Ritika Singh remembers the ping from her inbox that warm afternoon in April, 2012. Her colleague had sent everybody a mail about a trip. The 29-year-old Dubai-based logistics and supply-chain manager working with a retail company, laughed. "A trip to Mars?" she joked with her co-workers. "Why not! Next, there will be a trip to Pluto! This is ridiculous."
But the thought of going to Mars, however insane it sounded, stayed with Ritika. And so she applied to Mars One, a private, Netherlands-based, not-for-profit foundation, for a trip to the red planet. It aims to blast off from Earth in 2024 and start a human colony in Mars.
Only, there is a slight catch – it’s a one-way trip!
Ritika was just one of the 2,02,586 people from around the world who seriously longed to be part of the 24-member team that will eventually take off on the one-way trip to Mars in groups of four.
They’ll train for nine years for that here on Earth. Twenty-four people were to be selected for the training.
None of them needed necessarily to know anything about physics. All that was required was the physical and mental stamina to embark upon and sustain themselves on a journey to the unknown without a hope of return.
They needed to be enthusiastic in learning about the technicalities of space travel as well as the logistics of survival, such as growing food, performing basic surgery and acquiring water.
But most important, they needed to be team players. "If you are the kind of person who everyone chooses to have on their island, then we want you to apply," said the Mars One website.
Ritika is one of the three Indians who’ve been shortlisted among the 100 from across the globe.
"This trip felt like it was custom-made for me," says Ritika. A trained scuba and sky diver, Ritika loves the mountains and has already made it to some summits, Mount Elbrus and Kilimanjaro, two of the seven highest peaks in the world. "Through years of mountaineering and hiking experiences, I’ve realised that I come out stronger in tough conditions."
So she filled out the questionnaire, uploaded a video explaining why she was perfect for the mission and hit Send. And then she forgot all about it. Mysteries of the space
At the other end of the globe, making it to the Mars One shortlist was a dream come true for 29-year-old Taranjeet Singh.
As a child, he’d stand in his balcony for hours, gazing at the night sky. "I always wanted to be an astronaut," he says. "The wonders of the universe fascinated me. And Mars One seemed like a real opportunity to unravel the mysteries of space."
So as soon as he heard that Mars One was inviting applications, he learned all he could about the foundation and its people, and then applied. And then he waited with bated breath – and learnt that he’s on the shortlist of 100.
"Getting to Mars will be bigger than any single leap of exploration that people of this planet have taken," says Taranjeet, a PhD student of computer science at the University of Central Florida. "How can I miss the opportunity to be the first human in history to leave my footprint on Mars?"
On ground zero
Since the first flyby in 1960 (an unsuccessful mission by the then USSR), several dozen missions have been launched to the neighbouring planet. Some were flybys, others were orbiters intended to get into the Martian orbit but not land, and some were landers.
However, according to the NASA website, of a total of 43 unmanned missions to Mars, 25 have failed or have been only partially successful.
Mars is similar to Earth in terms of land surface area and the length of a day (the red planet’s day lasts 40 minutes longer). But for humans, it’s completely different.
The temperature is minus 63 degree celsius and the atmosphere is composed of 95 per cent carbon dioxide, as opposed to 0.039 per cent on Earth.
The terrain is extreme with massive canyons (Valles Marineris on Mars dwarfs the Grand Canyon) and low-lying plains. At 25 km high, Olympus Mons on Mars is the tallest volcano in the solar system, three times the size of Mount Everest!
Then there are the dust storms and strong winds. Mars has a very thin atmosphere (only one per cent as thick as the Earth’s); it lacks the magnetic field that protects the Earth and its Earthlings from the harmful radiations that emanate from space (cosmic rays and solar winds).
Consequently, humans living on Mars would be exposed to great levels of such rays, increasing their long-term risk of cancer and Alzheimer’s. There’s also the issue of being hit by meteorites. The atmosphere on Mars is too thin to burn space rocks before they hit the surface.
And then there’s the problem of gravity. The pressure of gravity on the surface of Mars is 62 per cent lower than that on Earth. The good news is, if you weigh 100kg on Earth, you’ll weigh 38kg on Mars.
The bad news, according to a study done on astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), is that the lack of gravity on the human body can, during a mission of four to six months, cause you to lose 30 per cent of your muscle performance and 15 per cent of your muscle mass. And the Mars One Mission doesn’t even have a specific duration!
Finally, Mars is further from the sun than Earth is, which means its inhabitants won’t get enough sunlight and vitamin D, and a diet limited only to what you can produce. You’d definitely want to go back home! But here’s the thing: you never can. Is going to Mars worth these risks?
Where dreamers dare
“When I told my parents, they did not take me seriously. They thought I was joking,” laughs Ritika. “But when their friends and neighbours started talking about it, they believed that it is indeed true. They weren’t happy about it. They still aren’t.”
Part of the reason the mission seems risky is that the selection procedure seems lax. After the prelims, there was only a short Skype interview with Mars One’s chief medical officer, Norbert Kraft.
Ritika was asked just three-four questions. Were the questions tough? Not really, because the applicants were quizzed only on the material on Mars and the mission that the foundation had provided them with before the interview. Simple.
The real big deal
So when Ritika found herself on the shortlist, she was in a state of mild shock. “Initially, I thought this might be a big hoax. But then people from the media started contacting me.”
“We were sceptical about the first manned moon landing in July 1969 too. But it turned out just fine,” argues Taranjeet. “We know quite a lot about Mars from the past and present unmanned NASA missions. Much of what was learned from Skylab, Mir and the International Space Station has resulted in vital data – which can be used to send humans to Mars.”
Okay. But does Mars One have everything in place?
A post on Medium.com noted that there are, as yet, no specifications for the craft that will carry the crew and the suits that will protect them from radiation. Nothing is known about the mission’s source of funding. Everything is at a “vague stage.”
Besides, the mission has been pushed back by two years because of a lack of investment. This means that the four-member crew will now depart in 2026 and land in 2027.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to believe that Ritika hasn’t yet understood that if she makes it to Mars, she’ll never again feel fresh air and sunlight on her face.
It’s hard to believe that Taranjeet has not realised that he’d never taste chocolate again, or chat with his sister Manpreet in real time. Colonising Mars sounds exciting. But the experience will involve a tasteless, boring diet. Short showers. No kisses with the person you love. No family to reassure you. And constant darkness.
But the shortlist still has to be shortened. And after that there will be 11 years to go. Who knows what will happen?
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From HT Brunch, May 10
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