Prospect of one-way Mars trip captures the imagination

David Shukman taking part in the Google hangout The Mars trip has generated a lot of interest

Twenty years ago when scientists at Cern created the first page for the World Wide Web no one could have imagined how easily it would transform the ability of humankind to have conversations around the globe.

Nor could they have predicted that a web-based debate would have explored the apparently outlandish idea of volunteers travelling on a one-way ticket to Mars and setting up a colony with no prospect of return - all on live television.

The technology for that kind of space travel didn't exist back then. The TV show Big Brother hadn't been invented. And the three letters "www" were known to only a handful of people.

But on Tuesday afternoon, in a Google "hangout" - the first of this type of web-based dialogue to be hosted by BBC News - contributors from as far afield as Arizona, Paris and Mumbai shared their thoughts with us in London on a plan for an outpost where people would live - and die - beyond Earth.

The BBC asks a group of Mars applicants why they would want to live on the Red Planet

A Dutch organisation, Mars One, is seeking volunteers for a flight that would take them to the Red Planet and leave them there. The costs would be covered, it's hoped, by TV rights and corporate sponsorship.

Huge excitement

There is something about Mars that catches the imagination - its bloody colour, its role in mythology, the terrible track record of attempts to land on its distant and dusty surface, and the prospects of finding forms of alien life.

I checked with Bas Lansdorp, boss of Mars One, for the latest number of people to sign up so far: 30,000 people had paid the 30 euro deposit by the end of last week - and that number is probably far higher now.

Applicants' videos on his website capture an extraordinary level of excitement about the chance of making the journey. So what is it that drives people to want to leave this planet and risk everything on another?

Amy Shira Teitel  Space Flight Historian, Phoenix, Arizona Space historian Amy Shira Teitel could see many potential problems

We discussed that question with Melissa Ede, who describes herself as a transgender woman, and has signed up as a contender to be selected for the Mars One mission - "failure isn't in my vocabulary", she told us before the webcast.

For her, it was about excitement and the need to explore. "How do we know it's not possible?" she asked.

That was in response to comments I'd made about the very high number of very large obstacles that need to be overcome before anyone's boots will scuff the soils of Mars.

For a start, space is difficult and expensive. There aren't colonies on the Moon or Mars right now for a reason: the challenges and costs are huge.

The preferred rocket, Falcon Heavy, has to yet to be tested by its makers, SpaceX, even though the Mars One plan calls for the first demonstration flight to land on Mars in 2016.

A satellite is due to be parked above Mars in the same year to act as a relay for live TV pictures. A British firm, Surrey Satellites, confirms to me that it has been approached by Mars One but says it needs to be paid before researching the proposal.

Tight timings

The Mars One plan has incredibly tight timings - possibly unrealistically tight. Various contributors agreed on the sheer scale of the technological difficulties, including Rajat Agrawal, a technology writer in Mumbai, and Amy Shira Teitel, a space historian in Phoenix.

Ms Shira Teital said: "What if one of their supplies ships doesn't make it and they lose food? What's going to happen when vital parts don't make it or survive the trip? Is the crew going to eat each other? How much are we willing to make it a 'Lord of the Flies'-type situation if it all goes terribly wrong?"

Meanwhile, another communications system only made possible by the Web - Twitter - focused on the apparently appealing notion of using Mars One to rid the Earth of various people - usually politicians. One said: "You would never have to hear Justin Bieber again."

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Imagine the risks of a manned mission to Mars, and the tension of a landing.”

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Others asked about the practicalities, often the grim ones. "What happens to the corpses?" asked one woman in a Tweet. Fair question, and thought-provoking: colonies need cemeteries.

There's always massive interest in Nasa's rovers on Mars - and robots like Curiosity are a very efficient way to explore the solar system. But there's nothing like the prospect of humans venturing there to spark excitement.

The half hour hangout passed incredibly quickly. I was reminded - by an email - of an earlier venture, Mars Express, the European Space Agency's spacecraft sent to orbit Mars.

I witnessed its launch from Baikonur in Central Asia in June 2003 - almost 10 years ago. It was an uplifting sight watching the rocket blaze its way through space and the mission was a success.

But the craft was also carrying a tiny lander, the British Beagle-2, which was designed to touch down and search for signs of life. On Christmas Day, 2003, we waited for a signal - and waited and waited. The Beagle had crashed.

Imagine the risks of a manned mission to Mars, and the tension of a landing. If it gets off the ground - and it's a very big if - Mars One would provide irresistible viewing. And a lot more for us all to talk about.

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    It is great to see everyone talking about this. Because whatever your views you really are helping it come true. this is what the project needs and trust me it is happening. Thank you all that was involved in the live chat so sorry the delay on my cam was so bad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    Everyone should go to Mars.

