your pleasure. Those things are notoriously expensive, and although there ostensibly will be supply missions from time to time, there are the considerations of payload, weight, and the decision of what to include and what not to include.
I can foresee that there would be room made on the first, or perhaps later supply missions for board games such as Monopoly, chess, or something similar that everyone could share. Writing could easily be done, too, especially since computers will be a necessity in that environment, and Microsoft Word is a common feature. So are printers, but I doubt anyone is going to waste paper by printing anything they write.
Work out in the gym? Maybe after they’ve been there for awhile, but I doubt a gymnasium is a first order of priority, although I may be wrong about that. There is the concern about them keeping up their strength in an environment where gravity is only one third that of Earth’s, but workout equipment is heavy and increases the fuel needed to get it into earth orbit where it can then be sent on its way to Mars.
Watching TV wouldn’t be a problem, but using the internet would be a major pain. Imagine you have a dial-up connection, but much, much slower. On their own website, Mars One acknowledges that depending on the positions of Earth and Mars and the distance from each other at any given time, the radio signals can take anywhere from 3 to 22 minutes to travel one way. Let’s assume the best case, that Earth and Mars are close, and the time is only about 3 minutes. You click a new link, and wait. Six minutes later, your page may load. Surfing the internet at that speed is a non-starter. Just imagine if the two planets were farther apart. It could take as long as 40 to 45 minutes just to go to a new page. What was that I said earlier about Alaskan winters on steroids? Just think dial-up technology on Valium. And this all goes for contacting friends or family. There is no such thing as a real-time conversation or chat. It just takes too long for them to see what you say or type. When it comes to Skyping, I’m not sure it would even be possible; would you be staring at a frozen image most of the time?
But I’ve labored my point long enough; by now I’m sure you get the picture. Those astronauts/settlers on Mars will have their work cut out for them just to survive, and there is no guarantee they will. But when it comes to their leisure time, I think they will find everything frustrating with the more or less complete lack of outside stimulation. Sure, they will have fulfilled their lifelong dream of going to Mars, but it’s forever. No coming back. If they start to miss a walk on the beach, taking a vacation, cooking a steak on the charcoal grill, going to a restaurant, or even so much as taking a walk down the street or taking a day off from work, forget it. Those are pleasures they will never again experience, and it isn’t a far stretch to predict a severe case of cabin fever setting in from which there will be no relief. Everyone needs a break, even from a new adventure, but once they’re on their way, they may as well abandon all hope, as Dante so aptly put it.
So, back to my poor choice of words when I said I don’t look forward to seeing someone go mad on live TV. Given what I’ve just described as how the reality of living on Mars will be, I don’t just fear it. I expect it. I just hope to God I’m wrong.
Update March 30, 2014:
When I wrote this article about the project, I was unaware of this video, called Mars One Way. It’s a brief look at several people who’ve applied to go, although it’s far too early in the selection process to know whether any of them will make the final cut.