The space news that catches your interest this week will probably depend on whether you think space exploration requires direct human involvement or not. If you feel that it just isn’t the real deal unless humans in space suits are landing a rocket ship on another planet, then you’ll probably be most interested in the latest from the Dutch non-profit organization known as Mars One.

In case you’ve forgotten, Mars One is the groups that plans to start sending astronauts to colonize the planet Mars, four at a time, beginning in 2024. The catch is, it’s a one-way trip; the would-be colonists will never be coming back to Earth. If things go according to plan, they’ll get new companions (and supplies) every two years, but no return flight. The selection process for the astronaut colonists has involved applications from around the world—more than 200,000 of them to begin with, which was whittled down to 1,000, then 660. And now the final 100 have been chosen. So here’s where the real circus—I mean, science—begins, as the finalists try to survive in a mock Mars habitat while the cameras roll to produce a reality-TV show (one of the methods of financing the project, don’t you know). You can watch a promo here. Oh, did I mention that one of the finalists is a 38-year-old from Poland who calls himself “M1-K0” and claims to already be a Martian?

A very different space story involves NASA’s release of a video featuring a concept submarine proposed for the exploration of the hydrocarbon oceans of Saturn’s giant moon Titan. Titan is a strange place, with a largely nitrogen atmosphere, a landscape of dunes, frozen methane snow (and a little water ice) plus large lakes or small oceans of a hydrocarbon mixture. Even so, many scientists feel Titan may be a good candidate to find forms of life, probably in those oceans. So it would be most helpful to have a space probe that could explore beneath the surface. Hence this submarine proposal. But before you go picturing a space-suited Captain Nemo piloting the sub through undersea canyons and past bizarre creatures, the truth is the probe will be robotically controlled. It’ll surface from time to time to send data back to Earth, but no astronaut submariners will be involved. And the mission is still a good number of years away, with some pretty big hoops to jump through first.

I’ve said before that I think the Mars One project is doomed to fail, hopefully before any volunteers commit elaborate suicide by rocketing off toward the red planet. If I were a betting man, my money would be on the Titan submarine mission as the one more likely to succeed. BUT, speaking as a fiction writer, there’s only so much drama I can create around a robot probe in a sea of frozen BBQ fuel, whereas dozens of novels could be written about the Mars One venture.

So let’s keep our fingers crossed for the success of the cautious, well-reasoned-and-researched approaches to the exploration of space, and leave the dramatic failures to the world of fiction.


If your heart is set on becoming one of the first humans on Mars you’d better get your application in soon to Mars One—they’re the ones who plan a one-way mission to the Red Planet in 2023, funded by a reality TV show, and with further colonists to follow every couple of years. The deadline to apply is Saturday August 31st. Mind you, more than 165,000 people have applied, so good luck with that.

NASA and the U.S. government have talked about a Mars mission for sometime after 2030 but such a trip will definitely have its challenges. Some researchers funded by NASA think a lot of the problems might be solved by putting the crew into hibernation. (Just think—six months of catching up on sleep!) The idea of hibernating astronauts is certainly not new—it was big in the 60’s in everything from Lost In Space and Star Trek on TV (look for the original episode “Space Seed” that inspired the later movie The Wrath of Khan and the latest ST movie Into Darkness) to the movies 2001: A Space Odyssey and its much later sequel 2010. They used to call it “suspended animation” (more impressively technical, don’t you know). If you’ve seen any of the Alien movies, you’ve seen it there, too. However, the recent research doesn’t propose to freeze the astronauts, just lower their body temperature and considerably reduce their bodies’ needs for energy and oxygen.

When we think of hibernation we probably think of black bears—for five long winter months or more their body burns only enough stored fat to keep their core temperature above a minimum level, and even their urine is recycled to prevent dehydration. Lots of other animals enter into hibernation or similar dormant states, but is it possible for humans? The knowledge we have on the subject mainly comes from accidents. In 2012 a man in Sweden survived nearly two months in his car, buried in snow. Many other low-temperature survival stories seem to show that, if done right, humans might come through long periods in a dormant state without harm.

The advantages for space travel? Lots. There would be much less need for food, water, and space to move around—you might be able to send a crew of twenty instead of six. Psychologically, it would be far more pleasant for the crew to be unconscious than having to occupy themselves and get along together for months in a tin can millions of miles from home. One of the biggest hazards—solar radiation—would be easier to shield against if the crew weren’t moving around. Of course, there are many problems to solve, like how to create and maintain the hibernation state (just let the deep freeze of space do it’s work? Brrrr). There also needs to be a way to prevent the loss of muscle and bone mass that astronauts currently combat with rigid exercise regimens. Maybe something like electro-stimulation of the muscles could do the trick. I’m sure bodies would also need to be turned regularly to prevent bed sores.

My thoughts? I’d love to see other planets (but a two-way trip, thank you very much) so I might be willing to undergo suspended animation under three conditions:

1)    The computer programmed to wake me up is not named HAL 9000.

2)    They can arrange to fill my dreams with visions of Rio de Janeiro beaches.

3)    My fellow astronaut looks like Sigourney Weaver.


