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Colonizing Mars: Will 'regular people' be allowed to go?

SpaceX founder Elon Musk wants everyone to be a part of colonizing Mars. But space travel will likely come with some hefty costs.

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    SpaceX chief executive officer Elon Musk unveils his plans to colonize Mars during the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, on September 27, 2016.
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When SpaceX founder Elon Musk on Tuesday unveiled his grand plans to send people to colonize Mars by 2024, one member of the audience asked him: “Can normal people go?”

"We're trying to make it such that anyone can go … maybe a few days of training," Mr. Musk answered. When another attendee asked about safety, he made no attempt to minimize the risks associated with such a journey. "The risk of fatality will be high; there is just no way around it," he said. "Are you prepared to die? If that's ok, then you're a candidate for going."

While willingness to die may seem like daunting criteria for Musk’s Mars crew, the process outlined so far is much simpler than the one NASA puts its astronauts through. Before ever being considered for a mission, NASA astronauts must complete years of highly specialized training. But first they have to get accepted to the space program, an honor only ever granted to 338 astronauts. To put that in perspective, the last time NASA opened up applications, more than 18,000 people applied.

Despite the acknowledged risks, Musk's promise to make space travel possible for "normal people" likely appeals to many Americans who have dreamed of exploring the universe beyond Earth's realm. But is Musk’s vision actually feasible? Will a day really come when a “normal” person without years of training and stringent screenings is able to travel to other planets?

Sending a non-astronaut to space has been done before, however, by “space tourists.” They go through months-long trainings and health screenings, then fly off to the International Space Station. All they need is money and a clean bill of health.

In 2001, California millionaire Dennis Tito became the first “space tourist” to board a rocket to the International Space Station.

“It’s the feeling that the public have, that you need to have superpowers to fly – that’s true if you’re a government astronaut,” Tom Shelley, the president of Space Adventures, the company that arranged Mr. Tito’s travels, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “You (just) have to be in reasonably good health, it’s good to be fit.”

The company has since sent eight other people to space, ranging from software engineers to the founder of Cirque du Soleil. The cost was reportedly around $30 and $40 million, although it is set to rise to $50 million in the future. The trainings generally last three to four months, Mr. Shelley says, and the clients learn about how the spaceships and space stations work.

Of course, Mars is much further than the space station. NASA projects that it would cost around $100 billion over 30 years to send astronauts to Mars and bring them back; Musk hopes to do it for $200,000 per person, but say it would currently cost about $10 billion per person.

The duration of the trip will exert extra demand on passengers, too. A trip to the space station takes around six hours, Shelley says, while coming back takes four hours. A trip to Mars, however, would take 21 months in total: nine months to reach the Red Planet, then three months to wait for the planets to realign, and another nine months to get back, according to NASA.

The long journey means the passengers need to be able to deal with tedious waits inside a cramped carrier, alongside other people. NASA tried to simulate the experience by enclosing six scientists in a small dome on a barren volcano in Hawaii last year. The scientists had to don spacesuits every time they left the living quarters, and put up with 20-minute delays in communications from the outside world, as they would have to were they on Mars.

The idea behind the experiment, researchers say, was to understand the kinds of social and psychological challenges that might arise during such a mission.

“Astronauts venturing into deep space together for the first time could grapple with feelings of isolation, depression, and personality conflicts. This is why choosing a resilient crew will be key,” Kim Binsted, a University of Hawaii professor who led the HI-SEAS experiment, told The Christian Science Monitor in June.

The ideal astronauts must be flexible and be able to adapt to hostile and confined environments, Kelley J. Slack, a psychologist who has consulted with NASA on astronaut training, told the American Psychological Association. Teamwork is also essential, and astronauts are trained on stress management, conflict management, and situational awareness.

According to science writer Mary Roach's book "Packing for Mars," the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency requires astronaut candidates to go through a test of psychological endurance by folding 1,000 tiny paper cranes to see if they show impatience when stressed. 

With Musk’s plan to house 100 or more people in a 9,000-square-foot spaceship, traveling for such a long time in a confined space may well require all that psychological strength. But there is good news.

“I can give you my personal impression, which is that a mission to Mars in the close future is realistic,” Cyprien Verseux, one of the crew members on the simulated Mars mission in Hawaii, told the Associated Press. “I think the technological and psychological obstacles can be overcome.”

NASA is not without optimism. As The Christian Science Monitor previously reported, the agency is preparing for the possibility of future human missions to Mars, despite struggles with funding and technological difficulties. Musk will charge ahead with his plans, too, albeit without all the research, screenings, and selection NASA puts its astronauts through. And he’s not the only one with those dreams.

“What we’re interested in is enabling more and more people to be able to fly into space, because we do believe that mankind needs to be more multi-planetary in the long run in order to prosper,” Shelley says. “He [Musk] certainly has a great track record of doing thats that are very difficult. I hope he is successful.”

[Editor's note: The original story misstated how much Elon Musk expects travelers to Mars to pay.]

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