Interview with Ryan MacDonald
Mars One, co-founded by Bas Lansdorp and Arno Wielders in 2011, is preparing for the first mission to Mars to create a permanent human settlement. Through an Astronaut Selection Program consisting of four rounds of selection, there are currently 100 candidates remaining. The final selection will yield six crews of four individuals each who will begin training in 2017. The goal is to send the first crew to Mars in 2026. South Writ Large communicated with Ryan MacDonald, one of the Mars 100 candidates, about preparing for the possibility of making the one-way journey to Mars.
Have you always wanted to explore space?
Absolutely! Growing up, I recall seeing images taken from the surface of another world, such as by the Viking Mars landers, which conjured something profound in me. Even from a young age, I knew that I wanted to go into space one day. . . . I didn’t know how, I didn’t know when, but I knew that one day I wanted to be a part of our yearning to explore the unknown—in my mind it is that drive, more than any other, that enshrines the best traits of our species.
What prompted you to apply to Mars One, a non-profit organization, with the goal of establishing permanent human settlement on Mars?
I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut, but as a young Brit it was far from clear how to go about realizing that dream—unlike in the U.S., we did not actively support human spaceflight whilst I was growing up. But everything changed for me in 2010, when I had the opportunity to meet Major Tim Peake, the first British ESA Astronaut. I had the chance to sit down with him, to ask him how he’d defied the odds to be chosen to go into space—where he launched in 2015—and in that moment my intangible dream started to crystallize and become clear.
So I set off down an academic route—as standard space agency requirements call for a PhD in a technical discipline (or a Bachelor’s degree plus three years of professional experience). But whilst completing my undergraduate studies in physics, Mars One opened up a global astronaut selection process and so I jumped at the unexpected opportunity!
How has your scholarly training prepared you for this incredible adventure?
A crewed mission to Mars will require people able to express proficiency in a plethora of different disciplines, which calls for individuals able to rapidly absorb new skills and apply them in an unfamiliar context. With my background in physics, I am able to easily interface between scientific disciplines (e.g., chemistry, geology, astrobiology) and applied engineering in order to both solve emergent problems and creatively generate and test new ideas on the ground. In many ways, we will be the eyes, hands, and ears of everyone back home experiencing this new world through us, and I intend to offer the wider scientific community the chance to carry out their research through a direct interface with a multidisciplinary scientist on the surface of Mars.
How are you preparing emotionally for your trip?
One of the interesting aspects of human Mars exploration is that we don’t actually know how people will respond both emotionally and psychologically once they reach the point where the Earth is no longer visible. Imagine floating in the void of space for many months, neither being able to see where you came from or where you are going . . . ultimately, all you can do to prepare for such challenges is to have a clear vision in your mind for why you are going. If the very concept of the mission excites and inspires you enough that you were willing to sacrifice everything to step on the rocket, then I would wager that you are emotionally invested enough to see the mission through to fruition.
Has the Mars One program begun formally training you?
Mars One has provided us with technical study material as part of the selection process, but full-time training will not commence until the 2017/2018 timeframe. We are already quite familiar with systems such as the life-support hardware specifications and research into growing food on Mars, with the next steps involving group challenges and team isolation to take place next year. Following this, twenty-four of us will receive job offers to enter full-time training for the mission.
If selected as a candidate, you will travel to Mars for an extended period of time. Can you describe what this journey will be like?
Imagine spending seven months in a confined space only half the volume of the average US house. This might not sound too bad, but during the journey we must also contend with the fact that occasional outbursts from the surface of the sun—called “Coronal Mass Ejections”—can send waves of charged particles hurtling toward us. When this happens, we must evacuate to a small radiation shelter located inside a hollowed out water tank where we will live for a few days—overall, we expect this to happen around four times during the trip to Mars. Another of the challenges we will face will be attempting to mitigate bone and muscle mass loss due to microgravity, which will require us to exercise for at least three hours every day.
How will you establish the first human community on Mars?
A number of robotic precursor missions will have to lead the way before any humans set foot on Mars. This will start with a demonstration lander and communications satellite, currently planned to launch in 2020, then followed by two rovers, two life support units, two supply modules, and two living modules. In 2026, the rovers will drive to each module, move them to the location of the initial outpost, and connect them via hoses and wires to the life support modules.
