Life On Mars

Within the next 20 years, it is likely that humans will set foot on mars. And many are fighting to be those humans. Why, Melissa Cranenburgh asks, are we so obsessed with the red planet?

One of the final questions in my interview with Natalie Lawler was, “If, after three years on Mars, there was an opportunity to return to Earth, would you come back?”

Lawler is on Skype from Brisbane where she has just finished her workday – as a maths teacher for a local school. With the sounds of her children’s voices and the occasional caw of a magpie in the background, Lawler discusses her candidacy for Mars One: a mission to prepare for a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet. And – as she explained to the Mars One selection board – once on Mars, ensconced in her fabricated shelter with three others, she wouldn’t back down. Yes she would have left her Earth friends and family. “But the difference I feel is that my family on Earth have everything that they need,” Lawler explains. “They have each other. They have all the rich, abundant resources; a beautiful planet to live on. And on Mars I’ll be playing such a critical role in our survival every day that if I were to leave…my team wouldn’t survive. So I feel like that’s the difference. You can say: No, I wouldn’t actually come back, because these people rely on me for oxygen.”

After three years, more than 200,000 candidates and several selection processes, Lawler is one of only 100 people who remain in the running for the Dutch not-for-profit’s training program to prepare for life on Mars. Eventually, the plan is to have four people – two men and two women – take the first one-way journey to start a settlement. The next step in selection will see a final headcount of 24 potentials earn themselves a decade-long, paid training position. Unfortunately the process has stalled this year, due to funding issues. The mission, much like its lofty goal, remains up in the air.

But while Lawler admits that her training notes to prepare for the next selection processes are buried under a pile of schoolwork, she remains steadfast in her ideological convictions about human colonisation of Mars – which can best be described as cheerfully Darwinian. “We need to continue to evolve as a species and this is the next part of our evolution to become multi-planetary,” she says. “I volunteer. I put myself forward for the mission to help make it happen.”

In the course of researching and writing this story, I’ve come to the conclusion that people seem to fall into one of two camps when it comes to Mars settlement hypotheticals. There’s the “Hell yeah, I’d go” camp. And the, “I cannot think of anything more horrifying than leaving Earth forever and settling on a radiation-zapped, barren wasteland that makes the Gobi Desert look like a tropical paradise” camp. While this characterisation is reductive at best (to wit, a good chunk of my social media focus group said they would consider going if they could stream Netflix), there does seem to be a very particular mindset for those who would put themselves forward to become first settlers – journeying into the unknown. There’s the grand adventure. A deep scientific curiosity. And, importantly, a kind of neo-colonial utopianism. A sense that we may have messed things up on Earth, but – without all the pesky other cultures, creatures and pre-existing social structures – Mars could give us a chance to finally get it right.

To say that Natalie Lawler fits into the “Hell yeah” camp is something of an understatement. “I think that when we have the first human actually dig a hole on Mars, we’ll find more than the rovers have in the last three or four decades,” she says, palpably excited. “Kids often say to me, ‘What are you gonna do there?’ And I just say, ‘SCIENCE.’ And they go, ‘Awwww, cooooool.’ Really what we’re gonna do there is just survive.” Lawler laughs. “That’s the goal, just initially. But that will be science. How do we survive? What’s happening to our bodies in 38 per cent gravity? What are we finding in the geology? We’re gonna dig deeper than a rover ever has. What is down there? But it’s far bigger than, you know, just a little bit of science. It’s evolution, I think.”

Furthermore, in Lawler’s vision, Mars could develop as a truly equitable society. “One thing I’m really passionate about is what I call resource-based economies,” she explains. “So any economy that develops on Mars shouldn’t be a currency-based economy, because we know that’s what causes most of our evils in our world.”

One issue that Lawler sees on the Martian horizon, though, is what would happen once an initial team of settlers committed to a resourced-based economy is joined by a group with very different views on society. Perhaps even a dictatorship. It’s an anthropological issue that Lawler hopes will be worked out in long-term simulations, with individual groups working alone for months at a time – before a new group is introduced.

