by Terry Burlison
Dr. Leila Zucker plans to leave her husband.
She hasn’t fallen out of love with Ron, whom she still she considers not only “damn sexy” but her best friend. She’s not leaving him for someone else, nor to take a job in a different city. But if all goes well, in April of 2022, the happily-married ER physician will say goodbye forever, with no hope of ever seeing him again.
Because Leila Zucker hopes to live—and die—on Mars.
Mars, the elusive goal
For over a century, human exploration of Mars remained only within the realm of science fiction. That seemed destined to change after Project Apollo. Since 1969, numerous policy commissions and presidential administrations have identified Mars as a national objective, including the U.S. Space Task Group in 1969, the “Ride Report” in 1986, George H.W. Bush's Space Exploration Initiative in 1989, George W. Bush's Constellation Project in 2004, and more recently, the 2009 Augustine report which stated that “Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration of the inner solar system.” Despite repeated recommendations, over 40 years have passed since humans placed footprints in the lunar soil.
After President Obama cancelled Constellation in 2010, the administration and Congress struggled to find common ground for NASA exploration. Currently, NASA plans to complete construction of the heavy-lift Ares V booster (now renamed the Space Launch System) and the Orion crew capsule. The SLS will enable NASA to launch heavy elements to orbit, and the Orion is designed for long-duration space missions.
But even with these capabilities, is NASA any closer to a Mars expedition?
NASA currently is not working toward a manned expedition to Mars. Congress and the administration bicker over objectives, as does the space fan community. U.S. space policy mentions Mars only in broad terms, as a general objective sometime in the undefined future. (In a 2010 address at Kennedy Space Center, Obama said only it would be after an orbital mission in the mid-2030s.) So despite the development of deep-space capabilities, seeing human footprints on Mars seems further away than it did when Neil and Buzz stepped onto the lunar surface.
At least by NASA.
Mars or bust
In 2011, Bas Landsdorp, a Dutch entrepreneur with a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering, co-founded the Mars One Foundation, a not-for-profit private venture to send human colonists to Mars by 2023.
Mars One intends to launch robotic missions beginning in 2016, establishing a communications and life-support infrastructure for the explorers while training private citizens for arrival several years later. The colony will consist of landers launched every two years and configured for different purposes: Life Support Units, Supply Units, and Living Units (with inflatable habitats). As each lander arrives, a rover/trailer, launched in 2018, will transport it to the colonization site. According to their website, the Rover will also unroll and lay down thin film solar panels, extract and inflate the Living Units, and other tasks prior to the first human arrivals.
According to the Mars One website, “No new major developments or inventions are needed to make the mission plan a reality. Each stage of the Mars One mission plan employs existing, validated and available technology.” They intend to launch their vehicle atop a derived Falcon 9 booster under development by SpaceX, which recently began cargo resupply flights to the International Space Station. The capsule will come from “one of the experienced suppliers in the world.” Other components, they contend, are either off-the-shelf or extrapolations of current technology, and they already list several major aerospace companies among their potential suppliers.
To reduce cost and complexity, the mission is one-way, eliminating the need to develop an Earth-return vehicle. The applicants must be willing give up everything—friends, partners, family—to risk the perilous nine-month flight to Mars, and then spend the rest of their lives scratching out a desperate existence in the most remote and inhospitable place ever walked by humans.
Despite that, 200,000+ people registered on the Mars One website, and a few thousand were serious enough to produce an introductory video and pay their application fee, which ranged from five to seventy-five dollars, depending on their country of origin. (Although Mars One has not released the actual number of paid applications, 2,782 application videos are publicly posted at http://applicants.mars-one.com.)
The first crewed flight has been deemed a “suicide mission” by some in the media, a term abhorred by the community. “It's not a suicide mission,” says Mars Society president Robert Zubrin emphatically. “It's a settlement mission. There’s a difference.”
For Dr. Zucker, the one-way mission is the ultimate adventure. She grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, spelunking, rappelling, hiking in the jungles, even “swinging from one tree branch to another on vines.” But to her, reaching Mars means more than exploring a new world: it can ensure the survival of the human species. She points to an XKCD comic (#893) that reads: “The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there's no good reason to go into space—each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision." Dr. Zucker does not want to see human culture end up in such a “one-planet grave,” and is willing to risk her life to change that destiny.
