Men Are for Mars

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
Tagged Under -
Page 1 of 1
...and women, too. What makes them take a seven-month one-way trip to an uninhabitable planet?

Men who want to go to Mars sometimes don’t tell their wives about it, and that doesn’t go down too well with them. Sameer Lowe filled his application in office and by the time his wife came to know, he was in the newspapers as a potential Martian. His wife suggests that he should go and live in the forests outside Mumbai alone for two days. “Then he will come to know what it is like to live all alone,” she says. Vinod Kotiya’s wife, when told by her husband that he had put forth his name to go to Mars, retorted that she would lie down before the rocket when it took off to stop it. “She said this as a joke,” he says, but the sentiment is evident.

Kotiya and Lowe are among the 20,747 Indians (the second largest number after Americans) who have registered themselves for the Mars One project, a plan by a Dutch NGO to use private industry to settle humans on the Red Planet. It is a one way ticket, and that is one of the reasons families have a problem with it. Those who apply are serious however, at least at this stage. The Mission sounds mindboggling but on paper it seems plausible, both in terms of technology and the raising of resources.

Lowe, a tall, genial man, is an unlikely space traveller. He is 51, and in 2022, when it is time to send humans to Mars, he will be 60. He was a radar engineer with the Indian Air Force before joining the Delhi Metro and working there for a decade. He then shifted to Mumbai as the deputy director of MMRDA in its rolling stock division, which handles the Metro and Monorail projects. Last year, while watching the news channel Aaj Tak, he saw a short clip about the Mars One project. He got interested and went to their website to read more about it. When applications opened in April this year, he was the fifth Indian to register.

Lowe says he has always wanted to go to another planet, but there is a catch—he has obligations to fulfil on this planet. There is a son who has just finished studying engineering and, of course, a wife whose anxiety got worse when a news channel casually mentioned, without any basis, that the project was a suicide mission. “I have more duties on this planet because they are not happy with my decision. I want to see my son settled and I want him to get a job first,” says Lowe.

Then there is the great disappointment of Lowe’s life—he has not been able to buy a house of his own. An advance paid for a Gurgaon flat is locked because he hasn’t been able to raise the rest of the money. “I want stability first,” Lowe says. He really wants to go, but there is vehement opposition from family. He wants Mars One to take care of his obligations and pay him a salary if he is selected. If they agree to it, he will go, otherwise not.

Not every application has preconditions. Kotiya is an engineer with NTPC. He is originally from Bhopal but is currently based in Delhi. He too was one of the first to apply. It had been his ambition, in childhood, to be an astronaut. To that end, he tried to join the Indian Air Force. He cleared the aptitude test but could not get through the final round. Instead, he went into engineering. Mars One sought applications from common men without any specific qualifications. Kotiya is married with a year-old daughter. But he is prepared to leave all that behind if selected. His family is reluctant, but is not taking it seriously because, considering the number of people from across the world vying for a handful of slots, his chances of selection are slim. “Every day in Mars will be written in history; every step we take, all the research we do, every minute will be great there,” he says.

In the beginning of his career Kotiya was posted near Gangotri in the Himalayas at a hydropower project for five years. It was a lonely and tough existence. He thinks that was good training for the isolation that the Mars mission would entail, were he selected. “I thought, ‘someday technology will come by which I can download my consciousness to a computer or satellite and they will launch me in space forever and I can feel how large the universe is.’ But in between, Mars One happened,” he says.

Then there is Anil Sadarangani, a filmmaker from Mumbai who hosts the Manhattan Short Film Festival in India. He was always fascinated by ideas like the Earth existing in this perfect window where life is supported, by space travel, extra-terrestrial life and the question of what is out there. “The fact is, life is pretty delicate around us any which way. Anything can happen anytime. If one person does something, it is replicated, and then it repeats itself—until a new standard is set. I think this is what it is all about,” he says.

He doesn’t think living in Mars will be impossibly difficult. “There will be training. Ten years from now, whoever is chosen, for that person this would already be a part of life on earth. It’s like pilots learning on a simulator first,” he says.

Man’s venture into other worlds has a brief history, when it comes to manned missions. The last moon landing was in 1972. Unmanned rockets and rovers were periodically sent and one of their findings—that there exists water in the soil of Mars—is crucial to this mission. Government agencies like NASA and ESA are not directly involved in this project but their technology is the foundation for it.

