In an artist's conception, a Mars explorer surveys one of the Red Planet's grand canyons.
Will the first explorers to visit Mars come back to Earth? Or does it actually make more sense to leave them there? The idea of sending the Red Planet's first settlers on one-way trips has been kicking around for years, and now two researchers have published a paper in the Journal of Cosmology laying out how such missions could play out between now and 2035.
"It is important to realize that this is not a 'suicide mission,'" Washington State University's Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Arizona State University's Paul Davies write. "The astronauts would go to Mars with the intention of staying for the rest of their lives, as trailblazers of a permanent human Mars colony."
In a WSU news release, Davies said the concept follows the model set by past human settlements of new lands. "It would really be little different from the first white settlers of the North American continent, who left Europe with little expectation of return," he said.
Back in the mid-1990s, rocket scientist and Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin pointed out that "colonization is, by definition, a one-way trip," and since then experts have debated the best way to do one-way. Four years ago, X Prize co-founder Peter Diamandis suggested setting up a private-sector "Mars Citizenship Program," with volunteers kicking in from $10,000 to $1 million each, About 100 candidates would be chosen by lottery to take the trip to a Red Planet colony prepared for them by robots. (Scroll down through this Cosmic Log archive for details, plus reader reaction.)
Davies' colleague at ASU, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, caused a stir last year by reviving the idea of one-way trips to Mars. Because much of the anticipated cost of a voyage to Mars was wrapped up in getting the voyagers back home again, eliminating the return trip would make the mission much more affordable. What's more, he suggested that the Mars voyagers might not be fit enough to make the return trip, due to radiation exposure. "As cruel as it may sound, the astronauts would probably best use their remaining time living and working on Mars rather than dying at home," Krauss wrote in his New York Times op-ed.
Schulze-Makuch and Davies don't think life on Mars would be so bad, judging by the scenario they lay out:
- First, robots would identify a suitable location for a colony, based on the availability of a natural shelter (such as a lava tube cave) and the availability of water (in the form of ice, of course) as well as minerals and nutrients. Robo-construction crews could make the place habitable for humans.
- The first one-way missions might involved two spaceships, each with a two-person crew. One of the astronauts should be a trained physician, and all of them should have scientific and technical know-how as well as a passion for research and exploration.
- Those first colonists should be beyond reproductive age, due to the concerns about radiation as well as reduced life expectancy in a frontier environment.
With time, a series of cave-centered biospheres could be built for the growing Martian community, with beefed-up radiation protection. "Probably several decades after the first human mission, the colony's population might have expanded to about 150 individuals, which would constitute a viable gene pool to allow the possibility of a successful long-term reproduction program," the researchers write. "New arrivees and possibly the use of genetic engineering would further enhance genetic variety and contribute to the health and longevity of the colonists."
Schulze-Makuch and Davies say the Mars colony would provide a long-term base for exploring the Red Planet and looking for traces of ancient or extant life. It would serve as an insurance policy for the species, just in case a killer asteroid or a killer virus endangered life on Earth. And it also could "offer a springboard for human/robotic exploration of the outer solar system and the asteroid belt."
The researchers don't delve into the costs or the detailed logistics for one-way missions, but they do note that NASA's space vision calls for just the kinds of heavy-lift rockets and robotic capabilities that would mesh with future voyages to Mars. "We estimate that a reasonable time line for establishing a permanent unmanned base with robots would be 20 years, with the first human contingent arriving shortly thereafter," they write. "The main impediment is the narrow vision and the culture of political caution that now pervades the space programs of most nations."
Would you agree? Or would it be even tougher to find intelligent, healthy volunteers willing to spend the rest of their lives on a frozen, radiation-blasted world? Whenever we've posed this question before, a fair number of people say they'd definitely go. Four years ago, 374 of the 1,169 msnbc.com users who responded to a Live Vote said they'd be willing to "pay a substantial price" for a one-way trip, assuming that the risk was acceptable. This time around, I'd love to hear your reasons for taking the one-way trip. (Or not taking it!) Just leave a comment below.
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