    Dropping litter gums up the works and kills you *
    Not recycling everything kills you *
    Polluting anything kills you *
    Wasting limited resources kills you *
    Not being health-and-safety concious kills you *
    Fiddling with things you don't understand kills you *
    Getting drunk and violent kills you *

    On Mars, humanity will evolve, or die.

    *and everyone else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    I went to pride park had less atmosphere than mars or the moon...LOL

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    What wonderful and intelligent comments on this HYS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    This project must be sanctioned by at least one national state. If funding dries up, the Mars explorers die. Therefore, the state that sanctions the project must also sponsor it, which means that state may be saddled with the cost of keeping the explorers and their offspring alive for evermore or bringing them back. I can't see any government being willing to do that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    ........ The Moon should be used as a training base prior to any deeper manned planetary missions. Any failure of life support will kill you just as quickly on Mars as it will on the Moon. So, address the issues closer to home, learn and THEN go for Mars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    Being an astronaut is already the riskiest profession of them all, with a 2% risk of death per launch just to get to low earth orbit. And that is on a cost-no-object heavily tested system.

    But the proposed Mars ship is a stripped down system. The ISS can't get their toilets to work reliably, so what chance is there of life support working for years without outside help ? It's suicide.

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    It would make more economic as well as common sense to set up a small base on the Moon FIRST, close to the southern craters whete there is possible water. Its total madness to send people cold turkey to Mars. If you can hack it on the Moon it can be done on Mars. You will have to wear the same kit anyway and there is a better chance of solving problems nearer home within 1.5 seconds radio lag..

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    I'm one of the people applying to be the first to travel to Mars. I would like to tell the nay-sayers that I am fully aware of what I'm signing up for, good and bad. I'm doing it because I want to be part of something great and to inspire others to follow in my footsteps. If I have to wash with a wetwipe for seven months and sleep in a radiation shelter I will do so. Alison, London (please rate)

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    Unfortunatly I think that this is mainly cart before the horse. We have the technology to automate large portions of what would be required to establish a colony, with a view to making it close to self sufficent before anyone tries to live there on a permenant basis. Admittedly this is something we should also be doing on the Moon as well, to take advantage of it being easier to supervise

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    A thought for those claiming space travel is the future on the basis that the original ideas for flying etc were ridiculed at the time...

    For every idea riducled at the time that eventually came good another 8 or 9 (probably way more than that) never did come to pass..... travel may happen one day but more likely than not won't....

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    Why all the pessimism? Flying machines were once the stuff of fiction, as was putting a man on the Moon, the 4min mile was impossible; cell/smart phones, lap tops, the internet etc were all even beyond the imagination only a short time ago. We will go to Mars because we have to, it's in our DNA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    #165. That was me (a cancer immunologist so I know a thing or two about killing cancer cells). Its worth pointing out that 100MeV kills tumours but not the rest of the patient. Its applied in a very specific wat.

    You can shield against any amount of radiation.... its simply engineering (all be it on a very large scale). 1 metre of damp soil will protect you from a neutron bombs radiation.

  • Comment number 169.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    Watching people die in a remote environment that only offers near vacuum,wildly variable sub zero temperatures,and few resources,would surely bring an end to the dream of space travel. Colonising Antartica-a much more friendly place-should be a first step and then we will really understand the magnitude of the task.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    People seem to forget that space travel is NOT like airline travel. Even if you have crews that are prepared to accept/overlook the very high risks involved, the aggressive time scales are hopelessly optimistic.

    Assuming they manage to survive the initial journey, the logistics support flights to keep them alive over decades will be a massive challenge. Imagine running out of money to send them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    Mars One would provide irresistible viewing...

    So did the moon landings until we got bored.

    What they need is a TV soap opera based at Mars One that would subsidise the project.

    It would have to receive a constant stream of supplies for decades.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    To the person talking about Van Allen belts: the radiation outside the Magnetosphere is *very* different. Solar Energetic Particle events can have 10^10 p+ >100MeV. This is same radiation that is being used on Earth now to kill tumours 10-20cm inside the body. Even a water surrounded "storm shelter" will not be enough. It ruptures cells/organs and activates the ship materials to be radioactive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    Ok, so apart from the many, many, concerns of feasibility so far; what about the month long, planet-wide dust storms?
    Bit of a pain if they intend to use solar panels? I'm not sure wind is a viable alternative, with such a thin atmosphere. Then there's the dust fines gumming up the parts? With no power supply, I hope the contestants can hold their breath for a really, really, really long time..

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Send Abu Qatada there.


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