All current plans to send human explorers to Mars suggest the first mission is 25 years away. But a one-way journey could actually be possible very soon, and it might be just what we need to kick-start human space exploration.
That's the only slightly crazy idea put forward by Washington State's Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Arizona State's Paul Davies. Although their notions may seem like the stuff of science fiction - their scholarly paper discussing the idea actually has the Star Trek inspired title "To Boldly Go" - they believe the technology to send astronauts to Mars exists right now, or will in just a few years, and there really is no time like the present.
Their proposal calls for a pair of two-person spaceships that would make the six month journey to Mars at right about the same time, followed by a steady stream of supply ships and additional colonists. The astronauts would head to Mars knowing that, in all likelihood, they would never set foot on Earth again. Schulze-Makuch and Davies liken the astronauts' ordeal to that experienced by the first European settlers of the New World, very few of whom ever saw their native lands again.
And make no mistake, these really would be interplanetary pilgrims, not just visiting scientists. The authors' main concern is the colonization of Mars, which they see as a vital step towards safeguarding the human race from an Earth-based catastrophe and ensuring that at least some small portion of our species survives.
Then there are the particular details of their plan, which would certainly make terrific science fiction even if their mission never becomes science fact. They place the first Martian colony next to a big ice cave, which would provide a perfect mix of shielding from radiation and abundant stores of water and oxygen. They also suggest the first colonists should be somewhat older, perhaps around 60. They say this on the basis that the radiation exposure will shorten lifespan and damage reproductive organs, so it's better to send people who won't be affected by either of those problems. This does raise the question of just how this will become a permanent, ongoing Martian colony though.
But my favorite part of their plan is how they propose to fund this venture. They recognize that NASA is too concerned with astronauts' safety to go along with a risky plan like this, so Schulze-Makuch makes no pretense about what their plan really needs:
"What we would need is an eccentric billionaire. There are people who have the money to put this into reality."
The big question might not be how the astronauts physically survive, but how they cope psychologically cope with being 150 times more isolated than any humans before them. The authors suggest careful psychological screening and training should mitigate a lot of these concerns, and constant communication with Earth should help as well. (Although I wonder whether the constant, speed-of-light-mandated six minute time lag between sending a message and receiving a reply might takes its toll.) As a point of comparison, they argue these astronauts would be far more connected than the first explorers of Antarctica, which we've already suggested is a good model for future space explorers.
So far, their ideas haven't met with much support from either NASA personnel or the current standard-bearers of human space exploration, the Apollo astronauts. Apollo 14 astronaut Ed Mitchell suggests the plan isn't something we're ready for yet, while NASA spokesman Michael Braukus puts it simply: "We want our people back."
For now, the plan remains a long shot, but that could always change. Indeed, if there are any eccentric billionaires reading this, I've got a couple eccentric scientists that you have simply got to meet...