One Way Trip to Mars?


On July 4, 1976, the first Viking spacecraft was scheduled to land on Mars. Caution dictated a delay of a couple of weeks until Neilsday, but nevertheless… I’ll shamelessly take advantage of the July 4th peg for a blog post on the topic.

At LibertyCon this weekend, Les Johnson brought up Mars in the Mad Scientist panel (quoted from his Facebook page):

“How many of you would sign up for a one-way trip to Mars?” This was the question I heard Buzz Aldrin ask at last year’s Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration Workshop in Houston, Texas. In an audience comprised of mostly scientists and engineers, more than half raised their hands. I was not among them.

I was astounded at the response. Would these highly-educated scientists really give up the blue skies and green grass of Earth to live forevermore in what amounts to a Winnebago on the fourth planet from the Sun? A good day on Mars is colder and more inhospitable than a bad day in Antarctica. Instant death would surely follow the first careless mistake and there would be no easy way to get help in an emergency. What were they thinking???

Yes, I would go on a round trip to Mars and back. I would take a calculated risk in order to experience Mars first hand but I would definitely want to return to my family and friends, to my yearly trip to the North Carolina mountains and to the simple walks around the neighborhood that I take with my wife each day. But I wouldn’t give all that up to live and die on Mars.

Mars One ( is talking about settling Mars and for them the one way trip might actually become a reality. What about for you? Would you go on a one-way trip to Mars?

I replied on Facebook, but have expanded my reply here:

That level of volunteering doesn’t surprise me. Humans are explorers. Those who weren’t got their DNA wiped out by the barbarians over the hill.

But one clarification: volunteering for a “one-way trip” doesn’t necessarily mean you intend to die on Mars.

You might. The Mars One folks do not have any plans to return. Not my cup of tea, but with 7 billion people on this planet, I have no doubt they’ll winnow down tens of thousands of applicants to a few dozen incredibly qualified explorers.

Or it could be that you’re being sent with equipment to manufacture propellant for a return trip (methane and oxygen from the Martian atmosphere). The equipment might not work, but if it does, you fuel up your ascent vehicle, blast off, and head home. (This is a backwards version of Zubrin’s “Mars Direct” proposal, which would manufacture the propellant onsite first, then land humans next to the propellant factory.)

Or it could be that you’re being challenged to create enough value that you (or your Earth agents) can afford to buy a return mission. What would museums—or billionaire collectors—pay for the first fossils recovered from Mars? Ten billion dollars? More? Enough to send you a ship to come home in, I bet.

Or it could be that you’re gambling on national pride to bring you back. “We’ve abandoned these brave pioneers on that lifeless rock in space. Let’s spend whatever it takes to bring them home!” (A pretty dangerous gamble, given NASA’s budget gyrations over the last few decades.)

Or it could be that you’re gambling on technological improvement, so that Elon Musk‘s third or fourth wave of settlers can easily afford bring you back to Earth if you want to return. (Similar to the denouement of Heinlein’s “Time for the Stars.”)

What is does mean is that you’re accepting a much higher risk of dying on Mars, in exchange for bringing down your mission cost by 90% or so… Which might be the difference between “Going” and “Not Going.”

And, as one of our brunch companions stated today, “We’re all accepting a 100% risk of dying on Earth right now. What better trip are you saving yourself for?”

Please, no comments about the politicians/entertainers/whatever you’d like to put on the one-way trip. They’ve all been said before, they’re boring, and I’ll delete them. So don’t bother.