Mars One Way Only

Transport, Frontiers, Star City

For the lucky Earthlings recently selected to start nearly a decade of training for life on Mars, death is just another problem to solve. 

Chosen out of 660 candidates, the 100 astronauts selected by Mars One for a mission to Mars include men and women from Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Assuming at least a few stick out the nine years of experimental training to come, four of the faces profiled on the Mars One website today will be looking wistfully down at Earth from an airless, frozen Martian dustfield by 2024.

No return trips to Earth are planned, or even possible, at the moment. To survive beyond the 68 days of survival dourly predicted by one MIT research group, Mars One candidates will have to construct airtight dwellings, erect greenhouses to grow their own food, harvest electricity with fields of solar panels and coax frozen moisture from the soil into drinking water. But at least, says Norbert Kraft, chief medical officer for Mars One, “your knees won’t hurt and your wrinkles will go away.” Gravity on Mars is less than half what it is on Earth. 

“[Kraft] asked if I would want to come back to Earth after three years on Mars,” says former Mars One candidate Silvia Favaro, 29, of her interview to join the mission. “I said I knew that technologically it is impossible right now. But for [Kraft], even if there were a rocket to come back, it is impossible that we would ever be able to walk again on Earth.” This is the flipside of low gravity: after a few years of Martian lightness and 14 months of zero-gravity space flight, human bones will thin so much that they crumble, once back on Earth.


Silvia Favaro at the Department of Earth Sciences in the Geo Campus of the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. Photo by Mauro Bedoni/COLORS.


Many Mars One candidates show a strong focus on their rosy future space lives. One astrophysicist even recently announced her intentions to found Mars’ first family. But Favaro, a structural geologist from the Free University of Berlin, is openly pragmatic about problems like crumbling bones. Neither current technology nor Mars One funding are nearly developed enough to support human life on Mars for the moment, she acknowledges happily.

Many hypothesize that the Martian wasteland was once as fertile, wet and temperate as earth, with mountains, lakes and rivers under a blue sky dotted with puffy clouds. But today, the average temperature on Mars is -50 degrees Celsius. The unbreatheable atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide. While the two moons in the sky over Mars might be beautiful to look at, dust storms sometimes blanket the entire planet,  lasting months at a time. Water exists only in microscopic amounts, and—launched from 140 million miles away—supply deliveries will be slow.

“I'd like to help them figure this stuff out,” says Silvia. Her plan was to develop the Mars One mission from technological utopianism into a real model colony by test-driving it right here on earth. “I would to go to the desert, build everything I have to use on Mars, and see that everything is working even during a storm," she says. "If it doesn’t work on earth, we’re fucked!” But a passion for prototyping did not help in a selection process that seeks reality TV personalities as much as astronauts; Favaro was rejected in the last selection round.

Undeterred, she says she’s going to finish her PhD this year and then apply again to join the Mars One training program. “I want to help build the stuff,” she says. An expert in deep geological detective work, she could also help the scientific community understand something more important than how to survive space life: what happened to make Mars so awful now? And how do we stop it from happening on Earth?

Photo (cropped version): NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity catches "Pillinger Point," on the western rim of Endeavour Crater. (May 14, 2014). Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.