What would you do if you were stranded on Mars? This is the central conceit of Andy Weir's breakthrough science fiction novel, The Martian, currently being adapted to the big screen by prolific film director Ridley Scott. Matt Damon stars as the titular abandoned astronaut stuck on the hostile Red Planet. But forget unwilling banishment, what about voluntary exile?
Though the prospect of extraterrestrial isolation might sound like hypothetical fiction, it could very much become a reality for a 'lucky' group of wannabe space settlers currently fighting for the honor to establish the first ever human colony on Mars. The only catch? They're never coming back.
Out of 200,000 comes 100
The Mars One project - a highly ambitious Dutch venture aiming to colonize the Red Planet by 2025 - received over 200,000 applications from hopeful astronauts. Now, after an extensive selection process, just 100 potential candidates remain.
According to a statement issued by the project, the candidates were chosen based on:
Their understanding of the risks involved, team spirit and their motivation to be part of this life-changing expedition.
You have to wonder, what kind of psychological state of mind leads you to knowingly embark on a one-way trip to Mars, with the certainty that you'll never again return to humanity's only home. Suffocation, starvation and crippling loneliness are all very plausible outcomes. It's a chilling prospect, but is it a price worth paying?
Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and... the other guy?
If movies have taught us anything, it's that Mars is a damn near inhospitable place - Ghosts of Mars, Red Planet and Total Recall are just a few of the films I imagine won't be playing on the in-shuttle entertainment.
All kidding aside, movies - or rather, pop culture and societal notions of celebrity more widely - seem to be central to the ethos of this project. After all, the plan for Mars One is to film the entire candidate training process as part of a reality TV series, unsettlingly reminiscent of a future dystopian game-show.
Though I'm not wholly opposed to the idea, there is something acutely disturbing about watching people being sent to their deaths.
I can't help but wonder whether the personal motivations for applying to be part of such a mission stem from a sacrificial, altruistic determination to further humanity's development, or from a desire to be famous; to be significant and on camera. Most likely, a little of both.
21-year-old British physicist Ryan MacDonald is one of the 100 candidates remaining, and seems to be powerfully motivated by a desire to be remembered:
The most important thing to do in life is to leave a legacy. A lot of people do that by having a child, having a family. For me this would be my legacy. Hundreds of years down the line who is going to know who was the President of the United States? Everyone will remember who were the first four people who stepped onto Mars.
Well, I just hope everyone still knows who Michael Collins is.
A Long Road Ahead
Norbert Clark, Mars One's chief medical officer, says the next round of selection will focus on building self-sufficient, capable teams out of the remaining candidates. He said:
Being one of the best individual candidates does not automatically make you the greatest team player, so I look forward to seeing how the candidates progress and work together in the upcoming challenges.
There's no denying that it's an incredibly dangerous mission, and the team who will eventually land on the Red Planet have got a full decade of intense training ahead of them. Six teams of four will progress to the final stage, at which point the decision of who lifts off will be left to us.
Because this mission is humankind's mission, Mars One has the intention to make this a democratic decision. The whole world will have a vote which group of four will be the first humans on Mars.
I for one will certainly be watching with avid curiosity. However, until 2025 we'll have to look to the wisdom of popular culture for an idea of what a mission to Mars will entail.
Luckily, Ridley Scott's The Martian is due for release later this year. At least that'll be a trip I can return home from after.