Dying in Space: An American Dream

Mars One is not the first project hoping to boldly permanently go where no man has gone before.
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Humanity's future? (Mars One)

If you are at least 18 years of age and curious and capable and resourceful, with a capacity for self-reflection, an ability to trust other people, and a deep sense of purpose, then you can to go to Mars. Maybe. The Mars One project, which is planning to send a group of people to colonize the Red Planet, has officially opened its applications process to public voting. If you are one of the people ultimately selected for the program, if all goes according to plan, you will depart Earth in 2023 to follow in the epic footsteps of Magellan and Gagarin and Armstrong, staking a claim for humanity's extension into a new and unknown world.

The only catch? You will not be coming back.

Yep: It's named Mars One in part because what it offers is a one-way ticket. In positive terms, this means that the program promises its participants the adventure of a lifetime. In more negative ones, it means that the lifetime in question will likely reach its conclusion somewhere outside of Earth. And that's a feature, not a bug. Our new relationship with the world beyond Earth's borders, Mars One declares, "will be characterized not by rovers and probes, visits or short stays, but by permanence. From now on, we won't just be visiting planets. We'll be staying."

Mars One might be the highest-profile experiment we've yet seen when it comes to one-way space ticketing. It might be the one that has inspired the most nerdy conversations ("so, would you take a one-way ticket?") this past week. It might be, with its permanent cast of castaways, "the world's best reality TV show."

But the one-way trip from Earth -- to the moon, to Mars -- has been a longstanding dream of space flight. One that's almost as old as the dream of space flight itself. The return leg of a trip to space has always presented particular challenges to engineers, in the way that safely landing an airplane has always presented a particular challenge to pilots. (And those challenges have extended, of course, to budget directors and administrators.) So engineers and physicists, people who tend to be pragmatic above most else, have long been proposing manned space missions that would leave the man (or woman) in question stranded in space. Temporarily, or permanently.

Bring a Good Book ...
The early one-way-to-space proposals were, like most other space-related proposals of the time, products of decidedly earthly competition. In 1961, President Kennedy issued his challenge to send a man to the moon "in this decade," not because it was easy but because it was hard, because it would serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills -- "because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too." With those lines, engineers at NASA and elsewhere had a suddenly explicit, and quite public, goal: Go to the moon. 

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A possible configuration for a direct-ascent lunar vehicle (NASA via Universe Today)

Over at the Bell Aerosystems Company, two engineers focused their efforts on the "winning" aspect of the president's objective. John Cord was a project engineer in the Advanced Design Division of the firm; Leonard Seale was a psychologist in charge of the Human Factors Division. The pair formulated a plan to build a one-man spacecraft, ten feet wide and seven feet tall, that would be large enough to house a single human occupant. It would be half the weight of John Glenn's Mercury capsule. It would include tools and medical supplies and a battery-powered spacesuit. It would be equipped with enough oxygen for 30 days of space travel and enough water for 12. It would also include a nuclear reactor that would generate electrical power.

It would include one more thing, too: a module that would function as living quarters. Which would be a necessity, since Cord and Seale's plan would require the astronaut selected for it to stay, long-term, on the moon. His capsule, launched from Earth, would follow a direct ascent path to the moon, landing on the lunar surface after about two and a half days. He would then set up shop -- a colony of one -- on the moon, mating modules to shelter himself from debris and solar storms. The single astronaut would take his giant leap for mankind ... and then he would hang out. Alone. For at least a year. Maybe longer. 

As Mary Roach outlines in her book Packing for Mars, a series of nine subsequent launches would head to the moon to provide this ultimate lone ranger with a better living module, better communications equipment, and the nearly 10,000 pounds of the food, water, and oxygen he would need to survive away from Earth. During which time, Cord and Seale figured, NASA would have had time to determine the details of another mission -- a rescue mission, essentially -- that would come to pick him up and bring him home. The original man on the moon, per this plan, would have a stay on the lunar frontier that would be "long but finite."

'Perhaps the Only Way to Beat the Russians'
Cord and Seale unveiled their proposal in 1962, at the Institute of Aerospace Sciences in Los Angeles. The "One-Way Manned Space Mission" plan, they estimated, could be launched as early as 1965 (which they deemed ideal because 1965 was expected to be a year of minimal solar activity). The scheme was a time-buying strategy as much as anything else: Within the hanging-out-on-the-moon timeframe the plan outlined, NASA would be able to develop and launch a three-man spacecraft -- the kind that would, come 1969, send Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins to the moon. The kind that in this case could also serve as an early, ad hoc version of a space shuttle, chauffeuring America's man in the moon safely back to Earth.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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