Over 80,000 people have registered, and paid a deposit, to express their interest in being part of a reality TV programme that aims to send a small number of people to Mars to establish the first colony there. It sounds adventurous but there is a catch. The colonists will be making a one-way trip. They won't be coming back, even if they wanted too. They will be the first people to die on another world.
In my view they would not last long. Our technology just isn't up to keeping them alive. They would initially live off rations brought with them from earth, but as for living off the land - generating oxygen and water, growing plants - they would be taking a gamble with technology that would let them down very quickly. Unmanned supply ships from Earth could deliver supplies, but given the difficulties and the risks would they bet their survival they would get through?
Some people want to go because it's an adventure they would give their lives for (or at least that's the view they hold in the comfort of their own home). Others want to go because they are dying anyway, of disease, or perhaps they are elderly and think what have they got to loose?
So what would be the global TV audience for life and death on Mars? How would we feel when the colonists boarded their spacecraft and left earth orbit to start the interplanetary cruise knowing they would never be coming back? Would we feel good when the colonists battle to stay alive fighting their failing life support systems 100 million miles away on an airless, waterless red plain? What if someone in the colony pleaded for rescue? Are you not entertained?
Do we really want this to be part of the history of our exploration of the Solar System? In a thousand years when schoolchildren look back at the historic first footprint on the red planet will they feel inspiration or sadness and possibly disgust? When we do colonise Mars will we cordon off the site of the first manned landing and leave the bodies in the capsule and where they fell as a grotesque memorial?
More Than A Footprint
The exploration of space is not just about the first footprint on another world. It is about ourselves, our hopes and dreams, and how we see the future. The first footprint on Mars means more than just getting there and dying there. What does it say about our species that we sent the first people to Mars to die? Not just sent there with a fighting chance of establishing a self-sustaining colony, but a no-win game of death on TV.
You might say that there is no shortage of people who want to go. It's their choice. Healthy people who would give their lives to be the first on Mars. Some people with terminal illness who want to go and spend their last days there. If they want to go and someone is willing to send them why should they not go you may ask?
The answer to this is that in our times no one goes alone, especially if the funding for such a trip comes from a reality TV project. A trip to Mars means more than filling a TV schedule, and making money from advertisers. It matters more than a global brand.
When we first set off to circumnavigate the Earth, to reach the South Pole, to get to the top of Everest, to put a man in space and on the Moon, we knew the dangers. The explorers accepted them. It was an essential part of the adventure that they came back, or died trying. Captain Scott died with his companions on a heroic march back from the South Pole having been beaten to his goal by Roald Amundsen. But would our view be the same if he had climbed into his tent at the Pole and waited to die? Armstrong and Aldrin could have been stranded on the Sea of Tranquility due to a malfunction or accident and opened their helmets to die swiftly. But they didn't plan it that way and what victory would it have been if they had? The Soviet Union thought of a one-way trip to the Moon. Thank heavens they never had the chance.
Why are we contemplating this? Is this part of our great feats of exploration that started when we trekked out of Africa? Does it sit well alongside Marco Polo, Columbus, Gagarin and Apollo 11? This is not the USS Mayflower carrying space pilgrims to a new world. We will always be able to find people who want to go to Mars this way to become famous. But should we go to Mars this way for TV ratings and vulgar mock celebrity obsessed entertainment?