A one-way trip to Mars

It sounds like a tale from pulp science fiction: volunteers signing up to take a one-way trip to another planet. But that's just what's in the works in the Mars One program.

The Netherlands-based non-profit organization plans to send four people to the Red Planet in 2024, with the hopes of establishing the first human settlement there.

While some are skeptical that the program will ever get off the ground, the team at Mars One stands by the mission.

"We're going to be a new and complete society on Mars," explained Dr. Norbert Kraft, Mars One Chief Medical Officer. "Independence from Earth is the goal in the end."

According to the group's mission statement, after the initial team touches down, follow-up groups would leave for Mars every two years. These settlers would reside in specially designed pods where they would live off of supplies from Earth at the start, but eventually form a self-sustaining community. Their food would be grown indoors under LED lights, using hydroponic techniques that don't require soil.

Water would be extracted directly from the Martian ground, where according to Bas Lansdorp, Mars One Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, it exists in the form of "water-ice." From this H2O, the settlers would draw oxygen to create a breathable environment, and nitrogen would come from the Martian atmosphere.

marsoneimage2forarticle.jpg
An artistic representation of the Mars One colony. The Living Unit is a Lander that has a unique, inflatable living section and an airlock used by the astronauts when leaving the sealed, habitable settlement. The Living Unit will be set in place by the Rovers and filled with breathable air by the Life Support Unit prior to the arrival of the astronauts. In addition, the Lander contains construction materials for the astronauts to construct rooms, floors and install electrical outlets. The Lander itself contains the 'wet areas', such as the shower and kitchen.
Bryan Versteeg and Mars One

Independence from Earth means that the settlers would likely face a lifetime of separation from loved ones, and all creature comforts.

But there's also a catch: there are no do-overs if you don't like life on Mars. As Lansdorp explains, it is not currently possible to launch return ships from the Red Planet. So understanding the one-way reality of the mission is a key to making it a success.

"This is a permanent settlement. Once you accept that, the technology exists to do it," said Lansdorp. "The idea of a permanent mission has been around for a long time, but we are the first ones to actually implement it."

So who would give up everything to start a new life on Mars? As it turns out, more than 200,000 people from all over the world applied to be Mars One astronauts. For Hew Nau, one of those applicants, the idea of the mission is simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating.

"It does scare me," he told CBS News. "It's something that I can't really comprehend in full, but it's something that we're going to have to deal with when we get there because there won't be another way."

Fellow applicant Lauren Reeves has a different perspective. "It doesn't really frighten me," she said. "You know, you do risky things in life and we're all going to die at some point. I think it'd be a better story if I died on Mars."

Both Nau, 28, and Reeves, 30, have passed several rounds of the application process. By 2015, Mars One plans to pick 24 international finalists to begin an intensive nine-year training program. Part of this preparation will involve residing in Mars-simulated environments for three months every year, where trainees will live in harsh Earth locations with limited access to the outside world. They will be put through a series of trials, where they will have to demonstrate that they can keep cool heads while also functioning well with their fellow trainees.

As Dr. Kraft noted, compatibility is the most important quality Mars One looks for in the candidates.

"A key point is that they have to not only get along, but they also have to complement each other," he said. "On Mars it's about survival and working together."

This may be good news for Reeves, a comedian.

"I feel like I get along with people fine as long as they don't talk to me," she joked. "If you're going to Mars forever with just three other people, you want to make sure that they're people you get along with."

Nau believes his job as special agent with the U.S. State Department has prepared him well to be part of an international team on Mars.

"Working across cultural lines to get common tasks taken care of is not something that everybody is good at, and it's something that in my line of work I've had quite a bit of experience with," he explained.

According to Dr. Kraft, you don't have to have an advanced degree in science or a medicine to be a chosen to go to Mars.

"We can train them to do all the professions we need them to do," he said.

Regardless of their backgrounds, several finalists will receive intensive medical instruction, where they will learn how to treat a range of ailments, including those unique to this mission. The seven-to-nine month trip to Mars could lead to decreased muscle mass, reduced aerobic capacity, and bone density loss for the travelers. There are also concerns about exposure to radiation during the space journey and on Mars, though both Lansdorp and Kraft say that every precaution will be taken to protect the settlers.

Assuming the Mars One plan comes to fruition, how will they pay for it? According to Lansdorp, long-term funding will be generated from a reality program about the settlers. He emphasized that he envisions a non-exploitive show.

"We'll report on the mission to Mars in a way that is acceptable to the settlers," he said. "We won't show what they don't want to share."

If Nau gets selected, would he be prepared for interplanetary exposure?

"Nothing about this is for fame for me," he said. "My focus is on the mission and everything else."

As for Reeves, she believes she would take it all in stride.

"We're going to be on Mars," she quipped. "It's not like people are going to be rushing over for our autograph."

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