Thursday, 29 May 2014

A Real Mars Person

Mars One has narrowed down to 705 marstronaut candidates from its olympic-sized pool of over 300,000. I was looking at a few of the 705's "Pick Me!" one-minute videos and came across one named Stephen, a Canadian living in Toronto. (Why does he want to live on Mars? I've just spent 3 days in Toronto and I fully sympathise.)

This candidate's refreshing. It felt like I almost knew him after his minute was up - I've met someone rather like him, I think, but he had an East London accent, listened to Tom Petty and claimed to be joining an expedition up Mount Everest.

Back to Stephen. Rather than your typical 30-to-40-year-old PhD-scientist-mechanic space fan, he's a world explorer. And he has the appearance of someone who's lived life fully, in every imaginable climate. He claims to have visited 160 countries. How can he possibly keep count? He shows pics of himself  drinking tea (spot the spoon in the tin mug) on a Sahara trek,
chilling out in Antarctica and doing some rescue diving. The line that made me smile, though, was near the end of his presentation: "I've seen the planet Earth. It's time to move on." He looks like just the kind of laid-back survival expert who would thrive on another planet. Good luck, Stephen!

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Mars People

I think this could become a key 21st century question: What kind of people will thrive in a colony on another planet?

More particularly, is there a mix of personalities that will lead to a viable new society? From reading the opinions online and in print - and remember that in this field even the experts have never really done it before - most voices talk about the importance of team players, highly motivated and multi-talented people who can put their hand to almost anything and not fall apart under intense pressure.
Artist's concept of the initial Mars One base. Note: there's
plenty of equipment that could go wrong here. Who's going to
stay calm enough to fix it? (pic: Mars One)
Mars One: Good luck. I hope you find plenty of them!

If you listen to enough of the talks given by Bas Lansdorp, the founder of Mars One, you'll eventually hear him say that yes, he grew up dreaming of going to live on Mars, but no, he won't be on any of the small teams being formed. Why? He's too much of a driven individual, an entrepeneur who thinks too highly of his own opinions. He knows he'd be a terrible team member. Wise man. (The original reason he gave for not going was that he's found a very nice girlfriend, thankyou, and she doesn't want to go. That's also a good reason for staying firmly on this planet. I sympathise.)

Slow down for a moment, though, and think about this I'm-going-to-Mars thing.
What will it really be like for the successful candidates? Mars One is picking out teams of four from the thousands who applied. A large part of their training will consist of spending months together, in those small groups, stuck in some Arctic region or in a desert, in a simulated Mars colony base. The Mars Society is carrying out a similar project.

The Mars Society will attempt to conduct a one-year
simulated human Mars exploration mission in the
Canadian high Arctic at its Flashline Mars
Arctic Research Station (pic: Mars Society).


Have you ever spent a few months with three other people? It's hard even to imagine. Sailors of small ocean yachts may have a good idea of the psychological tensions and pitfalls. That odd habit of speech or physical mannerism that seemed so trivial in normal life may become a major cause of stress when cooped up for long periods. People's minor character flaws that you hardly noticed before could gradually become a saw blade, grinding away at the fabric of the team.
Artist's concept of the Mars One outpost simulation (pic: Mars One).
So it's good that the Mars One teams will be stewed in the pressure cooker here on Earth, to expose problems like this. As a writer, I'm fascinated in how these people will resolve these tensions. It makes for a good story. As someone who's been married now for 13 years, I can tell you that in a close relationship, unless both parties are willing to change, there will be frequent bursts of unpleasant fireworks. The everyday phrase 'swallow your pride' becomes one of the most challenging proverbs, some days. It's something like trying to gulp down a chicken without first taking out the bones. Who would want to do such a thing?
I think those colony candidates will come out of the Colony Simulation training either spitting vinegar at each other or counting their three teammates as their best friends forever. And judging by the high motivation and calibre of many of the applicants, I'm guessing it will be the latter.


Monday, 19 May 2014

Mobile posting -catching up

Here I am writing about cutting-edge space science and this is the first time I have ever posted from my cell phone. It might not become a habit. My samsung galaxy does have a voice input app built in, but it is not making it easy for me. Keypad is making a tough training ground for my hand-eye coordination.  Etc. Etc. If you use one of these, you know what I mean... unless I'm hopelessly behind the 30 to 50% of the human race who probably use these things their whole waking lives. (I guessed the %).
No doubt it's been said many times but these tiny handheld boxes are good on mobility but short on ability compared to 'grownup' devices.
So do you want me to link this to the current blog theme of life on Mars? Ok. How many years will it be til a marstronaut will post blogs from some handheld while roving across the cratered terrain of Arabia Planitia or another of that planet's stunning vistas? Would anybody dare hazard a guess? And what will they be blogging about?

Friday, 9 May 2014

Echoes Of A Greater Invitation

Some advocates of space exploration point out the statistical risks of large rocks colliding with the Earth and bringing our civilisation to its knees and causing untold suffering. "So let's get up there and learn how to deflect the rocks!" they say. I can see the sense in doing so. Any effort to defend the defenceless and bring help to those in need is right up my street, as one who attempts to follow the example of Jesus. (Read: stumbling, hesitantly, trying to keep up... )

The Hayabusa probe, developed by the Japan Aerospace
Exploration Agency (JAXA) to return a sample of material
from a small near-Earth asteroid in 2005.

Others now are developing robotic - and then crewed - spacecraft to explore and exploit the mineral wealth of the same asteroids - Near Earth Objects, as they're sometimes called - saying that this will boost the global economy. And I think they're probably right.

Planetary Resources' proposed Interceptor, a low
cost asteroid mission that enables accelerated exploration

As you can see from my other posts, though, the most stirring and visionary reason I can see for developing reusable, affordable launchers and capabilities for long-duration space missions is to allow human beings to settle other worlds such as Mars. Elon Musk, brilliant and innovative billionaire founder and CEO of SpaceX, aims to build a colony on Mars in order to make humanity a 'multi-planetary species' - ie. a species able to survive disasters such as careless asteroids falling on our homeworld. He really is trying to save the world! Correction - trying to save the species...

Reaching and settling Mars is often cited as the New Frontier, a huge task for freedom-loving people that will re-ignite the vitality and spirit of New World settlers during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

An areologist examines rocks on the floor
of a canyon on Mars. Image from
Didn't you feel your blood stirring just a little when Mars One issued its invitation for colonists? Of course, when they realised that the colonists were expecting to live the rest of their lives on Mars, most people drew back and would not consider the offer for themselves, however much they might identify with the aims of Mars One.

However, it also resonates with me, this plan for the 'marstronauts' to lay down their Earthly lives and devote themselves to a great, historic cause. Colonising Mars in itself I think is a worthy vision, but not so much in the manner of Elon Musk. I just believe that all the Universe is God's Universe and it's our honour and privilege to be able to explore it, live in it, and look after it responsibly for the good of all.

But seeing the Mars One recruits get ready makes me think how each of us is called to an even greater challenge, whichever planet we happen to live on.
Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple [meaning, apprentice or student] must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (from Matthew's Gospel, chapter 16)

We Jesus-people may look odd to others, or may be mistaken for the American Right, but what we're called to do is to live a radical life of love in the footsteps of our Master. That's something that has been changing the world for the better for the past twenty centuries (with some notable failures and fakes).

Oh, and the long-term survival of the species is already assured, Elon. Forever. To join up, you just have to leave everything behind and follow Jesus into his New World.