Sunday, 23 March 2014

Mars One: suicide mission or journey of a generation?

An edited version of this piece was published in The Age on 13/03/14. 

Mars Club? Yeah, you can talk about that. 

“We're the middle children of history, no purpose or place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives…”   
-  Chuck PalahniukFight Club

Mars One - the mission to create a human colony on Mars - is shaping up to be one of the most riveting endeavours by humankind in a generation.  Initially dismissed by many as a hoax, the mission is the genesis of not-for-profit foundation, Mars One

The first four ‘citizen astronauts’ will land in 2025, with new crews arriving every two years to expand the settlement, but there are no return trips. More than 200,000 people worldwide applied for the mission. A shortlist of 1,000 has been selected to progress to the next stage, including 43 Australians.

The mission poses some interesting questions for a global community shifting uneasily in an era of geopolitical unrest and hugely disproportionate distribution of wealth and resources. What governance structure would you establish if you could design a human settlement from scratch? How would you organise labour and manage conflict when you can’t just vote someone off the planet? What if you are Muslim and a fatwa was issued (which it has been) declaring your intended mission is tantamount to suicide and therefore against Islamic law – would you still go?

The mission is conservatively estimated to cost $US6 billion. Co-founder and CEO of Mars One, Bas Lansdorp said in a 2012 TED talk, “It’s been my dream for 15 years to create a human mission to Mars, but I could never figure out how to finance it.”

Enter Paul Römer, inventor of Big Brother. “This mission to Mars can be the biggest media event in the world,” he said. “Reality meets talent show with no ending and the whole world watching. What a pitch!”

A short film (Mars One Way) profiling five of the shortlisted US candidates was recently released and makes for compelling viewing. What sort of person signs up for a one-way trip to a hostile planet? For the chosen ones, there are no prospect of sponsorship deals, no chance of C-grade celebrity spin-off opportunities or cooking shows or gigs on Neighbours, and no truckload of cash on offer.

The featured applicants are not the high-fiving, exuberant and ‘cultivated quirky’ personas of contemporary reality shows. In the artfully shot doco, they appear variously as loners, drifters and people who figure Life Out There may hold more meaning for them than on Earth.

Says one, “I’m a floater. I’m like a turd in the toilet bowl of life. I don’t really have any direction. I see it as a voluntary donation towards something bigger than myself. “

The comments in response to the online video are equally revealing. (These people are depressed! What sort of impression are we going to make if this lot are representative of humankind on Mars?!).

 A 30-something introverted man who lacks “any important reasons to be on Earth right now” is filmed in a drab domestic setting amid a cold, grey streetscape with houses hemmed in behind cyclone fencing. “I want to go to Mars because it will give me another purpose for living  - a greater use of myself for the rest of humankind.”  

What’s challenging about watching these people is that they don’t conform to our hypothetical ideals.  We find it hard to believe that a meaningless life was the motivation for the great explorers of our history. Imagine Sir Edmund Hillary, tending his bees in New Zealand saying, “Sure, I’ve got a few friends here and a girlfriend, but life’s pretty aimless. I’m thinking Everest might change that.” 

There’s a beekeeper in the Mars One shortlist too, who if you didn’t know better, looks like he already lives on Mars. His environment is desolate, windswept and barren, aside from the bees swarming on his wooden hives.  

“Maybe if my girlfriend asked me not to go, that would probably change my mind,” he says quietly and unconvincingly. “But I think there would be a lot of things that I’d love about Mars that would overcome anything I’d be missing about her.” Ouch.

Also intriguing is a father of three who made the first cut. He wears a colour t-shirt under his business shirt and jacket, hinting at the boy in the man who isn’t yet prepared to give up on his childhood dream of exploring space, of a superhero waiting to bust out of his suit. In a society conditioned to condemn any parent who doesn’t put their child first, his choice to leave his family is fascinating. He heartbreakingly chokes up as he says, “If my little boy came up to me and said, ‘Dad don’t go’, that would probably change my mind.”

It’s striking how many times a version of this is said by the applicants – of their mission being derailed by the simple act of someone they love asking them not to go. It’s a portrait of subterranean discontent, isolation and a desperate longing for a life with meaning. Is being told ‘don’t go’ enough to create that?

Interestingly, the only female featured appears to have the strongest conviction that a one-way trip to Mars is her life purpose.  With unintended black humour, her partner says “It’s hard to think about the fact that I’m the back up. But then I realise, I’m the backup to Mars,” he says with a shrug.

These people, with all their vulnerabilities, represent the anti heroes of our time. They are Walter White before his cancer diagnosis. They are the unnamed, discontented white-collar protagonist in Fight Club. They disturb us, challenge us and expose the imperfections, frailties and longing of a generation that hasn’t yet discovered its purpose. 

What constitutes a valid reason to leave this planet for good? Is it acceptable to sacrifice time with your family to pursue an individual dream and what are the consequences? If the definition of suicide is making a one-way trip with no prospect of returning (as the fatwa would suggest), isn’t travelling through the birth canal also a one-way mission to (eventual) death?  

They may not be going boldly, but Mars One is challenging us to think about life – not just on Mars – differently. It could well be a reality show worth watching.