“I have to try not to be angry”
Diary of Kristen Anders, December 12, 2015:
I can't believe I'm in! We first four explorers will be remembered with Columbus, Lewis & Clark, and Armstrong and Aldrin. While the fame thing is pretty cool, that's not why I'm here. I know I'll die on Mars, but what is life without meaning? And what greater meaning can there be than the future of humanity? At least, that's what I've been telling everyone.
But when I came home and told Randall that I had been chosen, he didn't smile, laugh, or celebrate. He just turned and walked out. It broke my heart. But it's going to break more when I tell Tabitha. She’ll be only nine years old when I leave. How will she ever understand why Mommy is going away?
Am I doing the right thing?
Leaving the earth will mean not only giving up blue skies, ocean beaches, forests and fields, but shattering every emotional and physical bond with family, friends, and loved ones. Some of those to be left behind accept the sacrifice; many don’t understand how husbands and wives would be willing to leave their families forever.
Becky Sullivan, wife of helicopter pilot Ken Sullivan, admits struggling with Ken's decision. "If I am truly honest, I have to try not to be angry. I know that it is exciting to want to be a part of this historical and amazing adventure. But I can't help but hope that he doesn't get picked. Knowing that there is such a high probability that he will never come back is frustrating. I find myself asking, 'Why does your family not mean more to you?'” She also wonders what their (currently) three-year-old son and four-month-old daughter will think, once they're old enough to understand. “I can imagine that even though there would be some pride, they will still probably take it personally.”
But for Ken, the opportunity is worth the sacrifice, however painful. “There are times when you just know what you want to do. Mars One is such a tremendous opportunity that I have not hesitated to accept the challenge. My wonderful children, I love you so very much, and always will—but I am going to Mars.”
Bill Dunlap, a 45-year-old cook from Alabama, and his wife Anita still struggle with his decision. “[Anita] understands what I feel like when I talk about going to Mars. She doesn't like it, but she doesn't actively oppose my going through the process because she knows how miserable I'll feel if I don't try.
“I know that if I do get to travel to another planet, millions of people watching will think that I'm the most selfish jackass who ever ripped another person's heart out, and they may be right to think that. I have to ask them, though: Have you ever had a dream? . . . I am a dreamer, and I'm chasing a dream that I've had for my entire life and maybe, just maybe I can do this and in the end, whatever history may say and whatever anyone else may say, there is no price too high for a dream like this.”
Man or machine?
Diary of Kristen Anders, July 10, 2016:
Well, I survived the first crew cuts. The comsat and demonstration lander are on their way. That’s the good news. However, our sponsorship numbers aren’t as high as we’d hope. That’s going to mean some cuts, I guess. Some of the spares and the backup comsat are already on the cutting board.
I hope the cutbacks don’t come back to bite us in the ass.
The first Mars One flights, planned for 2016 launch, will include a satellite to enable high-bandwidth transmission of reconnaissance (and later, communications) data back to Earth. Mars One also intends to send a small, unmanned lander to demonstrate key technologies for later crewed missions. The main rover, to follow in 2018, will not be for scientific purposes, but to assist with construction of the colony.
A constant and fractious debate in the space community is the role of robots vs. humans in space exploration. Robotic probes are cheaper and safer than manned spacecraft. In 1997, Pathfinder became the first probe to explore the surface of Mars in over 20 years, thrilling millions with the images returned from its microwave-sized rover. The more capable rovers Spirit and Opportunity have spent 10 years crawling over the dusty landscape, sending back images and data about Mars. Most recently, the rover Curiosity survived its “seven minutes of terror” to land on the Red Planet and send back stunning images.
If Mars One already plans to send rovers, why risk humans?
Dunlap says, “Sending robots out does nothing to spread mankind's habitat . . . In fact, I think that sitting comfortably behind while our robots go could make us too complacent and stifle our urge to explore.”
