Mars Man

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Singularities - Profiles in Physics

Mars Man

Hopeful Astronaut Signs Up For A One-Way Trip To The Red Planet


Patrick Ford

Florida International University

As far back as I can remember, there was some reason for me to look up at the night sky. I remember my kindergarten science teacher building an inflatable planetarium out of trash bags with glow-in-the-dark constellations taped to the inside. When I was older, I watched the moon through a pair of binoculars my parents gave me and went to observing sessions at the local planetarium.

In college I almost majored in aerospace engineering, but I realized that it’d break my heart to build a rocket or spacecraft and have it take off without me inside. So I decided to major in physics with a minor in astronomy. (My university doesn’t have an astronomy major.)

In November 2012 I saw an article about an organization called Mars One. It was planning a one-way trip to Mars and looking for applicants from all over the world. Beginning in 2016, supplies, satellite networks, hydraulic rovers, and modules will be sent to the Red Planet. If everything goes smoothly, a team of four astronauts will take off in September 2022 and arrive roughly in April 2023. Subsequent launches every 26 months will send more teams of four, who will add more modules and expand the base.

When I heard about this plan, I was reading a sci-fi novel called Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson about that very same idea: a team of one hundred astronauts leaving the planet on a one-way trip to colonize the Red Planet. I did a lot of research about the project and became very interested in the technical aspects and logistics challenges it posed. Of course I began considering it—how could I not? A chance to go farther from Earth than anyone has ever been before? A chance to set foot on ground that has never been disturbed by humans? It sounded incredible. The organization held a press conference in April, and I completed my application that day. That’s when my official “Mission to Mars” began.

The selection process will take place in four rounds, the first of which just ended in September. We submitted our formal applications and answered private questions regarding our thoughts on isolation and fear and how we think we work in groups. I can't even begin to fully comprehend the challenges and sacrifices that lie ahead. Just saying that I'll go is one thing; it will become entirely more real when I'm looking at the rocket and realizing that I'm about to take my last steps on the planet I've known my whole life.

In November I visited the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando, FL, where I got the opportunity to attend a NASA social for the launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe. When I was there, I asked astronaut John Grunsfeld what the greatest attribute an aspiring astronaut could have. He told me that I should be a jack of all trades and learn to fix many different kinds of systems—even humans. We are fragile beings that need support. I think this is why Mars One so heavily focuses on strong people skills. Mars One will need astronauts who are mentally strong and can deal with all kinds of hardships between each other and within ourselves.

We can expect that someone will regret volunteering for the mission. It's actually a deep fear that I have for myself. What if I get all the way to Mars, and it's not as glorious as I thought it would be? What if I miss my home planet too much? Having strong, deep connections with each other and our families will allow us to support one another when these psychological hardships arise.

To promote the mission, I have been looking for opportunities to reach out to as many students as possible. I’ve never done anything like this, so it’s hard to figure out where to begin building a community.

Ford hopes to one day trade his astronaut costume, shown here, for the real thing. Photo courtesy of Patrick Ford.

I’ve started by giving talks. The mother of a friend of mine, who is an elementary school teacher, asked me if I was interested in coming to her class dressed in my NASA-embossed astronaut Halloween costume. I went to her class with some pictures and models and a presentation about the solar system. I then did a few more talks at some elementary schools, as well as one for a high school, liking it more and more. I tried to avoid technical aspects with the younger ages. With the older high school students, however, I went into specifics about how we know what we know about the universe and where humanity may be heading with more manned missions.

Last month my SPS chapter started PhysTalks, forums for undergraduate students to talk about either their research or something they’re very passionate about. The organizer of the PhysTalks reached out to me and asked if I wanted to present something about Mars and Mars One.

Online, I mainly promote my mission through Facebook, but I am also building a website and have a Twitter account I might post articles on. Back in August of this year, a group of Mars One applicants got together in Washington, DC, for the first “Million Martian Meeting”—an event created by the administrators of a group on Facebook called “Aspiring Martians Group.” We got to know one another and talk about the issues and ideas that we’ll have to think about during our lives on Mars. I also got to meet Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One, who told me that his long-term goal after Mars One was to make something of humanity on another planet.

It’s very funny how people react when I explain the mission to them. Some say, “You’d have to be crazy to sign your life away!” Others ask, “You do know that’s a one-way trip, right?” Or, “Wait, you never come back? And you’re okay with that?”

But to me, this is something that has really shaped the past year of my life. I love the idea of reaching out to the planets around us and doing something a little more permanent than collecting samples and returning. //

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