As a Mars One candidate I can reach for the stars

I became a scientist on 26 October 1980 on
the floor of the family room in the house
where I grew up. I had just turned nine
years old and my conversion was prompted
by a broadcast of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.
The episode, hauntingly titled Blues for a
Red Planet, summarised human
exploration of Mars, first in our
imagination, then through telescopes, and
ultimately with robotic probes. I was
fascinated.
How had this world, in some ways like our
own, taken such a different course? Why
was Mars dry and cold, while Earth
remained warm and wet? The ambiguous
results of the Viking probes’ exobiology
experiments were tantalising: had Mars
ever hosted life? Might it still? It seemed
obvious and inevitable that we would
someday travel there ourselves to answer
these questions. In the way of young boys, I
was certain that I would be among the first
to go, and I was sure that in order to do so,
I would need to become a scientist. And so,
I did.
Later, my dreams changed shape as I
realised that we had lost our will to voyage
great distances to accomplish great things –
that I would not go to Mars, because we
would never again go even as far as the
moon. I locked my aspiration to travel to
another world in that special room of the
heart where we hold our childish
certainties.
Mars One has given me a chance to revisit
that room. Here, finally, is an idea whose
audacity matches the importance of the
goal: a privately funded effort to establish
a permanent human presence on Mars.
Once there, we will take advantage of the
versatility and ingenuity of human
scientists to obtain definitive answers to
the critical questions raised by 40 years of
robotic exploration. We will look for
evidence of past (and present) life, even as
we prepare the planet for new life: ours.
To succeed, we must overcome daunting
technical and financial obstacles, but early
on in any great undertaking, it is easier to
talk oneself out of trying than to actually
try. Meanwhile, I find it far more
interesting to think about how we might
make the mission work than to compile the
reasons why it might not. If no physical
law prevents us from succeeding, then
what practical and technical
considerations do? Let’s figure that out.
This conversation, and the efforts that
follow from it, are valuable in themselves.
It is possible that with vast dedication and
cleverness (and, let’s be honest, luck), Mars
One or an effort like it will colonise the
Red Planet in our time – but it is certain
that our children will settle the solar
system. The detailed discussions we have
today about how to initiate the
colonisation of Mars will influence how
that settlement takes place, and how (and
whether) it ultimately succeeds.
In preparation for that undertaking, the
young people of today will benefit from
witnessing that conversation unfold. The
images from the Viking landers inspired
my nine-year-old self to study astronomy,
and then engineering, and ultimately
biology, launching me into a life as a
scientist.
Knowing that the effort to colonise Mars is
real and serious – that we are returning to
an age of space exploration, and that we
are leaving Earth not to plant a flag and
return but to make a second home on
another world – will inspire students to
pursue careers in science, engineering and
technology.
Presented with the incentive of gaining
another planet for humanity, young people
will see these fields not simply as
professional opportunities, but as a means
of embarking on a great adventure, for the
benefit of the whole species. I hope that
they will devote their genius not to
designing the next hot app, but to building
the spacecraft that carry us between
worlds, the bioreactors that synthesise our
air, water, and food, and the recyclers that
preserve precious materials (and possibly
teach Earth a thing or two about resource
management).
Whether we succeed or fail, every step we
take along this path brings us closer to
Mars. I look forward to participating in
Mars One, and in doing so, helping to
inspire the generation of scientists and
engineers – and settlers – who come after
us.