The life support modules use local resources—namely subsurface ice deposits along with nitrogen and argon from the Martian atmosphere—in order to produce breathable air, drinkable water, and a hospitable temperature environment. These modules rely on solar power generated from 3,000 m2 of thin-film solar panels placed near to the outpost.
Only once the outpost has been stable on the surface for a year without incident will the first human settlers set off on their journey to Mars.
Is there a design for carrying life into future generations on Mars?
At this time, it is not known if a fetus will develop properly in the lower gravity on Mars (38% of Earth). The first crews will be encouraged not to have children until such a time that animal research can be carried out to assess any risks that may transpire during this process, as you can scarcely afford to risk a vital crew member during childbirth. Once there is sufficient redundancy (more than 20 people) and larger living spaces are available, then Mars may be the right place to consider raising children.
What do you think it will be like to live there?
Living on Mars will be tough for the initial crews, no way around it. The initial years will be mainly focused on construction and maintenance of the outpost, with additional time devoted to research activities. There will also be time for leisure, as we will have two dedicated communications satellites (albeit with a 6 to 46 minute round-trip delay) available to use to speak with our friends and family back on Earth, along with downloading entertainment media. It is important to stress though that we will be spending the majority of our time indoors under a protective layer of Martian soil to shield against radiation—indeed, the maximum amount of time we will spend outside in any given week is around eight hours.
The founder of Mars One has stated that the most important skill for the journey is teamwork. Can you explain what this means for you and for the program?
You could be the best and brightest individual candidate, but if you can’t get along well with the three other astronauts in your team then you are simply not suitable for this mission. Finding the right teams to pull this mission off successfully will require groups of like-minded individuals able to operate largely independent of Earth for two years before more people and supplies arrive. In many ways, our teams will be more like family units than work colleagues; since we will have to spend ten years with them preparing for the mission.
What will it feel like to leave Earth behind forever?
For me, it is not about what we are leaving behind. . . . I’m not running away from life on Earth, I’m running toward a life on Mars! Imagine being the first person to see a blue sunset over the rim of a canyon over 50 times wider than the horizon; imagine finding the first bacteria that evolved on an alien planet; imagine being a part of the greatest story that has ever been told—to share such an opportunity with everyone back home, I am more than willing to leave a few earthly comforts behind.
What will you miss most about Earth?
In addition to the obvious things, like friends and family, I suspect we will be surprised as to how much the little things that we take for granted in life truly matter to us. Never being able to feel the wind, or hear the roar of the ocean, or even to go for an early morning jog as the sun rises. . . . I imagine this will vary from person to person, but the true extent will not become evident until people are already living on Mars.
What are your greatest hopes for the excursion?
The focus of my scientific career is to search for evidence of life elsewhere in the universe, and there are few better places than Mars to begin the search in earnest. If we find evidence of life on Mars, then we could potentially sequence its genetic code and examine the patterns contained within to find where it branched off the tree of life on Earth. One exciting possibility here would be finding that life on Earth is actually a branch from a more ancient strain of Martian life—which could tell us that life actually started on Mars first and we are all descended from it! Alternatively, if we find that life on Mars is something entirely distinct from Earth life, then it demonstrates that the genesis of life is likely an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics and chemistry; meaning that the universe as a whole could be literally teeming with life.
What are your biggest fears?
My greatest fear is that we do not as a species take up the challenge of going to Mars. We need a frontier to push against, or else we will stagnate as a species. We have already come dangerously close to this in our decline from being able to launch people to the Moon in 1969 to now having no US-vehicle capable of launching astronauts. And if we don’t eventually go on to settle Mars and push onward out into space? Well, you could ask the dinosaurs how that turned out!
Do you see any parallels between your own situation and that of a seventeenth-century colonist leaving home for the “New World,” or a nineteenth-century immigrant traveling to New York’s Ellis Island in hope of starting a new life?
Absolutely. The mindset of the first Martian settlers will likely be entirely equivalent to that of the pioneers seeking a new life in the New World—only this time, it will literally be a different world. What we are doing is laying the groundwork for those who will follow over the decades and centuries to come; and in doing so, we will be creating an entirely new branch of human civilization. It’s fascinating to imagine how such a society may develop over time, so in many ways you could say that the first crew could become the “Founding Fathers and Mothers” of the Martian civilization.
How would you like to be remembered in history?
Decades from now, a young girl will look up at the night-time sky, see a pale red dot, and ask her father what it is. Her father will smile and reply: “That red light is Mars, and on that planet are people, just like you and me, looking right back at us across space.”