Eminent physicist Paul Davies has a proposal for you: a one-way ticket to the Red Planet. As it’s typically conceived, a round-trip Mars mission would take about two years and cost at least $80 billion. But you could cut 80 percent of the expense, Davies says, by nixing the return and initiating a permanent Mars colony. The hard part, he says, isn’t subsisting in a hostile environment millions of miles from home but changing the Space Shuttle-era culture of timidity. That’s starting to happen, though: The NASA Ames Research Center teamed up with Darpa to put $1.1 million into a study of manned interstellar travel. Even so, no one’s going anywhere, Davies argues, unless we can bring the price down. To do that, the ticket has to be one-way.
Wired: Who would sign up for a mission with no return?
Paul Davies: That’s the least of our worries. About 1,000 people volunteered after I wrote about this in the Journal of Cosmology. Of course, most are starry-eyed adventurers, not serious scientists who want to be on Mars to do great science.
Wired: Have you heard from any scientists?
Davies: At lectures there are always some who raise their hands. But I think it’s unethical to send young people, since there are serious health risks. You need highly trained scientists with a life expectancy of less than 20 years.
Wired: Would NASA ever fund such a project?
Davies: The US has lost the initiative when it comes to bold, adventurous things. It seems to be a nation in paralysis. The European Space Agency does a good job, but something as dramatic as this seems unlikely. The Chinese might go for it; they’re a young nation and have the boldness, vision, and long-term philosophy.
Wired: What’s the timeline for building a colony?
Davies: To send people might take 20 years and getting the base ready might require another 10. You can resupply every two years, when Earth and Mars are at their nearest proximity. Once the first crew is there, you’d want to send more people before the first ones die. As for self-sufficiency, I’m skeptical of that on a timescale of less than many hundreds of years.
Wired: What innovations are needed to make it viable?
Davies: The problems on Mars include radiation, breathing dust, and other rigors of the environment that are unknown. You need to build gadgets that work in Martian conditions. But I don’t believe it’s beyond us. The technology either exists or is foreseeable.
Wired: What would life on Mars be like?
Davies: The living conditions would be horrendous. But people on Mars won’t be stranded. They’ll be connected by the Internet. They’ll do lab work, write papers, do TV programs. The food will be horrible, as it always is for astronauts. But over decades, that will improve as they learn to grow food under protective domes.
Wired: Would you go?
Davies: You’ll need people with real research skills, not a dreamer using up the resources. I’m very happy with my life here on Earth.