If Ryan MacDonald’s life pans out the way he wants it to, he’ll be leaving Earth in 2031 – and never coming back. MacDonald is one of 100 people who are desperately hoping to set up a human community on Mars, about 249 million miles away from his family and friends.
If all goes according to plan, he’ll be 37 when he heads to the red planet. The Cambridge theoretical astrophysicist is part of Mars One, a project led by Dutch renewable energy entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, who claims he will raise astronomical sums of money to land the first humans on Mars – two men and two women – and establish a colony there.
He estimates it will cost $6 billion (around £4.8 billion), which he wants to raise through crowdfunding, Mars One merchandise and selling the broadcasting rights.
Not that this forbidding target is putting off 23-year-old MacDonald, who confidently predicts he will be on the red planet before his 40th birthday. He’s even told his parents that if he’s selected for the mission, he’ll leave home in a rocket and never see them again.
“They weren’t surprised because it’s been my lifelong dream to go to space,” says MacDonald, “but obviously they were a little more surprised about the one-way aspect. They don’t want me to go, they wouldn’t choose for it to be like that and they’ve said it would be difficult for them, but they know I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Man has always been fascinated by Mars. The Romans named their god of war after the planet. Galileo observed it through his telescope. HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds imagined a Martian invasion of Earth. Ridley Scott’s 2015 movie The Martian starred Matt Damon as an astronaut left behind on Mars. Now Radio 4 is dedicating a week of programmes to it.
So how likely is it that MacDonald will ever get to Mars? Since it was announced in 2012, the Mars One project has drawn sceptical responses from scientists who argue that such a vastly ambitious private mission is naive at best. In 2015, during a US House Committee hearing for Nasa’s 2016 budget, Nasa’s chief administrator Charles Bolden told the committee that “no commercial company without the support of Nasa and government is going to get to Mars”.
Monica Grady, professor of planetary and space science at the Open University, who works with Nasa and the European Space Agency, thinks MacDonald is very unlikely to be setting up camp on the red planet anytime soon.
“I’m not so worried about the fact that they won’t come back again – that’s their decision – but I don’t know if we have the technology to do it and I also don’t think we know enough about the psychological effects of being in low gravity for such a long time,” she says.
Professor Grady is also concerned about the rules of nongovernmental space missions. “Who does the planet belong to, who actually has the right to land and make a habitat there? I think it’s laudable but I would like to get the rules sorted before we start sending people off to Mars.”
So she’s not pining to be on that shortlist with MacDonald? “Not yet, I don’t think we’re ready.”
To date the closest we’ve come to landing on Mars is Nasa’s rover Curiosity, which landed on the planet in 2012 and captured footage of its surface with a powerful telescopic camera. The logistics of getting humans to Mars are formidable. Nasa estimates it will take roughly six months to get there, and once you’re on the surface you will find it’s dry, dusty and above all cold – the temperature fluctuates from 20°Celsius in the daytime to a night-time temperature as low as minus 70°C. Mars is also missing an ozone layer, which on Earth protects us from fatal doses of ultraviolet radiation.
But on the bright side, and crucially for aspiring martians, Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found evidence in 2015 that there is flowing water on the planet, which makes a human mission to Mars more feasible.
Nasa’s approach is different; it plans to send robots on a round trip to the planet in the late 2020s and then follow up by sending its astronauts into a low-Mars orbit (250km from the surface of the planet) in the 2030s.
“Humans might get there one day but it’ll take a lot longer than Mars One thinks and there are so many issues to resolve first,” says Professor Grady. “Realistically, I’m more excited about the ExoMars Rover landing on Mars – scheduled for 2021 – because that’ll drill deep down into the planet’s surface to explore signs of life.”
Despite this, MacDonald is hopeful. “Life will be tough for the first few people, but it’s not going to be tougher than many places already here on the Earth are. The food will be hydroponically grown [without soil], with vegetables and insects for protein, and the quality of life will improve over time.”
For MacDonald, Mars One seems the ideal way to achieve his ambition to live on Mars sooner than he thought possible – and he believes science fiction will become a reality. “Californian aerospace company SpaceX is right now developing an interplanetary transport system which has a long-term goal of being able to send 100 people at a time to Mars. Like an ocean cruiser that can travel between planets. I’m hooked.”