But while Lawler is enthusiastically considering these ideas, it is tempting to take a more cynical view. Throughout colonial history scenarios not unlike these have already played out. And things haven’t worked out so well. Some might be tempted to suggest that bonobos may have a better chance of a utopian evolution on Mars than Homo sapiens.

One thing seems likely: while the Mars One project may have stalled due to funding limitations, within the next 1o to 20 years, someone is going to set foot on Martian soil. The man most associated with the idea of travel to Mars – SpaceX’s billionaire founder, inventor and engineering savant Elon Musk – also considers that humans becoming “multi-planetary” is essential to stave off extinction. He optimistically suggests he could have human missions as early as 2022.

Meanwhile, National Geographic held an event in Australia this month with the European Space Agency, NASA and Buzz Aldrin to talk about their plans to get boots on the Red Planet. A European, US and – ideally – Australian collaboration is pushing for missions by 2030, taking a more staged approach.

“We are going to get to Mars very carefully,” said NASA’s Jason Crusan in a video interview with the Sydney Morning Herald promoting their Mars Live speaking tour. “It’s a huge challenge. We don’t yet know how to live off-planet without the logistics chain to Earth. We have to learn first to break that chain.”

Mark McCaughrean from the European Space Agency explains that while Mars “looks superficially attractive”, we need to be realistic about just how habitable it is. “We see sunsets, landscapes similar to Earth,” McCaughrean says. “There is a lot about it which feels like home… But remember it has one per cent of the atmosphere of Earth – mostly carbon dioxide. There is just a third of the gravity and there is no magnetic field to protect the planet from cosmic rays.”

The pair go on to talk about the issues still to be resolved, including producing oxygen from carbon dioxide, recycling water, developing space manufacturing and updating systems to allow communication with folks back home. Not to mention shields from radioactive particles and a sun that’s far too close for comfort. The journalist in the video asks why, if it’s so hard, don’t we just send robots? But both space experts echo sentiments very similar to Lawler’s.

“Why do humans explore?” asks Crusan. “It’s because we are curious. It is innate. We want to see ourselves on Mars. No-one wants to grow up to be a robot.”

McCaughrean goes further, “We can’t use the mission of gaining a foothold on another planet as the sole justification for our journey. But our space missions – Apollo, the Hubble space telescope, Rosetta mission – have a transformative power for people on Earth. They see a bigger picture of humanity beyond the parochial. Exploring the universe is a way of bringing people together.”

For Natalie Lawler, these things are self-evident. Already, children from around the world have contacted her to tell her how the very idea of her Mars One candidacy has inspired them to dream of growing up to explore Mars themselves. And, further, as a woman – and a mother of two girls, who would be grown-ups by the time she could conceivably set up a life on Mars – she has patiently dealt with the, at times, hateful value judgements levelled at her.

“I commented on an article that the headlines are always, ‘Mother that wants to leave her kids behind’ or something like that,” Lawler says. “If I was father then probably children and kids wouldn’t have been in the headline, you know. It would have just been, ‘A Brisbane man wants to go to Mars’. But it’s my title that the media likes to grab hold of: ‘Mother wanting to leave her kids’.”

Recently she received a negative comment on her public Facebook page. A woman accused her of being “selfish and very self-absorbed” to consider leaving her two children behind. Lawler’s response is illustrative. After thanking the woman for her message, Lawler explained her views on the importance of interplanetary travel as the next step in human evolution. Then she continues: “I certainly don’t think that a permanent settlement on Mars would happen in my lifetime. A mission to Mars will inspire generations of young learners to invest in the knowledge of science and wonder of space. It will yield many innovations that could benefit humanity, and hopefully allow nations to come together and see themselves as one. What value can we put in gaining a better understanding of our universe? My daughters will be adults by the time of the first manned mission. Mars One’s time frame is ambitious, so they may even be mothers themselves. I want them to live in a world that is progressing, that seeks answers and overcomes challenges.”

When all’s said and done, given Mars One’s constraints, it is unlikely that Lawler will ever reach the Red Planet. But if there is going to be a settlement on Mars, I’m sure it could do worse than have her on board.

Melissa Cranenburgh is a freelance writer, broadcaster and former associate editor of The Big Issue

This article first appeared in Edition #525.