Credit: Originally published by Marie Claire | 18 November 2015.
Would you sign up for a mission that offers the adventure of a lifetime… But no return home? Rebecca Davis speaks to two South African women hoping to head to Mars.
Imagine being offered a free trip to a destination that has intrigued humanity for as long as we’ve known of its existence. Sweet! You’re told there will be strict weight limitations on what you can bring along. No problem, you think. You’re used to budget airlines. The journey there will last seven months, and conditions where you’re headed are going to be a little bit different from what you’re used to, you’re told. It will be cold – between -15°C and -87°C. That might make it hard to go outside, but you probably won’t be able to go outside all that often because vicious dust storms continually ravage the landscape. If you did make it out, there might not be very much to see anyway: probably no water and no vegetation. Oh, and you have to produce your own food and extract water from the soil.
At this point, maybe you’d be starting to reconsider. Perhaps this trip isn’t for you after all. Then they mention another small detail: you’re never coming back. This is a one-way ticket to planet Mars, and there is no return flight. Most of us would run for the hills at this stage. What kind of crazy person would sign up for that deal?
Meet Adriana Marais and Alexandra Doyle. These two young South African women are among 100 candidates internationally who have been shortlisted to travel to Mars to set up the red planet’s first human colony. ‘I don’t see a possible move to Mars as giving up something, or as a sacrifice,’ Alexandra says. ‘I see it as a privilege – the chance to live one lifetime on two worlds.’ When the privately-funded Dutch company Mars One put out the call for candidates in 2013, they were deluged with applications. More than 200 000 people internationally were willing to give up life on Earth forever to be part of the first human settlement on Mars.
Over the past two years, their numbers have been gradually whittled down. Adriana and Alexandra have successfully passed through rounds of online interviews and a medical examination to make it down to the last 100. The next step sees 24 finalists selected, who will train together for several years. From 2025, Mars One hopes to begin sending the astronauts to Mars in groups of four – with each crew leaving Earth every 26 months.
Both Adriana and Alexandra have the air of supremely focused individuals. Ask them why they’d be insane enough to want to do this, and they answer without a flicker of hesitation. ‘I want to be the most improbable human I can be,’ Adriana says. ‘I am prepared to give up my life here for the unprecedented contribution I would be able to make to the sum of human knowledge from a new world. I want to be one of the first citizens of Mars.’ Adriana, 32, has a PhD in quantum physics and is no stranger to daunting challenges. She has applied to the South African National Space Agency to work in Antarctica in December, and is training for the 2016 Two Oceans Ultramarathon. ‘I think I must be a kind of extremophile, thriving in physically and mentally challenging situations,’ she laughs.
Alexandra is no slouch either. The 29-year-old, who was raised in Gauteng but now lives in the UK, graduated with flying colours in law after studying at night and working as an orthodontic dental nurse during the day. The fact that she’d be embarking on this mission never to return to her normal life on Earth doesn’t put her off. In fact, it’s what attracted her to the project in the fi rst place. ‘It was the one-way part that really struck a chord with me,’ she says. ‘The mission to Mars is not just about taking a trip and saying we’ve put our feet on a new world. I’m interested in seeing if we can build a home there, too. It’s not a holiday, but it will be an adventure – and the best kinds of adventures are the ones where you don’t turn back.’
The risks are skimmed over by the Mars One team, who have said that human space exploration is always going to be dangerous, but these are risks that Adriana and Alexandra are willing to take, even if it means leaving behind everything and everyone they know. Both women are quick to acknowledge that if they’re selected for the mission, there’s plenty about their home planet they’d miss. ‘Animals, thunderstorms, that new-book smell, the ocean, family, friends and, of course, chocolate,’ Alexandra rattles off. Adriana is already nostalgic for a good steak and a bottle of wine. Since they’ll have to transport so much equipment with them to establish their colony, there will be precious little space for the astronauts to bring along home comforts. ‘All I will take is information,’ Adriana says. Electronically stored books, music, photos and movies are the only reminders she would carry with her of life on the third rock from the sun.
Alexandra insists on taking at least one hardcopy book: her favourite, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. If the women make it through to the final 24, they will be expected to train for the Mars trip for at least a decade. Who can predict what will happen in that time? What if they fall in love, or become pregnant? Is there anything that would cause them to reconsider the decision to live and die on an alien planet? No, they say. Alexandra amends: ‘If I were to develop a medical condition that would hinder the mission or jeopardise the crew’s welfare, I think that would be a valid reason to withdraw from the programme.’ Otherwise, the women are adamant: when that shuttle leaves for Mars, they’d give everything to be on it. Asks Alexandra: ‘Who wouldn’t be filled with hope and wonder at the thought that one day soon, a human being will be able to look up at the night sky and see two moons above their head instead of one?’