I’ve posted before about Mars One, the Dutch-based project that plans to send four astronauts to found a colony on Mars in the year 2023. They officially began taking applications on April 22 and at last word have received 30,000 of them. They expect at least 500,000 by the end of August when the application window ends. Half a million people claiming they want to make a one-way trip to live on Mars for the rest of their (possibly very short) lives!

The applicants have come from all over the world. I found it really disturbing when one article I read quoted a 39-year-old bookseller in China offering his reasons for going, including that “the air must be a lot fresher and easier to breathe than here.” Uh…that would be a No. No breathable air. Temperatures that make Antarctica look good. No liquid water, no plants, no animals, no shopping malls, no hospitals, no restaurants, theatres, hockey rinks, ball fields…. No fresh supplies if a subsequent rocket malfunctions, either. And no escape from your three human companions. Do I need to go on?

My point is, how many of these applicants really know anything about Mars? How many people anywhere know any better? About real conditions in space? Or anything involving Astronomy? Particle Physics? Microbiology? Science…anyone?

We have vastly more scientific knowledge available to us than at any time in human history, often no more than a few mouse clicks away. Some of the most amazing scientific television programming is ready for public consumption all day every day. We have higher and higher rates of education, including college and university. But how many people really pay attention to all this science? Even the most basic stuff about our bodies, our planet, our solar system? If you think the gap between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of us is large (and it is), I’d have to believe that the gap between the science nerds and the average population is even larger, and growing all the time.

While huge numbers of people spend their nights watching “celebrities” risk life and limb on the dance floor and high diving board, and the antics of buffoonish rednecks in all their grotesque variety, the founders of tech companies are making the money and staking their territory in the future of the race.

The nerds won’t have any problem inheriting the Earth, ‘cause the rest of us just aren’t paying attention.


When you think of space travel, do you think of NASA? The Russian space program? The Chinese government?

Old thinking, because the newest players in space may be taking over the game. I’m talking about global corporate interests. Big money. While governments continue to keep the budgets of organizations like NASA in near-starvation mode, the corporate stars of the world are stepping to the front of the line. People like Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines, Larry Page of Google, Elon Musk from PayPal, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. They’ve been getting together over martinis (or something expensive) and forming new companies to explore—and exploit—outer space. We’ve known for some years that Virgin Galactic plans to fly tourists to the edge of space and back (for $200,000 a crack, thank you very much), and they are getting closer to their first paying trips. I’ve written before about SpaceX, whose Dragon spacecraft are already flying supply missions to the International Space Station. But there are also new startup companies like Moon Express, preparing to build (and use) landers for the Moon. Planetary Resources intends to mine asteroids, and maybe even save us from those threatening meteor strikes we keep hearing about. Deep Space Industries is another would-be mining company. And we shouldn’t forget less commercial, but equally enterprising ventures like Inspiration Mars (mentioned in my last post), planning to send a married couple to Mars in about five years from now, and Mars One, a group that hopes to have a colony on the Red Planet by 2023.

These people are not fruitcakes, but some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the new economy. And their plans sound like fantastic dreams, but they’ve got solid scientists working with them. The space race is going corporate.

Was this inevitable? Since we taxpayers tend to cast our eyes closer to home on our hospitals and our roads, maybe governments just can’t continue to back the exploration of space and it’s up to the moneymakers to do it.

You can see the attraction for them. Talk about your offshore tax havens! Claim an asteroid and make the rules—who’s really going to stop them? Laws? The law of gravity is the only really important one, and it’ll ensure monopolies for the companies rich enough to break it. But lets not forget tourist opportunities: what high roller wouldn’t want to show off to his friends in a casino in Earth orbit, with all of we peasants zipping past below?

By the way, we’ll still be funding all of these ventures—by being the customers of Google, PayPal, Amazon and the like, and then buying the products these new companies bring back from way out there.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Did you think Columbus sailed to America because he felt like tanning on a new beach?


It was announced this week that the hunt is now on for colonists for Mars. No, not by NASA (who really believed George W. Bush when he announced plans to go to the Moon and Mars back in 2004, and what’s really been done since then other than some paperwork?) No, I’m talking about a private initiative based in the Netherlands called Mars One which hopes to raise a ton of private money and put human colonists on the Red Planet by 2023. Recruitment will begin over the next few months, and training for the…(dare I call them Martianauts?) will take about eight years.

Chief Medical Director for Mars One, Norbert Kraft, a former Sr. Research Associate at NASA states, “In my former work with NASA we established strict criteria for the selection and training of astronauts on long duration space flights. Gone are the days when bravery and the number of hours flying a supersonic jet were the top criteria. Now, we are more concerned with how well each astronaut works and lives with the others, in the long journey from Earth to Mars and for a lifetime of challenges ahead. Psychological stability, the ability to be at your best when things are at their worst is what Mars One is looking for. If you are the kind of person that everyone chooses to have on their island, then we want you to apply too.

You need to be 18 or older, and have lots of other qualifications, but you can read all about it here.

The catch? Well, they have a chance of coming up with a way to get you to Mars, but there won’t be any way to get you back. It’s a one-way trip, and you’ll be alone on a whole planet with the rest of your team for two additional years, until the next group of colonists is expected to arrive.

Do you really feel like getting away from it all? How do prepare yourself mentally for something like that? Watch all the reruns of Gilligan’s Island?

Or maybe just haul out all of those lists that end “...would you take with you to a desert island?”