Candidates for one-way Mars trip face technical challenges, ridicule
Global Times 2015-02-27 11:03:00
Image of the Mars surface by Curiosity Mars rover. (Photo: China News Service)
"Congratulations! You and only 99 other aspiring astronauts around the globe have been invited to round three of the astronaut selection process! You are one step closer to launching the dawn of a new era - human life on Mars."
No astronomy enthusiast could stay calm upon hearing those words, especially when so few were chosen to take the next step towards such an inspiring mission.
This is why Lin Xiaoxia spent a sleepless night tossing and turning after she received the notice that put her, a garment sales coordinator from Shantou, Guangdong Province, one step closer to accomplishing her life mission: finding extraterrestrial intelligence.
Run by the not-for-profit foundation Mars One, the $6 billion project aims to choose four astronauts to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2024. The current 100 candidates, including Lin, were selected from 202,586 initial applicants, according to the project.
The project's official announcement of the 100 finalists on February 16 once again brought it back under the spotlight, after it incurred widespread mockery following its launch in 2013.
One-way trip to uncertainty
A total of 50 men and 50 women successfully passed the second round. Thirty-nine of them are from the Americas, 31 from Europe, 16 from Asia, seven from Africa, and seven from Oceania. The number of candidates will be further cut down to 24, with six groups of four candidates.
The candidates will then go through another round of group challenges to determine their ability to perform well on a team, but the number of groups and host city for the next round have not yet been decided, Suzanne Flinkenfl gel, the project's director of communications, told the Global Times via e-mail.
No further information has been given to the candidates regarding the upcoming challenges.
According to Gerard 't Hooft, a Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and an ambassador for the project, the crew will have to undergo rigorous training. They must be able to perform all sorts of tasks, from simple maintenance and repair to resolving medical issues and performing simple operations. They also must have very strong and stable personalities.
Li Dapeng, the other finalist from the Chinese mainland, told the Global Times that he's upped his reading of books on astronomy to prepare for the competition. He said he worried that his enthusiasm might not be sufficient, as his job at a local forestry bureau might not help in regards to space exploration.
Lin plans to build up her body for the unknown challenges. The woman, who scarcely tops 1.6 meters, has undertaken a regular regime of push-ups and sit-ups. "My only fear is that I might lose out to others," she said.
But for family members of those candidates, winning the game means more worry, as the project envisions a one-way trip to Mars. There will be no turning back once they touch down on the red planet, given available technology.
"They [family members] don't want me to go [to Mars]. They think I'll never make it back," admitted Lin. "But I believe future technology will guarantee us a trip back home. It will be fantastic if it could be like traveling back home for Spring Festival after working away from home for some time."
Martyrs or victims
It's not just next-of-kin who doubt the project. For many, the 100 people on the list are more overzealous fools than bold explorers seeking to colonize Mars. Several anonymous sources close to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation worried that the whole project would be revealed as a scam, especially given limited current technical availability.
"They may simply end up as first human beings who die on Mars," said one source, pointing out that the candidates have obviously underestimated the difficulties inherent to a deep space exploration mission.
Comparing with an average travel distance of 380,000 kilometers for a trip to the moon, Mars is located at least 55 million kilometers away from Earth. A longer trip requires a bigger spaceship, hence stricter standards for the carrier rocket, which is impossible with current technology, Beijing-based space expert Pang Zhihao pointed out.
Pang warned that the physical and psychological condition of astronauts will also worsen on a spaceflight mission, including decreases in muscle mass and performance and losses in bone density. "Let alone the impact of cosmic radiation, once the astronauts leave the terrestrial magnetic field. This problem is also a dead-end for now."
"There has so far been no successful manned space mission from the Netherlands [where Mars One is based]. The US - with its state-of-the-air technology and robust financial support - says it expects a Martian mission in 2035. Even that might not succeed on time like its Apollo Program, for the latter was a product of Cold War support," Pang said.
Wang Zhaokui, an associate research fellow with the School of Aerospace Engineering at Tsinghua University, also questioned the technical feasibility of the program. "I personally doubt that the project is anything other than media hype. We need technical breakthroughs, such as in propulsion technology, before any meaningful trip to Mars can be planned."
In face of such criticism, Mars One insists that it has a feasible mission plan, one which it has discussed with aerospace companies around the world with decades of experience supplying components for the ISS, NASA Mars missions and other space missions, according to Flinkenfl gel. "Our current mission design is the result of our own studies and feedback of those leading space engineering teams and we are very confident that our budgets, timelines and requirements are feasible."
"Mars One is a gigantically complex project, requiring modern technology that must satisfy extreme demands concerning reliability and safety … I do think that all estimates they made were optimistic … I do think that optimism is something you need to have if you have plans of this caliber, so it is a good thing that the team came with a plan, which they are trying to execute in the time span envisioned," Gerard 't Hooft told the Global Times via e-mail.
"But I will not be surprised if, a few years from now, considerable modifications will turn out to be inevitable: The time span may well become longer, the costs all together may well become more. I won't hold that against the team."
"There will always be doubts on the beginning of every great project. I never doubt the project for one second," Lin insisted. "Human beings, as a species, have a naturally adventurous spirit. Unavoidably, there will be some sacrifices during our ceaseless exploration."