Thursday, January 16, 2014

Mars One is OK, I suppose

The pains of emigration are seared into the Irish soul, and this week I've listened on the radio to Dr Joseph Roche contemplating it in its most extreme form. He's a Trinity College Dublin astrophysicist who’s signed up for Mars One - a privately funded venture to send colonists to Mars in 2023 on a one-way only ticket. 

The first time I wrote about it, I queried whether a no-return crewed mission to Mars was acceptable.  Perhaps those who send these colonists will be colluding in their suicide?  This question of its acceptability was, I have to agree, a woolly one, as I forgot to ask acceptable to whom, and if not, who could stop it. 

Asked by the presenter if it's suicide, Joseph Roche recognises that due to radiation his life expectancy will be “drastically reduced”.  But since there can be very few people who understand the risks better than he does,  I suppose I have to abandon my pretensions to opine on the rightness of the thing. 

You can hear his two interviews here, on RTÉ radio last Thursday and Sunday. They make extraordinary listening. 

Morning Ireland, Thurs 9 January search for “The Irishman who hopes to go to Mars” (5 minutes)

Marian Finucane Show, Sunday 12 January search for “Life on Mars” (18 minutes)

Dr Roche was interviewed after reaching a longlist of 1,058 volunteers, selected from over 200,000.   He says that to be chosen for the mission would be like a dream come true.

 “I definitely wouldn't be coming back, it's not up for debate. As soon as I get there I would have to live out the rest of my days there. Because you would be exposed to conditions that no human has experienced before, and there's not enough atmosphere on Mars to protect you from radiation, even with a space suit, my life expectancy would be drastically reduced. The way I look at it, even with a shorter life on Mars, for every day I live on that planet, I would be taking a leap forward for the scientific endeavour of human kind. For me it would be a dream come true.”

That’s the Morning Ireland clip, the shorter of the two. In the longer interview with Marian Finucane, a fellow hopeful Steve Menaa joins Joe Roche and so does his sister Deirdre. She says the family would be devastated if he was selected and he had to go, but on the other hand Joe was always ambitious and he likes to see through the things he starts, and if this is what he wants we'll support him in it.   Steve says “I like my life on Earth but I like a challenge as well. We humans are explorers.”

Greenhouse for growing plants and insects on Mars. As envisioned by the Mars Society.
Asked what they will do for food, Joe says they will grow plants. And for protein, breed insects. Yummy.

When after 5 years the colony reaches full strength, there will be 20 of them, men and women. Will there be children produced? No. Joe says sterilising all the astronauts should be considered, and it's exciting that there is that ethical discussion. Sacrifice in the cause of science is mentioned, but Joe says it's easy to sign up for this if you're passionate about it, he's not sure sacrifice is the word; it could actually be called selfish, he admits. 

It would be good to work with NASA or ESA and have a return trip, but those agencies’ plans are 30 years in the future. “I'm 30, and if I go, I go now”.

Mental illness?

There will be no Skype. Radio waves will take over 3 minutes to travel in each direction.  (Up to 20 minutes in each direction, I would say, depending on the two planets’ relative positions.)

In neither of these interviews is anything said about the psychology of isolation. According to this Guardian blog, those sent to live and die on the red planet face untold risk of mental illness.

And the 24-hour Big Brother show that’s going to fund the project will heap more pressures on. 

Will it be reality TV, or a horror movie, is my question. And which will bring in the bigger bucks?