The First Lonely Ones

If you had a chance to be the first human being to set foot on Mars, knowing you could never return to Earth, would you take it?

“The Men of Earth came to Mars. They came because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or did not feel like Pilgrims. There was a reason for each man. They were leaving bad wives or bad towns; they were coming to find something or leave something or get something, to dig up something or bury something or leave something alone. They were coming with small dreams or large dreams or none at all…it was not unusual that the first men were few. The numbers grew steadily in proportion to the census of Earth Men already on Mars. There was comfort in numbers. But the first Lonely Ones had to stand by themselves…”

– Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

200,000 applied, and 705 are still in the running for four slots on a proposed mission to the Red Planet that will likely be a one-way trip, should the Netherlands-based Mars One consortium scrape up the $6 billion necessary to cobble together an assortment of “proven technologies” into a viable interplanetary transport, a lander, and associated support systems, plus a Martian habitat capable of sustaining the colonists indefinitely. Mars One plans to follow the initial mission with successive deliveries of four-person crews to Mars at two-year intervals, with the goal of establishing a permanent human colony within the next 20 years or so.**

mars-one-banner-set-1-720_300

I’m skeptical. The Mars One team is heavy on conceptual artists and design engineers, but light on people with manned spaceflight program experience. Likewise, the volunteers are long on dreams and short on practical colonization skills. Many of them are in their late forties to mid-fifties—a bit late in life to undertake a voyage of this rigor, especially since they face eight years of training first, plus whatever extra time it takes to put the other pieces together, plus a year in transit through the void. Aerospace corporations Mars One is counting on for technical and manufacturing support have responded with “letters of interest,” but no commitments yet.

The whole thing is giving me Biosphere 2 flashbacks, but I’m loath to scoff at folks with a vision for adventure and exploration. I live on the Santa Fe Trail—I have a warm spot in my heart for pioneers, who have almost always been ill-funded, ill-equipped, and ill-prepared for their expeditions into new frontiers but never let that stop them. O, Pioneers!

Read this CNN article and watch the interviews—then read that passage from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles one more time.

** NASA, meanwhile, is planning toward a possible manned mission to Mars–and return–sometime in the 2030s.

UPDATE: The Houston Chronicle reports that NASA’s Chief Scientist, Ellen Stofan, in a May 15 talk at the Royal Institution in London, said Mars is NASA’s “primary focus,” that a planned mission to Mars will be multinational, and she expects an outpost of some sort to be established as part of that mission, targeted for 2035. She discussed other projects, including a 2020 voyage to capture a small asteroid and divert it into lunar orbit, but did not mention Mars One or other independent Mars missions.

One of those independent projects, Inspiration Mars, “is committed to sending a two-person American crew – a man and a woman – on an historic journey to fly within 100 miles around the Red Planet and return to Earth safely.” Their original planned liftoff for the 501-day mission was 2018, but Chairman Dennis Tito announced in February it’s been shifted to 2021. Inspiration Mars is partnering with NASA and plans to use the NASA Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle for their mission, which now would include a flyby of Venus.

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2 thoughts on “The First Lonely Ones

  1. They are sending people to die. A manned flight to Mars is orders of magnitude harder than anything we’ve ever done before, and I don’t think we’re even sure people could survive the months of travel to get to the red planet alone, let alone set foot on it. It’s odd in a way, because old SF was more fixated on a functional lunar base than anything, and we seem to have completely scrapped that idea. Trying to get to Mars would be ridiculous.

    Science has been pretty good about showing us just how hard it is to achieve a lot of the idle fantasies that SF used to spin in the sixties through the eighties. Manned Mars flight was one of them, and now we know the magnitude of what we’re attempting.

    1. Well, they certainly won’t do it on crowdfunding, a few graphic artists, a couple of satellite engineers, and a flight surgeon. 🙂

      I’d hate to see the drive for manned space exploration evaporate entirely, but this isn’t the sort of thing you do on the quick and cheap.

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