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One-way ticket to Mars?

'No return' flights to Mars are many times cheaper – and volunteers are lining up.

By Staff writer / November 17, 2010

The Mars Society trains scientists to live and work on another planet through simulations like this one at its Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah. The society is dedicated to encouraging the exploration and settlement of Mars.


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Humans could be walking on Mars within the next couple decades, for only a fraction of the cost the United States has already budgeted for space exploration.

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How? The answer is simple, say a pair of Mars researchers: Give the explorers a one-way ticket.

The most costly and tricky part of any manned space mission is providing life-support for its human crew: food, oxygen, and protection from radiation and other hazards of space travel. On a human mission to Mars, most of the cost – some 80 percent of it – would involve returning the crew to Earth, say Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies in the October-November issue of the Journal of Cosmology. Rather than quintuple the cost, those funds could go toward building a permanent settlement, the two scientists argue.

They propose that, after several unmanned missions drop supplies at a base station on the Red Planet, two spacecraft carrying two humans each would be sent on the six- to eight-month voyage to Mars to begin the first human colony on another planet.

Further missions would continue to supply the first settlers, who would be older, beyond child-bearing age, and – of course – volunteers.

Eventually, as the colonists made more use of Mars' own resources, including water trapped as ice, they would be joined by more migrants from Earth.

"It's not a suicide mission at all," argues Dr. Schulze-Makuch, coauthor of the paper and an associate professor at the school of earth and environmental sciences at Washington State University in Pullman.

Mars, he admits, "will never be a second Earth, you know, our home planet. But it's feasible to have people staying for a long time, and people living there, actually."

Last spring, President Obama put forth a set of new goals for US space exploration, including sending astronauts into orbit around Mars by the mid-2030s and returning them to Earth. While Mars has a much weaker gravitational field than Earth's, the pull is significant, which would mean that ferrying astronauts to and from the Martian surface would be an additional challenge requiring more resources.

As Schulze-Makuch and Dr. Davies, a professor at Arizona State University, have promoted their idea, many people have stepped forward to volunteer for such a mission, they say.

One-way trips of colonization are common to human history, the authors argue. Most of the early settlers coming by ship to America had little hope of ever returning to Europe.

"They knew that they would never be coming back," Schulze-Makuch says.

Colonist-scientists living on Mars could produce a bonanza in basic research, the authors say. That would include a better understanding of the origin of Earth itself, and perhaps even the discovery of the first extraterrestrial life.

And in the long term, a Martian colony would be a huge first step toward humans moving away from Earth. Famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has been among those arguing that because of the chance of a disaster on Earth, humans must start moving out into the solar system.

But these kinds of scientific and long-range concerns haven't really spurred the history of exploration here on Earth, points out Michael Robinson, a historian of science at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. Most explorers from Columbus to Lewis and Clark set forth with "mercenary and pragmatic goals," such as finding a new trading route to Asia.

The idea that humans have an innate urge "to boldly go where no one has gone before" is more myth than fact, Dr. Robinson says. Throughout most of history, humans have been "moving toward a more settled lifestyle," moving from a nomadic life into towns and cities. In general, "people don't want to die out in a wilderness," he says.


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