The concept has provided ample inspiration for scientists, science-fiction writers, poets and musicians, but the possibility of "Life on Mars" may soon become a reality because the first manned mission from Earth to the Red Planet is allegedly just a few short years away. Mars One is a Dutch non-profit foundation assembled with the sole purpose of sending the first human visitors to Martian soil.
In April 2013, it announced its aspirations to establish the first human colony on the Red Planet by 2025. Its team comprises an impressive array of scientists, academics, and business leaders who are all combining their skills to make their vision into a reality.
Two hundred thousand people have so far registered to be part of the mission, despite the huge uncertainty surrounding its potential success, and competition is fierce as the first flight will host just four passengers.
Mars One claim that the mission is perfectly feasible and that the technology required is already in existence, plus the experience gained via the implementation of Skylab, Mir and the International Space Station has provided valuable insights into the practicalities of living on another planet.
The voyage will not be for the faint-hearted as it is intended to be a one-way-only trip, but for many people the prospect of forming a brave new world on a totally different planet is worth the risk. In fact, we must not forget that Earth's history is full of intrepid explorers who set off into the unknown in search of adventure and new horizons, and, in this now highly developed world, the opportunities to follow in their footsteps are few and far between.
In practical terms, the flight is anticipated to last between seven or eight months, during which the astronauts will be confined together in a tiny, spartan environment, a prospect that will be a huge challenge in itself. It will be a gruelling journey with no water for washing, only wet wipes, and just dried or canned food to eat. The passengers' ears will be assaulted by constant noise from machinery, and they will have to maintain a strict daily regime of three hours intense exercise to maintain their muscle mass. They will be solely responsible for their own medical and dental welfare, along with any maintenance or repairs to equipment and, once they arrive on Mars, they will need to be able to survive by cultivating crops and sourcing water. The would-be astronauts will therefore have to undergo eight years of training before the flight to ensure that they possess the necessary skills to support themselves, their team members and their equipment.
Once they arrive, most of the living quarters for them to begin their new life will have been put into place in advance by unmanned rovers. The settlement will comprise bedrooms, living areas, a "plant production unit," working areas and facilities for washing. If they leave the settlement, then they will need to wear space suits in order to survive.
So, how likely is the project to succeed?
Mars One propose that their plan is founded on five pillars that will ensure its success:
Firstly, that the voyagers intend to make a permanent settlement and are prepared never to return to Earth. The technology required to allow return vehicles to take off from Mars is currently unavailable, though this could change in the future.
Secondly, the mission will use resources known to be available on Mars; for example, the location will be chosen for the availability of basic elements such as icy soil with the potential to provide water and, through the process of electrolysis, oxygen. Thus, with a few specific tools, the settlers will be able to utilise existing resources and will not need supplies to be constantly delivered from Earth.
The third key to success is the proximity of Mars to the Sun, enabling the use of solar panels to supply energy. It is thought that the first settlement will require approximately 3000 square meters of panels to provide sufficient power.
The fourth "pillar" of success is considered to be the fact that no new technology needs to be developed, as each stage of the mission will employ existing skills, knowhow and equipment. It has been designed to be as simple and straightforward as possible.
Finally, there is no governmental or political involvement with the mission, and astronauts and suppliers will be selected purely on the basis of the quality of skills and services they can provide.
Whether these pillars will be enough to ensure the success of the mission and the safety of the fearless souls aboard is not known, but Mars One are confident that they have covered all bases.
They have identified two major risk categories: the prospect of costs over-running, and, perhaps not too surprisingly, the potential loss of human life. Obviously, despite the extensive research and attention to every detail, the mission will be fraught with unknown perils and unforeseen circumstances, and the would-be passengers will have to acknowledge that this journey could very well be their last.
It is this fact that has caused the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (GAIAE), to forbid Muslims from taking part in the voyage. They liken the journey to committing suicide, an act that is forbidden under Islamic law, and have therefore issued a fatwa, or an official Islamic ruling, to warn Muslims against taking part in the Mars mission.
“It is not permissible to travel to Mars and never to return if there is no life on Mars,” GAIAE said in a statement. “The chances of dying are higher than living.”
Mars One argue that the risk analysis profile will continue to evolve and improve over the next few years, before the first humans depart for their brave new world. They claim that the voyage itself is not a suicide mission, and suggested that “The GAIAE should assess the potential risk for humans as if an unmanned habitable outpost is ready and waiting on Mars. Only when that outpost is established will human lives be risked in Mars One's plan." They are encouraging the Islamic authorities to withdraw the fatwa, citing a Koranic verse that "encourages Muslims to go out and see the signs of God’s creation in the ‘heavens and the earth.'"
"The most influential example of this was the Moroccan Muslim traveller, Ibn Battuta, who from 1325 to 1355 travelled 73,000 miles, visiting the equivalent of 44 modern countries," Mars One stated.
Ibn Battuta was a famed 14th century Moroccan voyager who traveled across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
"The mission to Mars is a road that has never been walked before, even though the first settlers will be walking in the footsteps of Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, Neil Armstrong, or any of the other great explorers in history," the statement went on to say.
In fairness, Muslim culture has previously embraced the concept of space travel, with Muslim astronauts like Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud joining the crew of the American Space Shuttle in 1985, and in 2006, Anousheh Ansari becoming the first Iranian-born woman in space. Guidelines have even been set for Muslims to observe Islamic religious procedures whilst in space, under a comprehensive set of rules compiled by Malaysia's space agency Angkasa, and entitled "A Guideline of Performing Ibadah (worship) at the International Space Station (ISS)." The rules tackle such complex issues as how often daily prayers should be undertaken when a day lasts just 90 minutes when in orbit.
It is unlikely that Mars One will be able to provide enough assurances to convince the GAIAE that their one-way mission is without risk, though they maintain that the dangers can be compared to those that mountain climbers face when climbing Mount Everest.
Whether Muslims will be allowed to take part in the mission is still uncertain, but what is certainis that many of the great advances made by Mankind in history would not have been made without some risk to life and limb. "To boldly go where no man has gone before" is a motto that has applied not just to passengers on the Startrek Enterprise, but to all great explorers, past and present.
In the words of United States President John F. "We choose to go to the Moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard”.
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