A One-way Ticket to Mars

Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies is one of the most innovative thinkers in the field of astrobiology, a field known for attracting scientists who think outside the box. Since September 2006, Davies has been the director of Arizona State University’s BEYOND: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science. Below is the text of a presentation he gave at the NASA-sponsored Astrobiology Science Conference in 2008, in which he argued that the most cost-effective way to send humans to Mars would be to send them with the understanding that they wouldn’t be coming back.


Presented by Paul Davies

An artist’s impression of how an aboveground Mars colony might look in its initial phase.
Credit: Frassanito & Associates, Inc.

What I’d like to talk about today is how to cut the cost of going to Mars. And there’s one very obvious way, which is a one-way mission.

Isn’t this a crazy idea, a one-way mission to Mars? Who could possibly volunteer for such a thing? Isn’t this a suicide mission? Well, the answer is: no, this is not a suicide mission.

Going to Mars on a return journey obviously involves a high level of risk. It shortens your life expectancy. Where does the risk arise? Well, as we know from the two Shuttle disasters, takeoff and landing are the most vulnerable times. By eliminating half of these (laughter), you would extend your life expectancy. Radiation in space is also a serious factor for a Mars mission, and during the journey there and back you’d be exposed twice, for many months each time, to cosmic rays in space. It’s true Mars is also a high-radiation environment, but it’s easier to shield yourself once you’re on Mars. The zero G during the journey is also bad news. Again, by cutting out half, your life expectancy increases.

A lot of people think: if you don’t come back, you cut the costs in half. But actually you save very much more than that. By sending supplies and material ahead and using as much as you can on the surface of Mars, you would cut much more than 50% of the expenditures. It’s hard to know how much but I would reckon at least 80% could be cut.

As Bob Zubrin has pointed out, Mars is the second-safest place in the solar system. And so it’s the one place humans can go where we could actually make a living, because it’s possible to use material on the martian surface, and crucially, Mars has water and carbon dioxide. So you’re not saying to the people who are going on this one-way mission: you’ve got three days’ supplies and that’s it. You could also protect yourself from some of the words hazards, such as the hazard of thin atmosphere.

I would envisage probably four people would go in the first instance. But a one-way mission to Mars would not just be a one-off exercise. They would be trailblazers. It would be the first step to establishing a permanent human presence on another world. Although they would go without the expectation of returning, they would have the expectation that sooner or later they would be joined by others and that this Mars base would grow and eventually become a permanent Mars colony that might take hundreds of years to establish.

A lava tube may be an ideal location to establish a human habitat on Mars, because the overlying rock would provide a natural shield against harmful radiation. Shown here, the entrance to a terrestrial lava tube.

Well, obviously the mood at NASA is not conducive to this type of mission. But this is just because it has itself into a sort of mind set. I don’t need to remind people here that there are plenty of folks who go off on round-the-world ballooning trips, they go up Everest without oxygen. They cross Antarctica in crazy conditions. I met a man who was going to para-ski to the South Pole. People do these crazy things, obviously at great risk to their lives. By comparison, a one-way trip to Mars would not be so risky. But it does need a spirit of adventure of the sort that the early explorers had, in particular the people who opened up Antarctica. These people often went knowing that there was a high probability that they would not come back, and that if they didn’t come back, they were going to their deaths. I’m not suggesting that going to Mars necessarily means an instant death, but it may mean a premature death, it may mean your life expectancy is shortened by a little bit. But as I said, people attempt that risk in all sorts of other walks of life.

And what I have in mind is not just four miserable people sitting around on the martian surface waiting to die, (laughter) but that they would actually be doing useful job work. Of course, your accommodations would be cramped. People have said to me: it would be horrible living in these conditions. And my answer is, it’s not as bad as Guantanamo Bay. Gregory Benford seems to think that living in lava tubes or close to lava tubes will offer some measure of protection from radiation, and water ice and other resources are available. I’m sure that if we look carefully at the Martian surface we can find a location that would be reasonably cozy.

How do we pay for all of this? Given that NASA’s not going to do this, I think that ultimately this would have to be an international collaboration or some sort of commercial venture. Nobody is going to set up a permanent presence on Mars without having some sort of commercial arrangement. The discoveries that would be made by people working on Mars would have to be patented, there would have to be a cash flow that would pay for this. Imagine the TV rights – think of what people pay for football rights – I mean, huge sums of money. So a spectacular like this, a real life soap opera from another planet, I would think would be worth a lot of money. We can have more ambitious ideas about Mars Funds and long-term land titles and so on. Instead of selling worthless bits of land on Earth, with a time scale of some decades for their use, we’d have to extend that to some centuries. But there would be people prepared to do that.

And philanthropy would be an important part. Imagine: you’ve got four human beings on the martian surface. Would we let them die for lack of cash? Of course we wouldn’t. (laughter) Every time you went Christmas shopping, there would be people there saying: Keep the Mars base alive. (laughter) It wouldn’t require too much in the way of individual philanthropy to fund this base. And once they’re there, they can be resupplied every two years. We would send on the sandwiches and letters from home and all that to sustain this colony. Eventually there would be enough money to send on another four colonists, and another four, and so on.

This brings me to the whole question about why do we really want to do this? One reason that people have suggested that we should have a permanent presence on another planet is to guard against some mega-disaster here on Earth. We’re all very familiar with the idea that a killer disease or something would wipe out all or most of humanity on planet Earth. So as a lifeboat, to have a permanent autonomous human presence on another planet would seem to be only prudent. And there is of course the possibility of a major cosmic impact. I would remind you it’s the centenary of the Tunguska event [a massive explosion that occurred over Siberia in 1908, believed to have been caused by the air burst of a large meteoroid or cometary fragment]. Not that a Tunguska-type event would wipe out the whole of humanity, but I just thought it was interesting to remind you of this possibility.

In this artist’s impression, human colonists explore Mars to uncover its scientific secrets.
Credit: NASA

But in my view the main reason to go to Mars is not to avoid this catastrophe on Earth, but because Mars is by everybody’s admission the most likely object beyond Earth to have life. Now, we could discuss in depth whether life on Mars would just be a branch of Earth life because of the famous cross contamination, or whether it would be genuinely from a second genesis. The real goal would be if we found different life, life that began independently on the two planets. And this would be a sensational discovery which would show that we are not alone in the universe, the universe has bio-friendly laws. It’s also possible that if we find life on Mars, it could have come from Earth. Or it could have gone in the other direction, from Mars to Earth. Or could it could have come from somewhere else entirely. From the point of view of doing good science, it doesn’t much matter, because we would have a second sample of life, a second example of evolution.

That seems to me to be a huge motivation for wanting to go there and set up a permanent base and do science on the martian surface. You wouldn’t be going there as tourists, you wouldn’t be going there for fun. You’d be going there to do science, and emailing all this stuff back. Your publication record would be sensational. (laughter) You would no doubt have all sort of honors heaped on you.

But you wouldn’t be coming home.