Paul Leeming, a 31-year-old Australian filmmaker, agrees. “We need to inspire people to greater things. A machine does not inspire. It does not create art, or see through the lens of experience and wisdom mixed with art and creativity. It cannot convey a feeling: awe, wonder, humility—these things are unknown to it. It is us—our shared experiences and memories—that ultimately show what we are capable of, if only we seek to push ourselves to the limit and beyond.”
Television that is literally “out of this world”
Diary of Kristen Anders, October 3, 2021:
I hate this television shit, especially the public voting, which seems to be trying to keep as much drama as possible. Yeah, that makes good TV, but that's not what we need on the mission! They voted off Ramon, because he's “too accommodating,” but they kept Tyler, that back-stabbing bastard. Hopefully, the Foundation will have the final say in crew selection. If Tyler and I are chosen, he might just accidentally fall out of the airlock enroute.
How can the Foundation raise the estimated six billion dollars to pull off this ambitious project?
Zubrin believes the financial issues will prove more difficult than the technical. “From a technical point of view, there's nothing impossible about sending people one-way to Mars and then resupplying them. It's not so much a material question . . . we need someone to get people mobilized. We have the forces to do this.”
To “mobilize those forces,” the Foundation intends to use sponsorship and broadcasting revenue to raise this money—much like the Olympics, which raises a similar sum every four years. For example, the astronaut selection process will be broadcast as a kind of reality show, complete with audience participation to vote members off the team. Despite assurances from founder Bas Landrop that the show will be more like Coast Guard Alaska than Jersey Shore, few of the applicants seem to be looking forward to this part of the project, but accept it as necessary.
Twenty-year-old applicant Patrick Ford says, “Although Mars One's ideas of making this a global event is good, I feel like the result will just be people watching it for the conflict, for the drama, and that's ultimately what will drive the show's structure. I fear that it will end up like those pointless TV shows centered around drama and it will no longer be about the great things we are experiencing.”
Perhaps because of his background, filmmaker Paul Leeming isn't concerned about the media. “With regard to the reality TV aspect, I don't think it need be 'endured.' I think it is a unique opportunity to interact with a global audience to show first hand what we are undertaking and also to inspire people. As such it is essential that we be happy to be the spokespeople for all of us. If anything, it would be an honor to hold such an important and pivotal role for the future of humanity.”
Dr. Zucker doesn't like the idea, either, but is willing to endure it to raise the money. In fact, she's willing to go even further. “Ugh. I hate reality TV. It's a scourge on humanity that lowers our collective IQ by double digits. I prefer to think of this as documentary TV, like the Olympics. Bas Lansdorp has made it clear that this is the Mars One plan. But I'd have an ad tattooed anywhere on my body (and I don't even have pierced ears) if a company would donate a billion dollars to Mars One. So yeah, I don't much like the idea of being on The Truman Show, but if that's what it takes to put humans on Mars, then I'm ready for my close up, Mr. Lansdorp.”
No turning back
Diary of Kristen Anders, August 17, 2022:
We're in orbit, and I should be thrilled beyond measure. For a while I was. The launch and ascent were terrifying and thrilling: the best rollercoaster ride times a thousand. And zero gravity was amazing. (Well, not for Hari, poor guy. But let's not go there! The air filters still haven't gotten rid of the stink.)
But I keep seeing Randall and Tabitha in my mind, standing at the launch site, Randall staring through tears as I boarded the van, Tabby in his arms clutching him and crying her eyes out.
Last night was the worst. Randall had been so supportive, but he finally broke down. How could I do this terrible thing? How could I leave him and our little Tabby, never see her graduate college or get married, never hold my grandkids? How could I leave them behind for the TV crews and slobbering reporters and go off on this great adventure? He asked me how he could explain to Tabby that Mars was more important to me than our family. I had no answers.
Launching in 2022, the crewed vehicle will begin the long, nine-month journey to the Red Planet. Robotic probes launched in 2018 and 2020 will already have landed and begun preparing the landing site for the colonists.
Mars One insists that some of the physiological risks have been overstated, especially radiation exposure. But the psychological effects of an isolated, long-duration flight have never tested. ISS astronauts are rotated every few months. They can speak to friends and family with no discernible time lag. And of course, they can look down upon the earth, less than 400 kilometers away, any time they wish. The first Mars explorers may not find their isolation so easy. Some applicants have suggested a controversial method for dealing with the separation.
