Martian Death Trip

Looking for exotic career options? The Mars One Mission may have room for you. But heed Haig Hovaness's warnings.

How would you like to die on Mars? For a surprising number of people this is not an unappealing prospect.  So strong is the desire for interplanetary adventure that a private company, Mars One, is now planning a venture that will offer one-way trips to the Red Planet. Selected volunteers would commit to living the remainder of their lives on Mars. As of April, 2013, the company had received over 10,000 inquires from wannabe astronauts whose dream of visiting Mars is powerful enough to overcome  the quite serious concerns of survival. Unfortunately, the outcome of this adventure is likely to be disastrous for the Mars One participants, and it may well put an end to the pursuit of the dream of human space travel.

Tales set on Mars, perhaps the most fabled destination of science fiction, have amused generations of readers and moviegoers. What makes the planet so appealing is its proximity to Earth and its recognizable terrain. Images recorded by robotic Mars probes show us a dramatic desert landscape pockmarked by craters and t shadowed by towering extinct volcanoes. The most optimistic sci-fi writers, like Kim Stanley Robinson, have imagined the terraforming of the Red Planet, a colossal project for engineering a breathable atmosphere and agriculture-sustaining ecosystem. 

But no matter how it has been imagined, the surface of Mars is in fact an extremely hostile environment. How can Mars kill you? Let me count the ways:

1. Asphyxiation (oxygen deprivation.) There is no breathable atmosphere on Mars. You need to bring your own oxygen and you need to make more if you plan to stay.

2. Hypobaria. The thin Martian atmosphere exerts a pressure equivalent to being 60,000 feet above the Earth. At this level, otherwise known as ‘the Armstrong limit’, if you are not wearing a pressure suit, water will boil out of your respiratory tract, destroying your lungs and causing death in minutes.

3. Freezing to death. If the heating system of your dwelling or spacesuit fails, you will freeze to death because daily surface temperatures range from a warm day in Antarctica to -100 F. 

4. Terminal Dehydration. Water deprivation is a potential issue. There is a good deal of frozen water on Mars, but this ice will require extraction, transport, processing, and recycling to provide a reliable water supply. Any breakdown of the necessary equipment will endanger the colony.

5. Radiation exposure. There is a significant risk of high radiation exposure from solar flares and cosmic rays during the trip to Mars and a continuing risk of such exposure on the surface. Long term inhabitants of Mars would need to build radiation shelters under several meters of soil to protect from solar flares. Even with all available precautions, participants in the Mars One program would face elevated radiation exposures whose long-term health effects are poorly understood.

6. Acute illness. Any life-threatening medical problem requiring advanced medical treatment would be fatal on Mars. This would include cancers resulting from prolonged radiation exposure and accidents resulting in severe injury. 

The cold, hard logistics of supporting a remote settlement are not susceptible to emotional appeals or magical thinking.  Why were the Norse seafarers unable to successfully colonize North America? Because they couldn’t, with their small Viking ships and infrequent passages, deliver enough settlers and supplies. The logistical requirements for supporting a Martian colony are much more stringent than those for Earthly colonies; Martian settlers will require far more costly and complex provisions than their Earth-bound counterparts. There won’t be any DIY fabrication of spacesuits or telecommunications gear on Mars. Every high-tech article that fails will require replacement from a supply shipment from Earth. A small disruption in the supply schedule could have fatal consequences for the Mars colony.

Facing all these hazards, why would anybody try to live on Mars? Why would anyone ride a skateboard down a mountain road or go over Niagara Falls in a barrel? Homo Sapiens is an adventurous risk taker. But man is also a curious observer, in more extreme cases, a voyeur, and it is this impulse that sustains the economics of the Mars One venture. The funding model for this very pricey undertaking depends on selling the televised rights to what would literally be an out-of-this-world reality TV series. Beginning with the selection of the first team of colonists, every step of the adventure would be viewed by millions, and the collective attention of this vast audience would yield enormous advertising revenues.

The Mars One planners claim they have anticipated all the hazards of establishing a Mars settlement and have technological remedies in hand to address them. But what about the unpredictable - surely an issue on this largely unknown planet - the unexpected combinations of events could have catastrophic consequences? Nothing short of a full-scale simulation of the journey and the initial operation of the settlement could expose such contingencies - clearly an impractically expensive test. What the Mars One planners also cannot anticipate is the magnitude of the cultural trauma resulting from the televised collapse of the settlement and the premature deaths of the explorers. Richard Nixon had a speech prepared to address the possible disaster of Apollo astronauts dying on the moon, but it would take more than a speech to offset the globally shared experience of witnessing the extinction of the Mars One colony.

If you are looking at exotic career options, I would strongly discourage you from signing up with Mars One. Your life in the Martian colony is likely to be dangerous and short. Popular fantasies die hard. It took two world wars for fantasies of glorious military conquest to burn out in Europe. Similarly, it may take a grim (televised) failure to plant a colony on Mars to end the dream of intrepid astronauts settling the frontiers of our solar system. However, the sad sacrifice of the Mars explorers would not be in vain. It would clear away the naive fixation on long-distance human space travel that has been a barrier to practical unmanned exploration of the planets. Man has no place on uninhabitable worlds, and the sooner we accept this fact, the sooner we can study our neighboring planets more intelligently. History will likely record that the Mars One volunteers gave the last full measure of devotion to a defeated dream.



Haig Hovaness has been observing and writing about information technology for three decades. He has worked as an IT professional in Fortune 500 companies and was a columnist for Corporate Computing Magazine. As an IT consultant at KPMG Consulting, he worked with media and Internet clients and headed KPMG's Digital Media Institute. Haig was a speaker at Harvard University's first conference on the Internet and Society. His current interests center on emergent cultural phenomena in a hyper-connected world.