What makes a Mars settler?

Meet three Australians who have signed up for the chance to live – and die – on Mars.
By Lydia Hales January 6, 2016 Reading Time: 5 Minutes

SEVEN AUSTRALIANS ARE among the final contenders for a chance to live – and die – on Mars, around 225 million kilometres away. They’re candidates for Mars One, the controversial manned mission to Mars project founded by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp and scientist Arno Wielders in 2011.

Currently, 34 nationalities are represented in the remaining squad, aged between 20 and 61. They’re all vying for one of 24 initial places in the proposed Red Planet colony.

After further testing including isolation and interview phases in September 2016, the remaining team will be offered full-time employment-as-training. The first four-person crew is planned for a 2026 launch, followed by waves of four every two years.

Their prize may seem bitter-sweet: the aim is to create a permanent settlement, and by ruling out a return trip it proposes to reduce much of the cost and technological issues.

So what do these candidates see that would be worth giving up their lives on Earth? 

Dianne McGrath, 46

What’s your motivation to go, knowing you’ll never be able to come back?

A lot of people think it’s just about adventure, but it’s much stronger than that. Part of it is about legacy: it’s rare you’ll have the chance to do something so meaningful, and have an impact not just on your own life, and the lives and futures of people alive today, but on our future as humanity.

How does your expertise tie into the project?

I was previously Director at the Australian Energy Regulator for Energy Made Easy, and I’m currently studying Environmental Engineering, focusing on sustainable food systems and waste. I also volunteer on the board of three food security and sustainability not-for-profits. One aspect of sustainability is viewing everything as a loop, not a linear supply chain. When you think about what we’d need to survive sustainably on Mars, it has to be a closed system – the challenges of feeding the colony are an opportunity to develop processes that could potentially improve practices here.

How do you feel about the fact that you may have to live for years in a confined area with only three other people?

We need not just technical skills, but personal qualities and skills – behavioural, psychological, emotional – to thrive. The first four will be gender-diverse, and they’re supposed to be from different continents, with a spread of ages to improve problem-solving skills. What we learn from each other will be really interesting.

Leaving is a big concept and it’s something all the candidates had to consider just by applying. I’ve got a mother and father and brothers, and a partner who I love, and these are discussions we’ve had.

So are planet-to-planet long-distance relationships the way of the future? 

After the convicts, there were settlers for whom it was a choice to go to Australia to start a new life. We arguably know a lot more about Mars today than the first settlers knew about Australia, plus we have another 10 years to prepare for it rather than just trying our luck. I think some aspects of those early settlers are part of our psyche – part of us responds to those sorts of challenges and opportunities.

We’ll also be able to keep in contact with everyone on Earth. We’ll have email, video conferencing, I’ll still be able to tweet. I’ll probably have contact with family more than I do now!

Joshua Richards, 30

Physicist, comedian, Royal Marine Commando – you’ve an extensive CV. How did Mars One fit in?

I’ve jumped around a bit, but kept coming back to space, though I never felt there was any opportunity for me to actually work in it. Because of all the work I’ve done for Mars One, I’ve discovered opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise. For example, I was the team co-lead developing the Helena payload for Mars One’s 2018 lander, with the University of Western Australia’s Motorsport team. We toured during National Science Week talking to students.

There’s been considerable discussion in the media as to whether the mission is feasible, or worse  that it’s a hoax. How would you respond to that?

I believe in the research behind it. But even if we never actually get to Mars, or someone else gets there first – it wouldn’t really matter because we’ve captured the world’s attention and focused it on something truly magnificent: space exploration.

If it were somehow an elaborate hoax, it’s a hell of a hoax – and one that’s engaging millions of people globally, inspiring young kids to consider careers in aerospace.I want future generations looking up at Mars with a sense that they can do it too.

What if you were in the first crew and for whatever reason they couldn’t send anyone else up?

That’s pretty grim, but we’d still be up there. You’d still have kids being born, who’ll be young when we get up there, and you’d be able to point out Mars in the sky to them and tell them that people live up there. Even if we were marooned and were left up there to die, we still would have reached it, in the same way that we reached the moon… so people will still want to explore and go further.

How do you (and your loved ones) feel about your leaving?

The way my parents and I have looked at it, we’ve got time now… it really makes you live in the moment. I’ve had a list of 101 things to do before I die that I’d been making my way steadily through over the years, but now I’m making a real concerted effort on it. No one can really count on having a certain number of years anyway.

Rohan Lyall-Wilson, 41

What’s the biggest attraction for you?

There’s been chatter around human settlement on Mars for years, but this engagement with the public, opening up the application process, has made the idea a lot more tangible than simply a bunch of professional astronauts working for NASA. For me it’s already been a success.

And the concept of the pioneer. By all means, it’s going to be difficult, but if there’s a challenge there, that was enough for me in some respects. It’s not just the idea of being first, but being part of a team constructing something from effectively nothing.

My family has a bit of travel history – my great uncle was Major Wilfred Blake, who led the first (unsuccessful) round-world trip by aeroplane in 1922. Travelling around the world is very different to travelling to another planet… but travel, seizing the opportunity (all those clichés!) have always been discussed in my family.

You work in risk management. How does your expertise influence your approach?

My concern would be the uncertainties we haven’t yet accounted for in enough detail – it’s still early days to know what those might be, but it’s the unknown unknowns.

My wife and I had spoken about the ‘risk’ of the reality of this project and how real that may be at this time. But my wife’s initial response wasn’t surprise – I’m one of those strange people who have been thinking about the idea of human settlement on Mars for more than 20 or so years, since back in the 1990s when some of the NASA rovers were hot in the media. I started to think it’s very well to stick robots on another planet but surely we’re going to attempt a human presence, so it was some time around then that I started planning for the possibility.