Love the one(s) you’re with?
Diary of Kristen Anders, January 13, 2015:
We've been in space for about six months now, counting the time we spent in Earth orbit. Romance wasn't on anyone's mind—certainly not mine!—until recently. I miss my husband and Tabby so much my heart feels like it's going to rupture. But they're gone, lost to me. I can't live the rest of my life alone; Randall wouldn't expect me to. We talked about it. That's why we got divorced once the trans-Mars injection was over.
I find myself paying more attention to Hari and Paul. Actually, I also find myself noticing Sheryl more, too. Funny thing; it seems we're all kind of open-minded when it comes to sex. I wonder if the Foundation used that as one of the criteria for selection? I suppose mixing up the possible couplings might help keep things defused. Whatever. The loneliness sucks, and I think it's time we all did something about it. My feelings haven't changed for you, Randall, and I miss you terribly. But I need to feel loved again.
On their Facebook page, the Mars One applicants have discussed the emotional issues that might arise. Some applicants have discussed the idea of sending only married couples. However, this could lead to very difficult situations should one of the couples break up. Similarly, sending unattached men and women opens the door for competition and jealousy.
For at least a few applicants, a possible solution is polyamory: open romantic relationships between multiple members of the crew. While generally condemned on Earth, some potential colonists think it might be necessary for the mission to succeed. “Successful relationships are critical to the success of any mission to settle Mars,” observes Ryan Brockey, a 27-year-old math and science tutor from Oregon. “The small initial crew will have to trust each other, identify with each other, be able and willing to clearly communicate with each other about their needs. Close, personal relationships are going to be both necessary and inevitable with a life-long mission. Pair-bonding seems divisive.”
Dr. Zucker agrees. “Humans have a great capacity for love. You can love and be truly happy with more than one person. We have several friends in long-lasting polyamorous marriages. The important thing is honesty and open discussion with your partner or partners.”
“Ready or not, here we come!”
Diary of Kristen Anders, April 18, 2023:
Today, Paul, Sheryl, Hari and I stood together on the landing pad, in our Marssuits. We decided that we would step onto the soil as one, representing the peoples of Earth, whom we so humbly represent. I don't even remember who said the first words!
The landing terrified me. After no gravity, the push and power of the craft seemed to shatter my bones. And the noise! But then the engines cut, and we were down! We hugged and kissed, of course, and thanked everyone who made it possible. For the first time since leaving Earth, I really feel like this is worth the sacrifice.
The Marssuit isn't comfortable. I thought I'd feel so light on the surface, but the suit restricts everything I do, and with the extra weight I really don't feel much different from walking on Earth. But once you strip down in the Life Support Unit—then you know you're really on another world! I keep thinking, am I dreaming?
When asked what their first thoughts would be upon stepping onto another world, most applicants gave the same answer: Please don’t let me screw up! For example, Kevin Riff, a Seattle software developer hopes not to be “the guy who went to Mars and forgot my speech!”
Paul Leeming expects to feel, “awe, elation and . . . responsibility that we now carry the hopes and dreams of our species into the cosmos. Future decades of spacefaring will surely be determined by whether we survive or not.”
Dr. Zucker believes her first thought would be, “I'm about to take the first human step on Mars—watch out universe, ready or not, here we come!”
“Space is dangerous”
Diary of Kristen Anders, June 12, 2023:
It didn't take long for a crisis to strike. We've been here less than two months. The plants are dying. The dust is worse than we expected—we spend more time doing maintenance than sleeping. And Paul has developed some kind of cough that won't stop. This morning, he hacked up some blood. Not good. It figures that the first person to get sick would be our doctor, and we're nearly two years away from getting any help. Every time he coughs, the rest of us look at each other, thinking the same thought: What if it's contagious?
Not everyone shares Dr. Zubrin and Mr. Landsdorp’s optimism. Astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson supports private space enterprise, but believes leading-edge exploration must be left to governments. In his podcast, Star Talk Radio, Tyson says, “We should have had private initiatives going into space decades ago. I’m embarrassed it’s taken this long.” But he continues, “That being said, private enterprise will not ever lead a space frontier. . . .They can’t. It’s not possible: space is dangerous, it’s expensive, there are unquantified risks. Combine all those under one umbrella, [and] you cannot establish a free-market capitalization of that enterprise. . . . Those are the kinds of frontiers that governments have undertaken.”
