Science

She was fascinated by space as a child. Now Australian woman Dianne McGrath has volunteered to live out life on Mars. By Denham Sadler.

Australian hoping to join the Mars One mission

An illustration of the planned Mars One settlement.
Credit: BRYAN VERSTEEG/MARS ONE

Dianne McGrath was reading a science blog at her friend’s house when she saw it. The fairly nondescript article described an outlandish, almost ridiculous plan that McGrath knew she had to be part of. It detailed a feat that humans have been imagining for decades, but which has only recently become a potential reality: a manned mission to Mars. And those responsible were asking everyday people to apply to be crew.

The mission is the brainchild of Mars One, a non-profit Dutch company led by entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, a 37-year-old who says he’s more focused on the business model of a Mars mission rather than the technological logistics, which other private enterprise will solve. 

McGrath, 45, applied almost immediately, then didn’t think much more of it. Mars One claimed that more than 200,000 other people wanted to take part in the mission, with four to be eventually selected as its crew and first residents on Mars.

Six months later, while on holidays in Europe, McGrath found out that she’d made the second stage. The applicants had been reduced to 1058 people from 107 countries, and later again were culled to just 705. She is still in the running to be among the quartet of pioneers.

“There are so many reasons why I want to go to Mars,” she says, listing the sense of adventure, the experience of life without Earth’s gravity and seeing its blue dot far away in the sky. 

It’s a fantastical, idealistic concept, but an infectious one. The thought of leaving Earth and travelling to the incomprehensibly distant Mars, and inhabiting it, has long been part of the human psyche. From David Bowie to many television series and films, Mars has always been an escapist’s dream. 

But until recently, living on Mars was confined to science fiction. Now it’s considered a real possibility, with only a matter of time to fruition. If it’s not Mars One, it will probably be NASA, or the next group after that. 

Mars One is a private capital venture that hopes to raise the funds for the mission primarily through a global reality TV show of the project, as well as through merchandise, donations, sponsorships and a crowdfunding campaign. The company plans to purchase the necessary components for the mission as they are developed by private tech companies, and says it will only buy from “proven suppliers”.

Space travel inspires us with its demonstrations of the huge capabilities of human ingenuity and discovery. It blooms curiosity and spurs many into action – after the moon landing in 1969, PhD applications increased almost threefold. Unlike many other aspirational astronauts, though, McGrath didn’t “go to sleep and dream of being in space every night” when she was young. She grew up during the Cold War space race and subsequent NASA shuttle missions. But it wasn’t scientific breakthroughs that sparked her interest, it was science fiction.

She collected comic books, and fantasised about being a superhero who could fly out into space. Now that common childhood vision is becoming a somewhat remote possibility.

“I feel comforted and excited to be able to do something that was a big part of my childhood dreams,” she says. 

The mission’s first four astronauts, which Mars One hopes will be on the Red Planet by 2025 after a seven-month journey, will be joined by additional teams every two years. There they’ll be confined to 50 square metres of inflatable structures, including bedrooms, working areas, a living room and a “plant production unit”. They’ll never be able to leave their makeshift homes without wearing a spacesuit. 

The likelihood of actually making it to Mars, and how human life will function there, has been questioned widely by many experts, with former German astronaut Ulrich Walter saying there is only a 30 per cent chance of reaching the distant planet. A recent study by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stated that human life could only be supported on Mars for 68 days, an estimation that has been contested by Mars One.

When McGrath describes what she believes a regular day on Mars would be like, it sounds disarmingly like a day on Earth: making breakfast, exercising and completing a list of menial tasks. She is already used to pushing herself to the absolute limit – she trains every day and regularly runs ultra-marathons. The thing that concerns her most about this possible life is the mental element of complete isolation on another planet.

“I think the biggest challenges are going to be the psychological ones, the emotional aspect of things,” she explains. “It’ll be so isolated, not living near anyone you know or love. Isolation is a pretty powerful thing.”

To prepare for this unimaginable lack of contact with the rest of the world, McGrath has been regularly meeting with others who have been in somewhat similar situations, including Arctic explorers. On the night of our interview she’s meeting with a prisoner who spends most of his time in solitary isolation.

The next stage of the Mars One selection procedure is an interview via Skype. McGrath can’t tell me exactly when that will be conducted, due to a confidentiality agreement, except that it will be within the next couple of months. 

Of course, the mission comes with a large and almost incomprehensible catch: there’s no return trip. Should it go ahead, the four selected will be the first humans on Mars – and the first humans to die on Mars. But McGrath says this doesn’t daunt her at all.

Asked if the prospect scares her, she replies with a quick and definitive “No”. 

“I think it’s part of the excitement, really,” she says. “I wouldn’t have signed up if I was expecting to come back.”

The things she says she would miss most from her life on Earth are also the ones hardest to re-create. “It’s going to be the people aspect,” she says.

McGrath realises that, by participating in such an enterprise, she would have to forgo many of the hopes and dreams of a normal life. But she focuses on the small, sometimes intangible aspects of human life. 

“You can fabricate everything else,” she says. “The stuff that I will miss will be being able to get a hug from my partner, being able to sit down with a coffee with my best mate, the laughter, the social interaction.”

But it’s perhaps an easier concept for McGrath to grapple with than for most: she’s left everything behind before. Once, while on holiday at a friend’s house in Sydney, she received a phone call from a firefighter standing in the burning rubble of her apartment in Melbourne. Every possession of hers had been destroyed, except for her small travel bag filled with some essentials.

In the six months it took for insurance to clear, McGrath lived on her friends’ sofas. During this time she came to an important realisation that would heavily influence her readiness to take part in the mission.

“I realised that I don’t need any of it,” she says. 

She never replaced much of what was lost.

“It makes it easy to just walk away from stuff. I live in fully furnished apartments. It makes it very easy to go. I won’t miss stuff.”

Mars One is an expansive, starry-eyed program that many believe will never get its feet off the ground, let alone onto Mars. It attracts a lot of criticism in the scientific community, and has been labelled everything from manipulative to a straight-up scam. Many say it is exploiting those who have applied to join the mission, all of whom had to pay an application fee. In 2012 Wired magazine gave the mission a plausibility rating of just 2/10.

NASA’s Brian Muirhead, chief engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory at Caltech/Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has also questioned the feasibility of the mission, saying that financing a commercial flight to Mars is “way beyond our capability to do today”. Chris Welch, master’s director at the International Space University, a private higher education institute, claims the Mars One program doesn’t “demonstrate a sufficiently deep understanding of the problems” involved in space travel.

McGrath says she has encountered these criticisms regularly and has grown to accept them. “If we don’t have people asking questions, we don’t solve problems,” she says.

For McGrath, it’s an impossibly exciting prospect, but she knows better than to pin all her ambitions on being chosen for it, and on its unproven prospects of success. During her studies at RMIT, she has developed a passion for combating food wastage and describes her efforts to implement plans to reduce this in the commercial sector.

“If I’m not going to Mars and doing things that I think are purposeful for humankind there, I like to think I’ll still be doing purposeful things here for humankind,” she says. “They’ll just be different things. I’ve got plenty to do here.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 7, 2015 as "Mars needs McGraths". Subscribe here.

Denham Sadler
is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.