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.