Dr. Zucker believes many of the risks portrayed by the media are overblown, such as radiation, pathogens, and insanity. But she goes on to list other life-threatening situations that could arise: tuberculosis, anaphylactic shock, appendicitis, stoke, heart attack, decompression, poisoning, and major trauma. “But I think the most likely things to kill us would be related to failure of life support such as malnutrition, starvation, vitamin deficiency, asphyxiation, or dehydration.”
Possibly even the environment itself. “It is impossible to know how or if the dust will cause any problems. If it is extremely fine as many believe, it could cause significant irritation of skin or airways. It is always possible someone will be allergic to it. A severe anaphylactic reaction would kill someone unless we were able to isolate them completely from the allergen, which would be unlikely.”
“NASA does not provide opinions . . .”
Diary of Kristen Anders, June 18, 2023:
Paul died two days ago. We don't know why. At least no one else seems sick. The dust storm that moved in a week ago still rages. We can't see a damn thing outside the windows; it's like we're lost, floating in a pink cloud. It's better at night, when everything's black. Not so unreal. But the dust scraping on the hull gives me the goddamn creeps. The solar arrays barely produce enough power to keep us alive. Condensation creeps down the windows; my hands are shivering so hard I can hardly write.
We need to bury Paul, but we're all worried about what the storm will do to our suits. Finally, we sealed him into one of the Life Support Units and evacuated the air. That's right: a “Life Support Unit” is now our morgue. How fucking ironic is that? When the storm clears, we'll retrieve him and try to lay him to rest somewhere. Meanwhile, the rest of us just sit and stare, waiting.
Some critics believe the private sector is ill-equipped to launch such an ambitious plan, that it borders on the irresponsible.
Dr. Zubrin’s contention that we are technologically closer to being able to go to Mars today than we were to go to the Moon in 1961 is probably correct. In the 1960s, we had to develop a vast array of new technologies in fields of navigation, computing, life support, guidance, propulsion, communications, and many other areas. However, the race to the moon consumed nearly $30 billion dollars (over $150 billion today), and required the efforts of over a half-million engineers, scientists, machinists, and scores of other skills. Can the private sector take us to Mars in a decade, for only a few billion dollars?
Officials at NASA refused to comment, stating, “NASA does not provide opinions regarding the activities of private space enterprises such as these.”
Former NASA manager Ken Young is under no such restriction. Young, a mission analyst, rendezvous specialist, and systems integrator and management consultant, started at NASA in 1962 and has worked on every manned U.S. space program. According to him, while the basic technology for deep space flight exists (or is in development), adapting, upgrading, testing, and perhaps most importantly, integrating that technology into a man-rated vehicle is far beyond the scope of any private venture, financially or technically, in the time required. Young lists the current lack of readiness of a vast array of engineering elements: environmental and life support, heat shields, propulsion, communications systems, guidance, navigation, controls, and others. Every one of these issues, says Young, requires a massive effort to update, integrate together, and then test. Each demands a team of specialists and extraordinary amounts of money—and each is required for mission success.
One example is the heat shield, a necessary component for landing on Mars. NASA is currently developing a new heat shield for the Orion spacecraft. Although NASA developed and flew lunar-return heat shields decades ago, upgrading that technology for Orion has consumed five years of development and many millions of dollars. And this shield still might not be ready for its scheduled 2014 test flight—on an unmanned vehicle. This is only one of hundreds of technical issues and systems integration problems in developing a new manned spacecraft. And once those challenges are solved, spacecraft systems typically then require massive weight-reduction efforts to literally get off the ground.
Young concludes, “Even if all these challenges could be designed out and tested—they could not integrate, [then] test and launch it in time.”
But for the Mars One applicants, the issues ultimately aren’t technical or financial. To them, exploration is something inherent in the psyche, and to ignore it would be to make us a little less human, regardless of the risks.
