A few years ago, I was in a room in Moscow surrounded by a group of men in white lab coats.
A woman that reminded me of Rosa Klebb in the James Bond film From Russia With Love had just subjected me to a series of tests involving chains, bungee cords and a rubber mattress. I realise some people would pay good money for this sort of thing, but these guys meant business – and they had a proposition.
“Would you like to go to Mars?” one of them asked. “We’d really like to send a journalist.”
The scientists from the Institute for Biomedical Problems were looking for volunteers for a simulated return trip to the red planet called the Mars500 project. A journalist – someone who could describe the realities of life on board a spaceship – seemed to fit the bill. But not this one.
Their spaceship – actually a warehouse in a Moscow suburb – was seemingly kitted out from a local furniture store. It consisted of a series of windowless modules connected together with pipes that you could just about crawl through. By the end of my few hours inside these claustrophobic chambers, I practically threw myself through the only exit door.
When the six volunteers emerged blinking into the grey Moscow winter after 520 days last December, they were similarly disorientated. If you want a sense of how challenging the experience was, it is worth spooling through their audio diaries. The one where all the lights go out is particularly striking and would probably make a good opener for a low budget horror film. Not only do the lights fail, but the ventilation system also shuts down, leading to a potentially dangerous buildup of carbon dioxide.
Worse still, someone starts to strum a guitar.
So you are stuck in a spaceship with no light, limited air and someone is playing the guitar. Now that is terrifying.
There is a serious point to experiments like this, however. If we are ever to leave the confines of low Earth orbit for any decent amount of time, we will have to understand the challenges of long-duration spaceflight. And getting to Mars is going to be tough.
A Mars mission will take at least two and a half years. As the crew gets further away from Earth, they will no longer have the ability to talk in real time with home, as depending on the alignment of Earth and Mars, the time lag for communications will be up to 20 minutes each way.
It will take a lot of fuel, water, food and air. The spaceship will need to pass through intense radiation, navigate to a landing site and touch down on an alien world. Then they have to get back. The technological problems alone are sobering, not to mention the cost of such a venture. Entrepreneur and astronaut Richard Garriott is of the view that these barriers are insurmountable. But he has an alternative suggestion.
Garriott made his millions in computer gaming – developing the first graphic roleplaying games. He spent his millions on becoming an astronaut, flying as a space tourist to the International Space Station. But the term ‘tourist’ does him a disservice: this is a man who thinks big.
“Imagine,” he told me, “if Nasa put up a billion dollar prize that said ‘land something on Mars that captures oxygen and puts it in tanks’. You’d probably get a lot of competitors and a lot of oxygen stored on Mars.”
And that’s only the beginning. “Now have another billion dollar prize for someone to make a self-sufficient greenhouse and another billion dollar prize to build some radiation-hardened living spaces, and so on.”
So for around $10bn in prizes – less than half of Nasa’s 2011 budget, and Nasa only pays if the goals are achieved – you can probably achieve the entire infrastructure needed for humans to live on Mars. Then, said Garriott, you send humans. But only one way.
“I think the people who go to Mars first ought to be settlers. To get people back off Mars is harder than getting people off of Earth, because it’s another world. Maybe we’ll start bringing people the other way in a hundred years,” he said, “but don’t worry about that.”
Well, would he go? “Absolutely. A lot of people say ‘no-one’s going to go one way’. Yeah? Well, let’s prove it. You poll any room of people and at least one will say ‘yes I’ll go!’”
If he’s right, then there are millions of people across the globe prepared to take a one-way trip to Mars to live for the rest of their lives. When Garriott breaks it all down like that, it doesn’t seem so impossible.
The X-prize has opened the way to private spaceflight and space tourism. Could a Mars X-prize kickstart humanity’s steps into the final frontier?
You can listen to the latest Space Boffins podcast featuring an interview with Richard Garriott here.