Colonizing Mars: Like Going on a One-Way Trip to Hell

Posted on May 2, 2013


I had a nightmare once that I had died and gone to Hell.  There wasn’t much to the dream; Hell consisted of a dungeon-like construction, and every soul was chained in a little alcove in the gloom.  “Huh, this isn’t so bad,” I thought.  But then it occurred to me:  This is all there is.  Forever.  So Hell was the reduction of all possible futures to one interminable, lonely bore.  Hell indeed!

So here’s my question:  Why would anyone sign up for a one-way ticket to Mars?

A Dutch nonprofit, Mars One, is taking applications for their one-way manned missions to Mars, projected to depart as early as 2023.  With tens of thousands of people signing up, it seems they will have no trouble manning their teams.  My advice to Mars One:  focus on people with no attachments, and hire more than you think you need.  Ten years is a long time to think about this, and a lot of these applicants will experience life changes and drop out; life on Earth will become more interesting to them for one reason or another.

I have seen it happen on a much smaller scale in my own career.  A group of us, all volunteers, were trained to go to weird places overseas, to operate in fairly isolated circumstances, to make do without a lot of the comfort (or even safety) we were used to, to immerse ourselves in the local language and culture.  While such assignments definitely had their hardships, there were two enormous advantages they had over a Mars One mission:

1)  You might not have what you were used to, but you had something.  There was a variety of food, a choice of housing, entertainment, music, sights to see, things to do, new people to socialize with.  It might all be weird and foreign, but it was at least… human.

2)  The assignment had an end date, after which you got to go home.

Even with these advantages, it’s no surprise that during the lengthy training, some of us got married, had a kid or two, maybe our parents became ill… and then that life of adventure might not look so great.  Suddenly, you are more interested in your kids’ schooling, your marriage, or the availability of a good family doctor, than you are in playing Lawrence of Arabia.

So… if some of these adventurous young Army officers had second thoughts about pursuing this career track due to life changes, what do we suppose will happen with a lot of the Mars One applicants over the course of ten years?

But let’s fast-forward and focus on the folks who actually go.  All the folks who developed an attachment to Earth have dropped out of the program, leaving only the gung-ho, eager adventurers to blast off and become the first Martians.

The Mars One video explaining the concept sounds fairly well thought-out: first, robotic exploration, supply, and construction missions will scout a location and prepare the facilities, which will be stocked with pre-positioned supplies.  Only then will the first four humans arrive, after at least 7 months in space… and this is where the whole plan starts to disintegrate under the rigor of realistic thought.

Even if nothing goes wrong at all, the first challenge is medical in nature.  No matter how young and fit you are, seven months in space is no picnic for your health (just ask the International Space Station astronauts).   You arrive on Mars considerably weaker than you were at launch, and there is no one to help you.  The Martian gravity, which is only 38% of Earth’s gravity, will help with this at first, but the humans – whose biological systems evolved to function at 1G – will likely continue to experience all of the medical problems associated with microgravity, since they will forever after live at just 0.38G.

And then there will be the total loss of not only every luxury the colonists ever had; there will be the loss of all kinds of things that they didn’t even know were luxuries: space, air, a breeze, rain.  Their lives, forever, will be cramped quarters with just three other people.  No casual strolls, no “getting some air.”  No baths, and probably no showers.  No favorite foods or beverages.  No new clothes, not even socks or underwear.  And extreme water conservation and recycling means those socks and underwear might never be washed again.  No resupply and no one new to talk to for two years, and when the next four people arrive… assuming the company hasn’t gone bankrupt, or there hasn’t been some kind of decision to discontinue the program… they will start sucking down scarce resources, too.

The Mars One video advertising for recruits is a little sparse on the details of just what the colonists will do, once they get there.   There is much talk of financing the effort through a huge media circus.  Big Brother on steroids.  Well, that’s a great recipe for good group dynamics, since we see how pleasant the interactions are on most reality shows.

I’m guessing that the colonists will be put to work building facilities for the next planned group of arrivals.  What else is there to do?  Try to grow tiny bits of food with tiny amounts of water and tiny amounts of space?  I would not want to be dependent on those “crops.”  Anybody remember Biosphere 2?  The main thing we learned from that was that no matter how carefully we plan, trying to sustain ourselves independently and indefinitely in a small enclosed system is fraught with all kinds of unforeseen problems.  The Biosphere 2 inhabitants were able to “cheat” to keep their experiment going.  Similar problems on Mars One would be fatal.

The Mars One planners dreamily rhapsodize about colonizing space, about coming to a new planet “to stay.”  I don’t think they realize just how very uninhabitable Mars is, nor how deprived, lonely, and brutish these colonists’ existence will likely be.

The worst part – like the dream about going to Hell – is that once the sense of adventure and newness wears off, the horrible realization will set in:  This is all there is.  Forever.