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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Best Way to Make One-Way Mars Colonization Work

Believe it or not, there is actually a web site on which you can sign up to become a Mars colonist. The web site is the Mars One website at http://www.mars-one.com. Looking at the front page, it's easy to be drawn in by the sales pitch. The site includes the following enticing slogans:

The whole world will watch and experience this journey. We are all explorers. Everyone, including you, can participate in space exploration. This can be your mission to Mars!

But there's one little detail they don't tell you about until you delve deep inside the web site. Those who qualify may get a ticket to Mars. But it's a one-way ticket. I did not see this fact clearly mentioned on the web site until I reached a “Technical Feasibility” page, where it mentions, “Absence of a return mission reduces the mission infrastructure radically.”

I think there is a huge potential problem with sending regular Earth residents to Mars on a one-way mission. The problem is that when they get to Mars, they may experience the ultimate case of “homesickness.”

Imagine you are a young man or woman who makes the long journey to Mars. At first, you are all flush with idealistic enthusiasm. When you first venture into space, you say to yourself something like this:

So this is it. Space – the final frontier! I have left Earth, the cradle of the mind, and ventured out into the vast ocean that is the cosmos. I am a modern day Odysseus. Next stop: the red planet Mars! What an intoxicating adventure!

But after you get to Mars, and settle into your little tiny space habitat, or your underground Mars cave, you start thinking more and more about the planet you have left behind forever. All of the things that you had on Earth (but took for granted) now become more and more precious-seeming to you. You remember being able to run through a field for as long as you want, feeling the sunlight on your skin, without wearing some spacesuit, and without always worrying that your oxygen supply will run out. You remember how great it was to sit on a beach and hear the waves and smell the fresh ocean air. You remember how wonderful it was to hike through a forest filled with a thousand types of life. You remember the smell of the pine trees as you walked through that forest. You remember the joy of plunging into the fresh water of a clear pond. You remember the fun of walking down the bustling streets of a city you had never visited before. And you realize that these and many other similar pleasures are all things you will never, ever be able to experience again.

Quickly, you grow sick of Mars, and think to yourself: get me the hell out of here. But there is no way for that to happen. You are stuck for the rest of your life in some place you no longer want to be, longing for the sensual pleasures of your birth planet.

We can only imagine what psychological ruin will come from such mental torments – possibly enough to cause the whole Mars mission to fail. Is there some way to avoid this?

One way would be to have a perfect virtual reality system – perhaps something like the holodeck system depicted on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Perhaps if there is some way for astronauts to be given a virtual reality system that makes it just like being on Earth, then astronauts who left Earth forever wouldn't get so homesick. But I doubt the technology for such a system will be ready in the time frame imagined by the Mars One project.

There is perhaps a better approach, which is to postpone a one-way Mars colonization mission until decades into the future. Before trying to colonize Mars, we could set up orbiting space colonies with hundreds or thousands of inhabitants, many of whom would be born in the colonies. Then the crew for a one-way Mars colonization mission would be made up of people who had been born in such colonies, and who had never lived on Earth.

Such space colonies could be rotated to produce artificial gravity by centrifugal force, a gravity that matches the lower gravity on Mars. From the time they were born in such orbiting space colonies, children could be conditioned to think of Earth as an unappealing place to live. 

space colony poster
  A poster at a future space colony (click to expand)

If inhabitants of such a space colony were to set off to Mars on a one-way colonization mission, they would not have the “homesickness for Earth” problem, because they would have never lived on Earth in the first place. People would not yearn and long to return to a place they had never been to in the first place. Such space colonists might actually be perfectly happy on Mars, which might give them more room to move around than they might have on their cramped little orbiting space colony.