Aashima Dogra, editorial manager for Mars One, is also its India representative. She was a science journalist who, while researching a story came across Mars One. “When I got to know [of] the project, I realised how serious it is,” she says. She then asked to join them and was accepted. Dogra says the technology for a manned mission has been available with space agencies for some time, but there is no political will to attempt it. There has, however, been a boom in the private space industry. The founders of Mars One went to these companies and asked them if they could make the specific components required for a manned mission. They were told it was possible. “We have already given a big contract to a company for making the life support systems,” she says.

One of the reasons government agencies don’t want to attempt something like this is because, while technology to go to Mars exists, technology for return does not. To create it would be extremely expensive. Mars One worked around this problem by making it a one-way trip. Instead of astronauts, they are looking for permanent settlers. The project up to the first manned mission—including a demonstration mission, and cargo missions to offload equipment the settlers will need—is expected to cost $6 billion (1). One of the means of raising that money is rather unique.

Altogether at least six teams of four people each will be selected to go to Mars. Of them, one will make it to the first launch. The others will go in later missions. The selection process of these 24 will be broadcast on television and the Internet in the biggest reality show this planet has ever seen. Selling the broadcast rights will get the organisers the majority of their funding. The training of those selected can also be converted to revenue. “We are talking to quite a few big names in the [media] industry and working out what is of interest to them,” Dogra says. On the Mars One website, there is a table that shows how the Olympics broadcast generated close to $4 billion, which brings this model within the bounds of possibility.

The selected 24 will train for about seven years in Mars-like conditions created on Earth. As the date of the launch approaches, the isolation of participants will increase, to attune them psychologically. The Arctic is one of the venues under consideration. In the end, all humankind will vote on which of the six teams, all of which will be equally fit and international in character, should go first. This too will be a televised show through which funds will be raised.

The final four will reach Mars after a journey of six to seven months in match-box conditions. Once there, the four settlers will live in Life Support Units. They will have around 500 square feet each of inhabitable space. Inside this area will be Earth-like conditions and breathable air, the oxygen for which will be made from the water in the Mars soil. Outside, they will always have to be in space suits.

All this might sound surreal but a form of it is already in existence in the International Space Station. “Astronauts live there for seven months, and space is much worse than Mars,” says Dogra. “There is no gravity and yet they drink water, eat food and exercise.”

Why would someone sign up to live with three others on an uninhabitable planet for the rest of his life? Dogra says it takes a particular sort of personality and points to a Facebook group called ‘Mars One – Aspiring Martians Group’ for an indication. A post at the top reads: ‘This looks like a great concept, provided tectonic activity is low and there isn’t much atmospheric leakage. Thoughts?’ This is accompanied by a link to an item on Wired with the headline ‘Concept for underground Mars habitat marks dawn of Martian mole-people’. The article is about a German architecture firm’s concept for caves dug by robots for humans to live in on Mars.

Another post reads: ‘I had a discussion about Mars One today at work and it turned to the difficulties of gravity. The astronauts have some difficulty with adjusting back to 1G after spending time in microgravity on the ISS. Now, obviously we will probably get some of the same gravity training they go through, but the trip to Mars will be 7 months in null gravity. We will not feel weight again until we land. What do you think about it?’

Amulya Nidhi Rastogi, a third year mechanical engineering student from Gurgaon, posted—‘Your crew landed on Mars. It’s been a year or so. One fine day, you go to a distant location to collect samples of the Martian soil or something like that. And you see pyramids there (similar to the ones here on Earth). Would you go further to view it more closely? Would that freak you out?’ Rastogi wants to go because he wants “to be there when everything happens”.

“I don’t want to fade away,” he says. As a child, when he first got to know about the moon landings, he immediately wondered why didn’t they just stay there. “I thought, ‘Why did they have to come back?’ That didn’t quite fit. It didn’t satisfy me completely. With this mission, that thought has evolved over time and I can relate to it. Because I always wanted to permanently settle on a planet or something, anything beyond earth. It gives me a sense of meaning in life. Everyone wants to have a deep sense of purpose. We choose careers that give us that. I don’t know how to define it. We all want peace of mind. This is something that can give me peace of mind.”

Note:This article was modified after it was published