Friday, February 20, 2015

A chance for a Pakistani to be on Mars...

Salman Hameed


I have written before about Mars One and its plan to send twenty-four humans on a one-way trip to Mars. They started with 200,000 applicants and just this past week, they narrowed down the list to 100. Whether Mars One will succeed in doing what is claiming to do or not is a separate question. But it is fascinating to see all the debates over the nature of one-way trip (is it suicide?) and the individuals who volunteer for it. The shortlist of 100 candidates also includes a retired helicopter pilot from Pakistan. I was asked write a blogpost on its impact on Pakistan from the Express Tribune and here is the post (but also see other videos at the bottom of the post):

If a Pakistani went to Mars...

Reginald Foulds is ready to go on a one-way trip to Mars. His dream may be a step closer as he is amongst the final 100 candidates chosen by Mars One, a private organization that is planning on sending humans to Mars by 2025. This is impressive. Initial applications for this Mars trip numbered close to two hundred-thousand. He is now the only Pakistani left in the pool. A retired helicopter pilot of Pakistan Air Force, Foulds has a 1 in 4 chance of being picked for the ambitious first human settlement on the Red planet. If selected, he will be pushing 70 by the time of the first proposed Mars One mission.

At this time we do not know if Mars One will even be successful in getting everything ready for a human mission to Mars. Nevertheless, this project has generated considerable amount of public interest in Mars exploration as well as some criticism. One of the most common criticisms deals with the one-way aspect of the mission. Many call it a suicidal mission as there are no plans to bring astronauts back to Earth. In fact, it is this very one-way nature that makes the mission affordable in the near future.

But I would not call this "suicidal". The plan is to have twenty-four individuals initiate a permanent human presence on Mars. Cargo vessels are expected to deliver habitats suitable for Martian living well before the first human mission leaves the Earth. The goal of going to Mars is not to die - but to live! Such an adventure is not for everyone. But there have always been explores amongst humans and it is probably because of such early adventurers that some of our ancestors left Africa and eventually established presence in almost every corner of the Earth. People like Reginald are just extending this tradition to a neighboring planet. Others in the future will take our descendants to outer planets and may be even to other stars.

What will be the impact on Pakistan's space program if Reginald Foulds is selected amongst the astronauts headed for Mars? On the face of it, nothing much. Mars One is a Dutch organization that plans on using primarily American aerospace companies to achieve its goals. The funds for the project are being collected through sponsorships with a promise to deliver - if it at all happens - the most watched reality show ever. As a scientist, the last sentence is as disheartening as it can get.

However, there are intangibles that can help science in Pakistan. Reginald's selection in the final batch of astronauts will certainly boost interest amongst school children in Pakistan. Even without Reginald, I can imagine a spike in interest about Mars, solar system, astronomy, and science, in general. How can it not? But the presence of a Pakistani astronaut on Mars can make that endeavor that much more personally identifiable.

But there is another aspect as well. There are 35 countries represented between the 100 candidates shortlisted for the Mars mission. The reality-show aspect aside, this is a stunning diversity for the case of exploration. Several of our neighbors are represented: India has three candidates and both Iran and China have two. It is almost a certainty that the final 24 candidates will be from several different countries, ethnicities, and religions. A successful permanent presence on Mars will necessitate overcoming prejudices that divide us here on Earth. This is the good side of humanity and Reginald's presence - if he is selected - will allow us to indirectly experience it as well. May descendants of the first batch of astronauts on Mars may create their own identity as 'Martians' and may develop a prejudice against humans on Earth.

All said, it is exciting to have a Pakistani represented in the shortlist of candidates for Mars. I hope he is among the astronauts that experience red sunsets and sunrises on Mars. Echoing Carl Sagan's message to future Martian explorers: "I wish I could be there with you".

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Here is the video of Reginald talking about his candidacy:


Also, here is a flashy official video from Mars One about the 100 candidates:


And if you grew up in Pakistan in the early 80s, then you would remember the show Fifty Fifty. They had a hilarious take on the disco hit One Way Ticket to the Moon by the group Boney M. Here is the one-minute skit from Fifty-Fifty (trip from Nizam Arain):

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