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.

Adding to the appeal of the Cord/Seale proposal was the fact that, according to the historian Dave Dooling, intelligence data gathered at the time suggested that the USSR would have moon-landing capability as early as 1965. The U.S., if it wanted to beat the Soviets to the countries' shared destination, would need to hurry. A one-way trip, Cord argued, had three distinct advantages over its there-and-back counterparts: "It would be cheaper, faster, and perhaps the only way to beat the Russians."

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A schematic showing three different flight modes for Apollo lunar missions (NASA via Universe Today)

It would also, obviously, be quite dangerous for the astronaut who undertook it. The Cord/Seale proposal lacked redundancies, and the direct-ascent path it recommended would give the astronaut in question no ability to abort his mission after launch. And if something unforeseen went wrong once that astronaut was on the moon, of course, he would have no way to escape his situation. Yet for all that the, plan "was incredibly practical," Universe Today noted.

Since the astronaut wouldn't be launching from the lunar surface, he wouldn't need to carry the necessary propellant. Since he would return to Earth in another spacecraft, his own spacecraft wouldn't need a heavy heat shield or parachutes. The one-way mission was a light and efficient proposal.

Furthermore, Cord and Seale were quick to point out, a return trip was a luxury that not every brave adventurer would require. "It is sincerely believed," they wrote at the time, "that capable and qualified people could be found to volunteer for the mission even if the return possibilities were nil."

They were likely correct to believe that -- though, of course, finding such people wasn't ultimately required. Human attention being what it is, several years spent on the lunar surface would be much less inspiring an achievement than several hours, and NASA ultimately opted for a relatively safe (not to mention PR-friendly) "to the moon and back" strategy. But the U.S., it seems, wasn't alone in weighing -- if casually -- a one-way trip to the moon: An article in a This Week newspaper supplement, Mary Roach notes, suggested that the USSR had considered sending a cosmonaut on a similar mission.

Spirit of the Lone Eagle
The notion of a one-way ticket to space didn't die with NASA's rejection of the Cord/Seale proposal. While the agency's core assumptions about manned spaceflight have, since then, all but implied a return trip, proposals for one-way journeys have regularly sprung up in the interim, most of them guided by the idea that the colonization of space is the next obvious step for humanity. In 1998, at the International Space Development Conference, the activist Bruce Mackenzie proposed a one-way trip to Mars that would feature a "permanent settlement on the first mission." In 2011, the famous cosmologist Paul Davies discussed the implications of a one-way trip at the Annual International Mars Society Convention. The year prior, a paper published in the Journal of Cosmology had offered a detailed proposal for a "One-Way Human Mission to Mars." Deeming the idea a "creative solution" to the many problems facing Mars travel, the authors envisioned that "Mars exploration would begin and proceed for a long time on the basis of outbound journeys only." 

They elaborated:

One approach could be to send four astronauts initially, two on each of two space craft, each with a lander and sufficient supplies, to stake a single outpost on Mars. A one-way human mission to Mars would be the first step in establishing a permanent human presence on the planet.

This came on the heels of a similar scheme, this one courtesy of former NASA engineer James McLane III. "In order for our present generation to put a human on Mars," McLane declared in 2006, "we must return to an Apollo-type program that embraces cutting-edge exploration. To maintain project inertia, the concept must have a goal that accomplishes the manned landing within as short a time as possible." The best way to achieve all that? A "one-man, one-way" trip.

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A scientist participates in a month-long Mars field simulation in the northern Sahara near Morocco, February 2013. (Reuters)

McLane was blunt about the costs and benefits of such a mission. "To put a human on Mars within the lifetime of America's current generation," he wrote, "only one scheme is feasible, and this feasible concept challenges our traditional thinking about risk and the value of life." Furthermore,

the mission must be a one-way trip. It's possible that the crew might consist of only one person. For the first manned landing on Mars, there can be no provision for the space traveler to return to Earth. We should call such a solo mission the "Spirit of the Lone Eagle" in honor of Charles Lindbergh, the original "Lone Eagle" who flew solo across the Atlantic. The manned Mars mission (which could be arranged to occur in 2017, just 90 years after Lindbergh's famous flight) will require a person of special ability who can accept a great challenge.

Such a mission, McLane suggested, would require us to become more flexible about the costs we're willing to accept in the name of exploration. "There would be tremendous risk, yes," McLane said at the time, "but I don't think that's guaranteed any more than you would say climbing a mountain alone is a suicide mission. People do dangerous things all the time, and this would be something really unique, to go to Mars."

As for selecting the someone to do this particular dangerous thing, McLane agreed with John Cord that Earth plays host to a vast pool of potential Marsonauts. "I don't think there would be any shortage of people willing to volunteer for the mission," he said. "Lindbergh was someone who was willing to risk everything because it was worth it. I don't think it will be hard to find another Lindbergh to go to Mars. That will be the easiest part of this whole program."

'Another Lindbergh'
McLane was likely correct. Months before the launch of its online application page, Mars One fielded thousands of requests from would-be volunteers for the project, sent to group representatives over email. Elon Musk has discussed his dreams of dying on Mars ("just not on impact"). And professional astronauts have expressed similar enthusiasm for a one-way ticket to the Red Planet. Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, said in a 2007 interview that reaching Mars has been a longstanding dream of the earliest cosmonauts. And at 72, she wanted to realize that dream, no matter the costs. "I am ready to fly, she said, "without coming back."

Tereshkova was not alone in that. The New Yorker's Jerome Groopman, writing on space travel in 2000, asked astronaut Bonnie Dunbar whether she would go to Mars. "Absolutely," she replied, in "a gleeful voice." She continued: "I think of my grandfather who came from Scotland. He had a dream to come to America, took a rickety boat across the sea, and went west into wilderness. Did he stop because of the risks? I'll be fifty-one this year. I've spent my life training to go into space. If my life ends on a Mars mission, that's not a bad way to go."