Are we ready to send humans to Mars?
A manned mission to Mars. It’s a concept that has become the subject of many of the greatest books, films and songs of our time; a subject that captures the public imagination like no other since the Moon landing back in 1969.
Yet, despite this huge public interest and billions of dollars’ worth of investment from governments and private enterprises alike, it’s a mission that not only has yet to be achieved, it hasn’t even been attempted.
It’s not like it’s impossible to get there. In fact, the first successful landing on the Red Planet was all the way back in 1971, when the landing components of Soviet orbiters Mars 2 and Mars 3 touched down, followed some five years later by the US-operated Viking probes, which lead to the first full-colour images of the planet’s surface.
And while there have been numerous further unmanned craft sent to Mars between then and now, with varying levels of success, the idea of sending humans there has so far remained just that — an idea — with technical difficulties, a lack of funding and differing political agendas all condemning every potential project so far.
Yet, despite the numerous false dawns, a human mission to Mars is still very much on the cards, with the likes of the American, Russian and Chinese national space programmes all planning missions, and private enterprises such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX also making serious progress in its aim to launch a crewed mission by 2024.
Another company to enter the race to the Red Planet is Mars One, the brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, who believes his unique business model will give his company the edge and provide that all-important funding that has scuppered so many missions before it.
“No matter who has thought about it in the past, the biggest problem has always been funding. How do you fund a mission to Mars?”, he posits. “It’s a question I asked myself when I was setting up Mars One in early 2011. I looked at the anticipated revenue figures for the Olympic Games in London and found that the IOC stood to make around £4.5 billion (AED22.8 billion) from broadcasting rights, sponsorships and partnerships.
The estimated cost of our mission is US$6 billion (AED22 billion), so I realised, ‘wow, there might just be a business case for our human mission to Mars’. Just like Disney has Star Wars and creates revenue from that story in all kinds of ways, Mars One will create revenue from our mission in just the same ways — except the nice thing about our story, of course, is that it will actually be happening.”
For an idea as complex as sending humans to Mars, the funding concept is incredibly simple. Yet in today’s reality-TV-obsessed world, the thought of the whole planet tuning in to watch human history being made is well within the realms of possibility. And if it does work, Lansdorp intends to send the first humans blasting off on the seven-month journey to the Red Planet in 2031. This means that for the first astronauts at least, there’s no return ticket.
“For me it’s always been a one-way, permanent settlement mission,” Lansdorp tells Esquire. “A return journey would be such a massive waste of resources. And anyway, with a whole new planet to discover, why would you want to go back?”
Despite the terminal nature of the trip, there has been no shortage of interest, with Lansdorp and his team having to sift through more than 200,000 applications to get down to a shortlist of 100 potential astronauts for the first trip. “Right now we’re still in the selection process,” he says. “So far we’ve been ruling out people, rather than ruling them in, but now we’re down to the final 100 candidates, we will bring everyone together and start selecting.
“The next step will be to lock the candidates in a small group environment for an extended period of time to see how they deal with it. It’s the kind of thing that can be surprisingly tough for people to handle, and obviously we need to know all about how it will affect the candidates before they quit their jobs and become full-time Mars One employees."
"After that we’ll build a copy of the Mars One outpost and hire between three and six teams of four people each, who will move into the facility, where they will be trained on things like medicine, farming, engineering and everything they need for survival on Mars. Of course, there is a long time between now and 2031 and we expect to have a lot of drop-outs, so we’ll be repeating the recruitment process every year.”
Lansdorp is far from the only one with his sights set on the Red Planet, and he’s aware that realistically, the best hope of reaching Mars is through collaboration. The most important thing for him, however, is that the company remains politically neutral. “We have already had discussions with NASA, regarding them having an instrument onboard our first mission,” he says.
“The big thing Mars One needs to ensure is that it stays independent. We cannot have a situation where a country donates a large sum of money and we then have to guarantee an astronaut from that country on the first mission. Of course, we are a commercial organisation so other things are for sale,” he concedes. “For example, the location of our training headquarters, which will host 20 to 60 Mars settlers, is still undecided. If the right country was willing to make a substantial contribution to Mars One, we’re very much open to building our base there.”
It’s not just the traditional space-chasing superpowers and disruptive tech start-ups who have aspirations to make their mark on the Red Planet. Much closer to home, the UAE Space Agency is also setting its sights on a manned mission to Mars. While the country’s plan to launch Mars probe Hope in 2020 is well documented, the Emirates is also working towards a manned mission with its Mars 2117 programme.
“The Mars 2117 programme and the Hope Mars Probe are projects of great importance, as they further boost the UAE’s presence among the international space community,” Omran Sharaf, project manager of Emirates Mars Mission, said of the mission at the World Government Summit in February.
“The Emirates Mars Mission will give us the first truly global picture of the Martian atmosphere and reflect the country’s vision for science and technology fields development. With these projects, we have begun a new journey that will last for decades to come and will speed up human endeavours to explore other planets.”
The UAE is famous for its desire to build the biggest and best of everything, and while it would be easy to assume that the country’s sudden interest in space travel is driven chiefly by its ego, the real reason why the UAE has joined the Red Planet renaissance is, it seems, rooted in good business sense and forward thinking.
When you look at the figures, a move towards the space industry makes perfect sense. US investment bank Morgan Stanley recently predicted that the global space industry could be worth as much as US$1.1 trillion (AED4 trillion) annually by 2040 — a massive increase from the $350 billion (AED1.2 trillion) it was estimated to be worth in 2016.
This move should come as no surprise to those who have witnessed the UAE’s astounding growth. No stranger to pre-empting the future with its investments, while many fellow GCC states relied strongly on income from vast oil riches, the UAE preferred to diversify its economy, re-investing its wealth in infrastructure, which in turn built tourism. It’s no surprise, then, that with space set to be the modern-day Gold Rush, the UAE is in prime position to take a hefty slice of the pie.
If the UAE is to achieve its galactic goals, youth is very much the key. With this in mind, the country has also launched what it has called the Space Settlement Challenge: a dedicated seed grant fund worth AED2 million that supports ambitious projects from all areas of research, from space settlement to terraforming, ecology and even business model development.
“We are looking to attract the best from every discipline,” says Noah Raford, the quirkily titled futurist-in-chief at the Dubai Future Foundation, which is overseeing the challenge. “It’s not just engineering solutions. We’re looking for social scientists, designers and artists to tackle not just the infrastructural issues around space settlement, but also the business models that are going to help us get off the planet.”
Whether it’s NASA, SpaceX, the Chinese, Landorp’s Mars One or even the UAE’s ambitious project that achieves it, the day when humans walk on Mars is seemingly closer than ever.
Achieving that will unquestionably be a watershed moment for humanity, but those who will really benefit won’t be the brave astronauts who take our first steps into the unknown, but the generation of young minds back on terra firma who put them there.