When asked “Why Mars?”, science fiction author and three-time Hugo winner Allen Steele (who is not an applicant) explains, “Mars attracts me the same way, I think, that it has attracted everyone who has written about it: it's a nearby world that appears to be capable of supporting human life, albeit by artificial means, and which would be an incredible place to explore. Whenever I see the ground-level photos sent back by the rovers, my feet begin to itch. The hell with robots . . . I want to go hiking there! And if I can't do that, then I want someone else to be able to do so for me.”
Applicant Vinod Kotiya, a 41-year-old computer programmer from New Delhi, expresses it this way: “I believe that the purpose of humankind is to spread their horizon across the universe to know the truth of our existence; that's the question in my heart.” He adds, “Humankind is destined to explore and invent. The men who did not explore did not survive in history. . . . Think about it: a self-sufficient colony working towards a mutually beneficial goal for all of humanity, people from all walks of life, freely providing their expertise. Something truly wonderful could come out of this!”
Even if it includes leaving behind his wife and daughter?
“The hardest thing to leave would be my little princess, Jeannie. Maybe someday after reaching Mars, after losing my family, I may think I have done terribly wrong. But I [will] have to cope with it, have to take the pain . . . and do what I have been destined for.”
“As it should be”
Diary of Kristen Anders, April 22, 2024:
We just passed our first year on Mars. Well, a year back on Earth. The days are always out-of-sync, of course, and we're only about half-way through our first Martian year. Food supply is sufficient, since Hari figured out some botanist voodoo for the plants. Especially since now there are only three of us.
Still, the loneliness is almost intolerable at times. We each have taken over a different Life Support Unit as our “room” and don't really interact much any more. I run experiments on the soil and rocks we gather (no, no life yet), Hari stays in the greenhouse, and Sheryl spends much of the day outside, exploring, walking, gathering samples. She shouldn't; we're all safer from radiation inside. (No one goes in Paul's Life Support Unit.) The comsat went down and, since the funding didn't turn out, we don't have a back-up. That means we're only in touch with Earth a few hours a day. But that's more than enough; none of us feels much like talking anymore.
An entire generation of young people grew up with the space program, their imaginations fueled by writers and ignited by the space program. Many became inventors and entrepreneurs, founding Fortune 500 companies and creating new technologies. The private sector is already launching satellites and resupplying the International Space Station; other companies are looking to the moon or asteroids. Perhaps, despite all the financial and technical hurdles, it will someday be an international private venture that finally places the first humans on the Red Planet—people going to plant crops, not flags.
Although the Mars One applicants were born and live on different continents, come from widely varied backgrounds and beliefs, the vision they share far outweighs their differences. Each is passionate about the future of humankind. Whether ER doctor, filmmaker, cook, or pilot, each believes in something greater than themselves and is willing to sacrifice everything they've ever known and loved to be among the first to place humanity's mark on another planet.
When asked if the first footprints on Mars would come from the private or public sector, if they would be American, Chinese, or European, they all gave the same answer. As Leeming expressed it:
“The first footprints on Mars will be human. Nothing more and nothing less. As it should be.”
Diary of Kristen Anders, December 12, 2025:
We made it! The resupply ship has arrived, the new comsat is in orbit, and tomorrow the second crew lands. We've learned so much over the last two years, and the new team is bringing us badly needed spares and some new fabricating tech that will make our lives so much easier.
Would I do this all again, leave everything behind for this mission? Hell no! The glamour, such as it was, wore off longer ago than I can remember. The excitement, the novelty, all long gone. Now it's just survival. I still cry every time I see how Tabby's growing up without me. But for better or worse, I'm here. And now we have new companions, new hopes, and we're all going to do the best we can for as long as we have left.
What else is there?
Copyright © 2013 by Terry Burlison
Terry Burlison graduated from Purdue University with a degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering: the same school/degree as Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, the first and last men to walk on the moon. He then worked for NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Trajectory Officer for the first space shuttle missions. After leaving NASA, Terry spent ten years at Boeing, supporting numerous civilian and defense space projects. Until recently, he was a private consultant for many of the new commercial space ventures. Terry is now a full-time writer. His web site is www.terryburlison.com.