What planet are these people on?

In 2022 four astronauts will leave Earth for a mission to Mars. A US$6.3 billion project hopes to recoup some of its costs by selling the television rights. And the participants in this TV reality show? Well, they’re probably not coming back.

There are people who are clamouring to go on this once in a lifetime trip. In place of a brief existence on Earth – incidentally also a one-way, non-refundable ticket – they are going to opt for an even shorter life on Mars. That’s if they get there.

The total journey time from Earth to Mars takes between 21 and 43 weeks depending on the speed of the launch, the alignment of the two planets, and the trajectory the spacecraft has to take to reach its target. This is because both Earth and Mars are orbiting around the Sun. Instead of heading directly for Mars, a spacecraft launched from Earth needs to go towards where Mars is going to be at some point in the future.

A major constraint is fuel. If it had an unlimited amount of fuel, the spacecraft would set off for Mars, fire its rockets up to the halfway point of the journey, then decelerate for the second half. In this way the journey time could be considerably reduced, but it would require an impossible fuel-load.

Getting to the red planet is fraught with danger, let alone getting back. Apart from space debris and other hazards, there is the threat of exposure to high-energy cosmic rays and other ionizing radiation, the negative effects of a prolonged low-gravity environment, including eyesight loss, equipment failure, psychological trauma…

On the Mars One web site, Paul Römer, co-creator of Big Brother and ambassador for the project, describes it as: “The biggest media event in the world. Reality meets talent show with no ending and the whole world watching.”

MarsPotential voyagers have been taken in by this kind of hype. They appear to be suffering from a heavy dose of Jules Verne, Superman, Star Wars and Dr Who. Some comments seem to reject or renounce the miracle that is life on earth.

Some potential missioners are prepared to abandon their families (including their children), although when push comes to shove they may change their minds. Some believe that such a trip is “worth any price” and that it is an essential expression of the human spirit. Others simply find life on Earth boring and want to try to prove what scientists have already confirmed: given the size of the (un)known universe there will surely be other forms of life out there – but they are nowhere near at hand.

It’s worth recalling the wise words of the American astrophysicist and writer Carl Sagan in Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994):

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar’, every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Carl Sagan was not against going to Mars. He was against the crime of abandoning Earth to political apathy, environmental complacency, and ignorance. Let’s go to Mars, but only after we have solved this planet’s overwhelmingly urgent problems and not for the sake of a television spectacular.

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