There’s a Dutch nonprofit corporation called Mars One which has put forward a plan to send a team of humans to Mars in or around 2025. The trip is a one-way affair: you go there and don’t come back. It’s an audacious plan, granted, and seems to be, at this stage of the game, well engineered and well funded. They called for volunteers and received 200,000 responses. I’d love to go and be one of the first people to set foot on Mars—it’d be fabulously exciting—and I’d volunteer, but I’m way too old and way too nearsighted I’m sure, so I won’t be among those who make the first trip. It’s a shame, but in a way I’m glad I’m not going.
My reason for not going, over and above the two I mentioned above, has nothing to do with the danger—and there’s plenty of that—nor with the fact that it’s a one-way trip. It’s due to something I just realized while reading an article about the project this past week. (See the December, 2014 issue of Discover Magazine, page 22.) It’s something more prosaic. It has to do with comfort.
Yes, comfort. Mars One is asking people to make an extremely hazardous journey all the way to another planet, land and set up a colony and live there for the rest of their lives. New people will be coming later, to be sure, and supplies will be sent at regular intervals (I hope). But the basic concept is that the first explorers will live in smallish habitats that look like truncated Apollo capsules for the rest of their lives. I can’t imagine it.
The Apollo capsule held only three men and was designed for an eight-day trip to the moon and back. Eight days in that capsule I can see. It was just large enough to get the job done. But not tor the rest of someone’s life. Granted Mars One has designed their habitat to consist of several capsules situated side-by-side with tunnels between to make it easy to move from one capsule to another without having to put on a spacesuit and go outside. Still, they are smallish capsules, with limited interior comforts, and that is what is so disconcerting. This isn’t an eight-day trip. This is for the rest of the explorer’s lives. Were I to make the trip, I’d want a hell of a lot more. And that’s especially true for some one in his/her thirties or forties who could reasonably look forward to thirty or forty more years of life. (I assume the life expectancy on Mars is less than that on Earth, though.) And they’re going to live in those modules? For all that time? If the Mars mission were as simple as a two year trip to the red planet, then return, I could see it. But it’s not.
An explorer on Mars can’t just get in a car or an airplane and take a vacation to the Grand Canyon or the Bahamas or Italy or some such destination. They’re basically stuck at or near the landing site. Getting out just to do something simple as taking out the garbage will be a chore. Comfort—yes, comfort—will be far more important and significant than the designers seem to realize. I suggest that each explorer or couple should have a module all to themselves. There will have to be a large recreation module, large enough for parties, movies and other large-ticket items such as a running track. Even a tennis court or basketball court. A swimming pool. A golf course. A softball diamond. Expecting people to spend thirty or forty years in those modules that have already been designed is unrealistic. Even for a couple of years just waiting for the next wave of explorers is far too much. Cabin fever (or module fever, if you will) will be a big deal.