The Martian Chronicles
Human Exploration of Mars and New Frontiers by Jeva Lange '15
You have to travel 33.9 million miles if you want to go to Mars. We haven’t quite figured out the how part of this yet, but let’s not start there. Mars — as a planet, as a concept, as an object of intense fascination — has never really been about the how. Mars is about the why.
Humans first looked at Mars and registered it as an extraterrestrial body in the second millennium before the Common Era. It was logged by the Zhou Dynasty, noted by the Egyptians, observed by the Babylonians, described by the Greeks, and measured by Southern Asians. Galileo Galilei laid his eyes on the fourth planet in our solar system through a telescope for the first time in 1610. Giovanni Schiaparelli mistook an optical illusion for canals on the planet in 1877. In 1950, Ray Bradbury imagined what it would be like to wake up millions of miles away from our own planet: “He remembered his arrival on Mars. Like a thousand others, he had gazed out upon a still morning and thought, ‘How do I fit here? What will I do? Is there a job for me?’”
David King ’11 is dreaming of answering those questions for himself. King was among just 705 candidates who made it to the third stage of the Mars One Red Planet Colony Project, a pool of aspiring astronauts winnowed down from an initial 1,058 applications. King even went as far as to have laser eye surgery in order to prepare for the program’s medical exam. “How many opportunities does someone get within their own lifetime to be a part of something like that?” King asked. “Even if it is a long shot.”
Mars One is among several major high-profile attempts to get humans to the red planet in the coming decades. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently detailed his own aspirations to reach the planet at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, going as far as to say the only reason he makes money is in the hopes of one day colonizing Mars. President Barack Obama likewise vowed to send “humans to Mars by the 2030s and [return] them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.” Mars One, an organization based out of the Netherlands, describes its mission as sending humans “not to simply visit, but to live, explore, and create a second home for humanity. The first men and women to go to Mars are going there to stay.”
Mars One isn’t just seeking physicists and astronomers, though. Colonizing a planet takes more than math and science; it requires constructing something from nothing. King aims to be a sort of MacGyver at the Mars colony: “I’m the kind of person, I could go to a place like Mars where there is no infrastructure, there is no history of tool-making or we have no idea how to smelt steel on Mars, or any resources. I feel like that is a really incredible challenge,” King said.
King knows a thing or two about building something from nothing. In his Mars One application video, the camera zooms out to show a full Brooklyn studio and loft, with King proudly (and impressively) declaring, “I built everything here.” Now based in Detroit, King works for a company that restores old buildings while respecting their historical integrity.
But as King acknowledges himself, Mars One isn’t an inexpensive project. The organization has said it will cost $6 billion to transport its first group of humans those long 33.9 million miles, and many critics of the project say even that is a low-end estimate.
But as various Mars projects chug on, burning through the wallets of billionaires and governments, a whole other group of people is working to make travel to the cosmos as cheap as possible.
Sandy Curth ’16 works near San Francisco as the publicity director for the International Space Elevator Consortium (ISEC), a team that hopes to construct a literal stairway to heaven in the coming years. “In the current world of space technology and space exploration, the biggest problem is that it’s really expensive to send anything into space,” Curth said. “You have to use a rocket. And there’s basically a fundamental equation that governs exactly how much fuel you need to get anything into space. It says that 85 percent of anything that goes into space has to just be fuel. So right now it’s at least $10,000 a kilogram to launch anything. It’s stupid. It doesn’t make any real sense to put anything into space unless it’s absolutely essential.”
Enter the Space Elevator. The concept would work something like this: tether a super strong cable from somewhere on the equator to a massive counterweight, like an asteroid, about halfway between the earth and the moon. The plain old centrifugal force from the earth spinning will keep the line taut, allowing people to use it “just like a normal elevator,” Curth said. “Potentially that would reduce the cost of sending things into space to about $500 a kilogram.”
While it sounds like science fiction, Curth and his international teammates have a wealth of research bolstering the space elevator, including models, conferences, Master’s theses, and peer-reviewed papers. Curth presented his own undergraduate thesis at the Space Elevator Conference in Seattle this year; his research involved trying to understand how an earthquake would affect the cable if it jittered waves up its length into space. (Curth’s conclusion: it wouldn’t break).
“There’s no one person who has ever built a spaceship. There are like fifty thousand people all working together,” Curth said.” “And that to me is exciting, to figure out how to collaborate, finding a huge group of people who are interested enough and invested enough to be kind of anonymous in this big project.”
Hundreds of miles away from Curth, King mused on the same thing. “Ray Bradbury has a bunch of really great books about Mars,” he explained. “The thing about his books particularly is, he always emphasizes the role of the work. The working man. You know, building a planet.”
In the end, King didn’t make the cut for the even smaller pool of candidates being considered for Mars One. But he is not taking the news as defeat; King has heard Mars One will be looking for more applications in the future, and he intends to apply again. “The people who I’ve surrounded myself with in my life are people who are more interested in trying than not trying,” King said. “How many times in your life can you say you’ve done something no one has ever done before? What have I personally done to advance the bounds of human achievement?”
It’s as selfless and grand a question as the sign-offs at the end of Curth’s newsletters to the ISEC community — “come and join us and help make the future happen!” The future, though, is mercilessly forgetful; for every Galileo, there is the first person to ever wonder about Mars, their name long lost to the passage of time.
But of this we can be certain: King and Curth are yet another link in a chain that began when the first person looked at Mars and wondered if there was more to it than a shiny red twinkle in the night sky. How do I fit here? What will I do? Is there a job for me?
One day, if King steps onto Mars or Curth into space and they are confronted by Bradbury’s question, neither will hesitate to answer.