One-way ticket makes Mars mission possible, professor says

ONE-WAY TO MARS: Director of BEYOND, the center for fundamental concepts in science, Paul Davies along with a WSU professor have published a paper advocating for a one-way mission to colonize Mars. (Photo by Aaron Lavinsky)

The road to Mars is a one-way street, says an ASU professor.

In a paper published in the latest edition of the Journal of Cosmology, professor Paul Davies along with Washington State University professor Dirk Schulze-Makuch advocated for a manned, one-way mission to colonize the red planet.

Davies is the director of ASU’s Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science. For the paper, he collaborated with Schulze-Makuch primarily through e-mail over the past six months.

It is the first scientific paper published on the topic, although Davies wrote an article about it for The New York Times in 2005.

“It has long been a dream of humanity to go to Mars,” Davies said.

While a manned mission to Mars is technologically feasible, it would be astronomically expensive, Davies said.

However, Schulze-Makuch said most of the expense associated with a trip to Mars comes from the effort to bring the astronauts safely home, which means a one-way trip would be significantly less costly.

“It would reduce the cost by 80 percent,” Schulze-Makuch said. He added that the cost would still be approximately $50 billion.

While that would still be very expensive, Davies said, the money could be gathered over a number of years from various sources, possibly including private donors.

The proposed trip would send two to four astronauts to the red planet where they would establish a small colony, Davies said. He added that supplies, such as a nuclear reactor, food, solar panels and instruments, would be sent to Mars prior to their arrival.

After landing, the astronauts would become largely self sufficient without many additional supplies being sent because of cost concerns, Davies said.

The astronauts would be supplied with the means to gather water from deposits beneath Mars’ surface and purify it for drinking, Schulze-Makuch said. He added that the colonists would also be able to gather oxygen from the water, since water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen gas.

Astronauts would volunteer for the mission with the knowledge that they might never return to Earth, and that their life expectancy on Mars might only be 10 years, due to the effects of space radiation and the general rigors of life on another planet, Davies said.

“They would not be abandoned,” Schulze-Makuch said. He added that the colonizers would be in constant contact with Earth through radio transmissions.

Mars was chosen for colonization over the moon because it has more Earth-like qualities than the moon — temperatures on Mars reach as high as 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Mars also has more abundant natural resources, Schulze-Makuch said.

The project would look for astronauts advanced in age, possibly near 60, since their change in life expectancy would not be as drastic, Davies said. They would still be required to be in excellent shape to participate.

Even with the knowledge that they might never return, Davies believes there would be no shortage of volunteers.

“There are lots of people who take crazy risks on Earth,” Davies said. He added that he believes the same spirit that drives people to go river rafting, sky diving and rock climbing would also drive them to explore the red planet.

“They would be the founders of a new planet,” he said. “Think of the adventure.”

Davies said he’s received much interest in the project from people of all ages.

Kelsey Young, a second-year doctorate student studying planetary field geology, is wary of the psychological effects of the proposed journey. She spent one week living confined in a space rover with just one other person through NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies program.

Teams of two participate in the simulation program and drive around the Arizona desert, living in space exploration vehicles for a week to two weeks at a time, Young said.

“Will the astronauts be effective commanders and pilots?” she said. “No one knows for sure.”

Despite her concerns, Young said she would consider making the trek herself, citing humankind’s natural spirit of exploration.

“If they offered me the chance, I would probably take it,” she said.

Sending additional astronauts to Mars after a colony has been established is also a possibility, Davies said.

At this stage, the proposal is just that: a plan for a possible trip to Mars.

“At the end of the day, it’s about where the money is,” Davies said. “But a two-way trip will never happen.”

Earth is vulnerable, Schulze-Makuch said, and if there were a catastrophic event, having a Mars colony could be useful far in the future.

“If we want to survive long- term, we have to expand to other places, and Mars is a logical stepping stone,” Schulze-Makuch said. “We’re getting one step closer to Star Trek.”

Reach the reporter at alex.ferri@asu.edu