Robinson Crusoe on MarsI was asked by a couple of people (my dad included) about the proposed “suicide mission to Mars,” and what that was all about. Sheepishly, I had to admit that I wasn’t current on that news front, and had to do a bit of googling to catch up.

The idea of a one-way, one-astronaut mission to Mars isn’t brand new, even in the non-sci-fi world of real space exploration chatter, but it has recently resurfaced in the news. In a nutshell, the reason for the idea of a hop to, but not back from, Mars is a mixture of cost and technical feasibility—that the biggest hurdle in setting humans down on Mars is not the act of doing so, but the conventional returning of the astronauts to Earth.

Technical feasibility and cost and long lists of volunteers potentially interested in being the first person on Mars aside, my thoughts focused in on one main aspect of such a venture: the solitary soul to make the trip. Even if they knew what they were getting into, went through months, or years, of psychological training and conditioning, and said all their goodbyes—can you imagine the life they would be committing to?

Forget about the “normal” risks of space travel; I’m thinking about the fact of absolute planetary solitude, possibly for the rest of one’s life. There would be no guarantees that other humans would follow in later missions—even cheap space programs get cancelled. The only guarantee is that you’d never leave Mars.

And no Star-Trekish two-way conversations with folks back on Earth. In the real world, radio signals travel at 186,300 miles per second, making a one-way signal time of three or four minutes at best (at closest approach between Mars and Earth). So you say “hello Earth!” into your microphone, and six to eight minutes later you get a “hello back at you Mars!” (And most of the time, the round-trip hello/hello-back time is much longer.)

Okay, so you have your never-ending power source (nuclear), lifetime supply of food and medicine, entertainment (books, videos, games), and, of course, you’re living your dream exploring another planet where no one has gone before—and making huge strides in humankind’s exploration of space and understanding of the natural history of a completely different world.

I just can’t help think about one of my favorite 60’s sci-fi films, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, specifically the piece where the lone astronaut (monkey doesn’t count, much) thinks he might go mad in such isolation, with the potential of never being rescued. Or the film version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, when Professor Lindenbrook stared incredulously at the three scratches on a plumb-bob made by his predecessor, and whispered, “Alone…alone!”

Even though our would-be Mars lifer would be going into this voluntarily and deliberately—what if, when they got there, the true reality settled in and they got an unexpected and extreme case of homesickness….

I’m not poo-pooing the idea of sending a person to Mars–even though I am an advocate of the much more achievable robotic exploration of the solar system, and all the knowledge it brings at a relatively affordable price. A scientist on a multi-decade prospecting trip to our neighboring world would reap huge rewards for us all. But, the solitude…the solitude…. (The blogger shakes off a shiver.)

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To Boldly Go…Alone 12 June,2013Ben Burress


Ben Burress

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ.

Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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