Why Did 400 People Volunteer for a One-Way Trip to Mars?

I have to admit, I hadn’t heard of the Journal of Cosmology until today, maybe because it only started in 2009.

According to the “About” page, the Journal of Cosmology is a peer-reviewed, free, open-access, online publication that gets roughly 50,000 readers a month.

The editorial board includes names from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, NASA, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Caltech, and the University of Oxford—not a bad lineup.

The latest issue, dated October-November 2010, features a whopping 55 papers under the umbrella title “The Human Mission to Mars: Colonizing the Red Planet.”


Home, sweet home? A Martian ridge, seen by NASA’s Spirit rover.

—Photograph courtesy NASA/JPL/Cornell

Many of these papers read more like perspective pieces than presentations of new research, which may be another reason this particular journal was off my radar.

In all, the authors discuss every facet of a potential Mars colony, including energy requirements, lander and settlement designs, psychological stresses, robotic helpers—even the risks involved with babies being conceived during the nine-month trip to the red planet. [To quote from the paper: “Humans are notorious for inventing ways of having sex despite all manner of logistical impediments.”]

One take-away message from this suite of studies is that many scientists think a privately funded, one-way mission to colonize Mars would be possible within the next 20 years.

And it seems plenty of people agree with them.

According to FoxNews.com, just over a month after this issue came out, more than 400 people have contacted the journal editors to volunteer for the trip.

“I do VERY well with solitude,” wrote 69-year-old computer programmer Pasha Rostov, according to FoxNews.com.

“I am handy with tools, very good at making things work, … and am quite sane and stable.”

Other volunteers included a college student, a nurse, a mechanic, and a Methodist pastor.

“I have the feeling that spiritual issues would come up among the crew. The early explorers on Earth always took clergy with them,” Reverend Paul Gregersen told FoxNews.com.

The unexpected response raises an interesting question: If a private group ever did manage to launch a mission to start a Mars base, who would go?

Would the kinds of people who could make a Martian colony work be the kinds of people who would want to volunteer?

And who decides what the right kinds of people are?

NASA, for example, has some pretty stringent requirements for what it takes to be an astronaut [PDF], from educational and professional background to physical and emotional endurance.

Some might make the argument that no one was vetted before setting of for the New World in the 1600s. Heck, England exiled thousands of convicts to the colonies before the revolution.

The difference is part technological, part political.

Colonists arriving in America could be assured of some basic needs: water, air, soil for growing crops and raising livestock, raw materials for building settlements.

Mars colonists would have none of that to depend on, so they would need a very different set of skills and tools to survive.

In addition, that very first one-way trip to Mars would carry a certain prestige. You *know* you’d be famous, even if you died the minute after you set foot on red regolith.

I’d bet that the public would demand only the best and brightest [and probably the most attractive] sign up for the job.

In a nongovernmental mission, I guess whoever’s footing the bill would get to make the final call, so I’m sure that would affect the backgrounds of the first Mars colonists, too.

Now, the Journal of Cosmology didn’t even ask for takers, and of their 50,000 monthly readers, 400 said, Heck yeah! That’s 0.8 percent of people who supposedly read the Mars issue.

If you asked for volunteers among the 307,006,550 people living in the United States, by that math you’d get almost 2.5 million volunteers.

Yes, this is not a perfect calculation.

That figure would be reduced by the fact that people who read the JoC must be space buffs to begin with, and so somewhat self-selecting for people willing to go permanently off-world.

Also, not everyone who would volunteer for such a mission would be qualified. But if you only need three or four hardy, skilled colonists, I think it could happen.

Would you go? If so, why do you think you’re qualified? Comment below, or send an email to vjaggard@ngs.org.

Human Journey