Photo courtesy of Steve Boxall for Zero Gravity Corporation
I want to leave the planet. In particular, I'd like to live on Mars.
Is that a strange goal? It's my job to convince people that it's not, because if everything goes according to plan, I could be saying goodbye to Earth as soon as 2024. As an astronaut candidate for a manned mission to Mars, I'm prepared to spend the next ten years training for a new reality.
Mars One is a private company with a stated goal of colonizing the Red Planet, and plans have already been laid out for how the roughly $6 billion mission would unfold. The 10-year roadmap accounts for plenty of unmanned missions to pave the way for human settlers, including communications satellites launched into Mars stationary orbit, cargo and a rover capable of assembling an initial habitat in advance of humans landing.
I love talking about the creative solutions to sustaining life on Mars, from water storage tanks on the spacecraft that could double as radiation shields, to the thin photovoltaic panels that could harness the Sun and power the base, to the use of in situ Martian planetary resources, such as ice. It's rare that the conversation ever advances to these topics, though. People tend to get hung up on a small detail of this seriously cool mission. Here's the catch: it's a one way trip.
The fact is, we have the existing technology -- right now -- to land humans on Mars. What does not exist right now is a heavy lift launch vehicle capable of carrying humans back to Earth. So-called "permanent" settlement enables the use of a small landing module, possible with current technology. Advanced pressurized rovers, and many other things, won't be sent to Mars until larger rockets exist. The key word here is "until". I'm fully confident that the technology to return humans home safely is not far off at all. In fact, I believe that by the time the mission takes off, we'll have the technological capability of shuttling humans back and forth between Earth and Mars in a fraction of the time. Regardless, we need to start training for that now! And even for those who don't share my view of the future, the "one-way" ticket didn't seem to scare too many people off.
When Mars One began accepting applications, almost a quarter of a million people expressed interest. As the selections board narrowed down the applications, considering backgrounds, education, skills, and personal motivations, they announced that 1,058 applicants would advance to Round 2 of selections. Now, these candidates are undergoing medical evaluations. In order to be clear for Round 3, a candidate must have normal blood test results, perform excellently on eyesight and hearing exams, report a healthy EKG reading, display a full range of motion, and pass a myriad of pokes, prods and questions that enable a physician to sign off on an applicant's physical and psychological fitness to advance.
If selected to train with Mars One, there will certainly be a large physical component, but there will be an even larger emphasis on psychological fortitude training in hostile environments that mimic the habitat, terrain and conditions faced on Mars, with prolonged periods of solitude. There is plenty of precedent for similar training outposts, in both the Arctic and the desert. Of course, candidates will also learn to repair components of the habitat and rover, train in medical procedures and learn to grow food within the habitat.
With phrases like "one-way trip" being tossed around, it's important to have support from my family and friends. I'm engaged to be married to the most incredible man in the universe, and I feel fortunate that he's so supportive of the value I place on exploration. For the past two years he has indulged my exploration goals, including a full week inside North Korea- another blog post all together!
Space is something that excites us both, and we recently had the opportunity to experience true weightlessness and a taste of space here on Earth with the ZERO-G Experience. Twice now, we have flown on the company's specially modified Boeing 727, jokingly referred to as the "Vomit Comet," in which specially trained pilots perform aerobatic maneuvers known as parabolas. During these parabolic arcs, passengers are treated to Lunar gravity (one sixth your weight) and Martian gravity (one third your weight) before finally achieving zero gravity, enabling you to float and soar as though you were in space.
As with any grand mission, there will certainly be pessimists, and it's fair enough: a manned mission to Mars is a long shot, especially considering that the last time we took an expansive step into space as a species was over 40 years ago, on the Moon. A safe flight to Mars would be harder, longer (over 200 days), and more expensive. Still, it's a crucial topic, and a discussion that should be happening globally. The commercial space industry is truly taking off, and the sky is no longer the limit. Mars is a personal ambition, but professionally, I'm dedicated to promoting the democratization of space and the expansion of Earth's economic sphere within the commercial space industry. Even NASA has recognized the benefit of the private sector, partnering with SpaceX to resupply cargo to the International Space Station and soon, to transport crew as well. Virgin Galactic, Sierra Nevada, and XCOR Aerospace are all developing suborbital vehicles for space tourism, and Planetary Resources has its sights set on mining asteroids. It might sound like science fiction, but this is how far we've come as an industry.
Down here on solid ground, I'm a dedicated member of The Explorers Club, serving on the Space Committee as the co-chair of this year's 110th Explorers Club Annual Dinner (ECAD), one of New York City's longest-running charity events. This year we'll be joined by astronauts, string theorists, stratosphere jumpers and other space titans. We're even awarding Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX. Just last week I had the opportunity to fly to Cambridge, UK to visit Professor Stephen Hawking (who has also flown ZERO-G!), and film the inspirational video keynote he so generously provided for our guests at ECAD. The dinner is Saturday and there's still a chance to buy tickets. I don't want to ruin the surprise of Stephen Hawking's keynote, but I will leave you with the last line of his address:
"We must boldly go where no one has gone before."
This post was produced by The Explorers Club and The Huffington Post in conjunction with the Club's Annual Dinner on Saturday, March 15, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, to honor pioneers in exploration and technology. The authors in this series are all members of The Explorers Club. For more information about the Club, please visit the website, which will feature a live stream of the event the evening of the Dinner. To read all posts in the series, visit here.
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