Friday, September 05, 2014

In defense of a one-way trip to Mars and a comment on the 'Mars fatwa'

by Salman Hameed

Martian landscape from NASA’s Curiosity Rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Yes, humans will be going to Mars. But in all likelihood, the probability of happening it in the next decade or so rests on a one-way trip. Here is a short article that I wrote for the Magazine section of Express Tribune. Unfortunately, they also took out a bit that mentioned a recent fatwa on the issue. You can read the Tribune article here: A One-way Ticket to Mars. Or you can read the full version (Director's Cut) below:

Making sense of a one-way trip to Mars 

If given the opportunity, would you go on a one-way trip to Mars?

I ask this question in several of my classes, and about a third of the students say “yes”. I am sure that when faced with a real-life decision, many of these students will have second thoughts. This is understandable. It is hard to willingly leave family, friends, varieties of good food, and an abundance of breathable oxygen. Oh, and did I  mention mangoes? But I know that at least some of these students genuinely mean it. They would love nothing more than to go to Mars, even if it means saying goodbye to the planet of their birth forever.

A one-way trip to Mars may seem crazy. The concerns are reasonable – to say the least. Even a round-trip to Mars Going to Mars would be extremely risky. Forget about humans, only a handful of robotic missions have been successful in landing on the Red planet. But even if one were to accept these risks, the fiscal costs of a return trip to Mars are so high that such a mission is unlikely to take place in the next several decades. Much of these costs are associated with bringing people back. You nix the return, and going to Mars becomes more plausible.

Some have misinterpreted a one-way trip to Mars as akin to suicide. Indeed, this was the interpretation behind a fatwa issued by the UAE-based General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment (GAIAE). In their opinion – fatwa - it is “not permissible to travel to Mars and not return” if the “chances of dying are higher than living”. Now, GAIAE has issued literally hundreds of thousands of fatwas since its inception in 2008, including about hunting pigeons in cities (seek a permit from local authorities) and on spreading rumors via social network websites (hmm…don’t do it). But predictably, this Mars fatwa got all the attention of the world press, often with headlines that Muslims are forbidden to travel to Mars. Apart from the confusion over what fatwas mean for Muslims, this story is attractive to the international press as it fits the frame of “those crazy Muslims”. But I digress.

A one-way trip to Mars is not intended to be a suicide. It is expected that a habitat for humans, along with the supplies they need to live on Mars, will already be in place before any humans have even set foot on the spacecraft leaving for Mars. This can be done, as cargo ships are relatively cheap.

This is the plan behind Mars One. Starting in 2024, this Dutch company is planning on sending crews of four, departing every two years. There will be no return missions. The plan is to establish a permanent human presence on Mars. They have already winnowed 1058 candidates from a list of two hundred thousand applicants! Two Pakistanis have made it to the second round of selection, and I wish them all the success.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of my students are also amongst the volunteers. But why would anyone go on a one-way trip to Mars? I can understand at least some of the motivation. It gives me goose bumps just to imagine how humans will experience their first steps on Mars. In fact, every action of these pioneers – however mundane - will be historic and full of significance: Washing clothes; taking a stroll; growing a plant. The most difficult part will be living with only a few other humans, all confined to a biodome. Even a brief stroll outside the oxygenated dome will necessitate a space suit. None of this will be easy, but then perhaps, this is exactly what makes it exciting. The risks of death will indeed be higher. But so what? We die on Earth too. Instead of living up to 80 years on Earth, these Martian humans may live up to 40 or 50. But it will be a path-breaking life in the glory of a literally untouched landscape!

This pioneering spirit has always been part and parcel of our species. I can imagine some of our more out-going ancestors taking the risk to expand humans out of Africa to others parts of the world. The spread of the humans on Earth may in fact be a story of a number of one-way trips. Not everyone had to sign-up for it, but a few adventurous spirits were all that was needed. Establishing a permanent human presence on Mars may simply be another step in the history of our species.

All my enthusiasm for this Mars trip aside, I have one big reservation. What if we detect microbial life living on Mars today? In such a case, I would argue to leave Mars to Martians and not interfere in their evolution on their own planet. Unfortunately, the history of our species on Earth also suggests that such a discovery is unlikely to deter any future humans missions to Mars. For the sake of Martians, I hope they are not there.

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