Growing up on a small farm in Kildare, Joseph Roche spent many clear nights gazing at the stars, dreaming of becoming an astronaut. He couldn't have known that, 20 years later, he would be undergoing a medical examination as part of the selection process for a manned mission to Mars.
Last week, a private space exploration company called Mars One announced that it has shortlisted 1,058 people from 200,000 applicants who wanted to travel to Mars. Roche is the only Irishman on the list. The catch? If he goes, he can never come back.
If you think the whole thing sounds crazy, you wouldn't be the first. Even the man behind the project admits it's a gargantuan task. Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur, aims to land a colony of four astronauts on the surface of Mars by 2025. The successful applicants will undergo eight years of training while a number of robotic missions lay the infrastructure on a planet 225 million kilometres away.
Establishing a colony on a planet we know little about would be a giant leap for mankind. Of all the issues the project presents, Lansdorp says that technology isn’t among them. “No new inventions are required for this to happen. It’s largely the same technology that has been keeping humans alive for the past 11 years on the International Space Station that will keep our astronauts alive on Mars,” he says.
All going well, the first rover launch will take place in 2018. It will demonstrate the capability to extract water from Martian soil and test solar technology, which will be used to power the colony’s hardware. It will also provide the first live webcam to stream video from another planet.
Subsequent rovers will deliver living quarters and life-support units, while back on Earth the first four astronauts will prepare for lift-off in 2025. Getting to Mars is tricky; surviving on Mars is theoretically possible, but getting a crew back is a problem that has yet to be cracked. The technical feasibility of the mission is enhanced by the fact that these astronauts will never return to Earth.
“For some people it’s very scary, but there are plenty of people who want to go to Mars and spend the rest of their lives there, to explore this strange new world. There’s a certain breed of people who dream about this.”
Roche, an astrophysicist who works at the Science Gallery in Dublin, knows all the risks. “People assume that just because I want to go that I must not be happy here, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve been very fortunate. I grew up in a great family and love my work. I think putting someone on Mars who has a full appreciation of life on Earth is key to the mission’s success.”
The real question mark over the Mars One project relates to money. Lansdorp has estimated that the entire roadmap to get the first four colonists to the red planet is about $6 billion (€4.4 billion). He plans to raise this partly through crowd- sourcing, public-donation drives, but mostly through television and sponsorship deals. Mars One will be a 24-hour reality TV show, with the public voting on which applicants will get to travel.
“If you compare it to something that occurs regularly, like the Olympic games – and I think this will be much bigger in terms of audience – the total value in terms of marketing and sponsorship is about $4 billion. I don’t think it’s that much money.”
While the idea of a Big Brother-style media frenzy surrounding something so monumental and dangerous as mankind's first colony on another planet might sound ridiculous, a recent announcement has given credibility to Mars One.
In December, Lansdorp's organisation announced that it has awarded $250,000 to Lockheed Martin to provide two concept studies in preparation for the first rover mission in 2018. "We've been involved in every American lander programme since the 1970s," says Gary Napier, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin. "Our executives talked about Mars One and whether the whole thing was viable. The truth is, nobody knows. It's the same with any startup technology: good ideas will build momentum and public interest and take off. If that happens, they probably have a reasonable chance of pulling it off."
Does Roche take the project seriously? "Absolutely. The scientist in me has to be sceptical, but we're in an unprecedented situation now where governments can't afford to fund their own space programmes, and yet we have private organisations that have the funds and expertise to get us there. The last time the European space agency did a call for astronauts, I was too young. Who knows when the next one is?"
Jonathan McCrea presents Futureproof, Saturdays on Newstalk
NO HOME COMFORTS: A HARD PLACE TO LIVE
Life on Mars will take a little getting used to. For starters, water is in very short supply. Nasa's Phoenix lander discovered ice in 2008, but to survive long-term, water will need to be extracted from the Martian soil. This is a slow process, so inhabitants would have to keep use to a minimum, recycling all liquid waste and cleaning themselves with wipes.
Food is non-existent on Mars, but plants and vegetables can be grown using hydroponics, a method of cultivation that doesn’t require soil.
Farmed insects brought from Earth would provide a crunchy form of protein, with a view to one day sending animals for a sustainable source of meat.
Outside, the atmosphere on Mars is thin and would leave anyone on the surface exposed to dangerous levels of radiation from the sun, particularly during solar storms. To combat this, engineers have suggested using Martian soil to cover the living quarters in order to provide extra protection.
However, the biggest challenge of a manned mission like this is considered to be psychological. With lows of -90 degrees, time spent outside would be short, and limited to the confines of a spacesuit. Residents would spend nearly every hour of every day in close quarters with no chance of returning home. The long-term mental health effects of this are not fully known.
There is some good news, however: satellite technology will allow astronauts to watch TV, download books and even communicate with home via email and video message.