Home of the Brave

Why an Indian wants to move permanently to Mars

01 November, 2015

ON A WARM SATURDAY MORNING in May this year, at a Starbucks in Orlando, Florida, much like every Starbucks in the world, I met a young man in a deep blue turban called Taranjeet Singh Bhatia. I may never meet him again. Not because I’m not sure when I’ll next get to Orlando, nor because I’m not sure when he’ll next get to Mumbai, where I live. Instead, it’s because in another 12 years or so, he may land 225 million kilometres away, on Mars. If he does, he has no plans—and I mean none, I mean zero—of ever returning here.

Bhatia aims to leave for Mars in the year 2026. He wants to make the months-long trip, which no human has yet made. He wants to settle there. He wants to do this even though he knows he will not come back. A young man from Madhya Pradesh, Bhatia is on a quixotic global project’s shortlist of a hundred people, readying himself for an improbable shot at Mars few think will succeed. This is why I went to see him in Orlando, where he is a graduate student at the University of Central Florida.

Bhatia is the 30-year-old son of a family that runs the small Hotel Blue Star in Indore. He earned an undergraduate degree in electrical and instrumentation engineering from Medi-Caps Institute of Science and Technology in his home city, and then stayed on to work in Indore for three years. In 2011, he joined UCF’s PhD programme in computer science. In this respect, he is like thousands of other Indians who travel overseas to study every year. I was one of these, for that matter. In 1981, fresh off my own BE, I was the first Indian graduate student at the computer science department at my university in the United States. I can’t imagine there is now a single American computer science department that has never admitted Indian students.

At UCF, Bhatia might have been like so many foreign students on American campuses: do your courses, spend a while floundering, eventually gather your energies, focus long and hard enough to finish your degree—which is more or less how things went for me. Then, people like us have to get out into the real world, find a job at a university or Google or Facebook. But sometime in 2013, Bhatia found out about Mars One.

Conceived in the Netherlands in 2012, this non-profit organisation has a simple goal: to establish a colony of humans on Mars. “Humans have always moved from a place to another without the intention of returning,” Mars One says in the publicity materials they sent me. “This need to expand into the horizon is ingrained within humanity and is the reason behind the success of our species.” Towards that end, Mars One aims to launch four astronauts on the journey to Mars in 2026.

This is the six-billion-dollar dream of the Dutch wind energy entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, who said, last August, that “Mars One’s human mission to the red planet is the ultimate challenge.” Lansdorp put much of his personal fortune into the project, and Mars One is now considering various other funding options. “In March 2013, Mars One closed a very successful investment round and is currently in the closing stages of a much larger investment round,” their website states. “The next step for Mars One will be a listing on a stock exchange to enable supporters to ‘own’ part of the mission to Mars.”

Over four months, I asked the Mars One press office more than once for an interview with Lansdorp, but their reply was always the same: “We receive many interview requests and individual questions, and unfortunately do not have time to answer them all.”

THE STORY OF HOMO SAPIENS is, arguably, the story of exploration. In prehistoric times, our species emerged out of Africa and spread around the world. Through history, groups of people have left home and family permanently behind to travel across the planet and establish settlements, whether voluntarily or otherwise. In fact, the explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s remarkable Kon-Tiki experiment of 1947 sought to establish that the tiny dots of land that form Polynesia were settled in pre-Columbian times by South American people who set sail across the vastness of the Pacific, unsure where they’d find land, or even if they would. The “proof of concept” that Kon-Tiki demonstrated was strengthened in 2011, when researchers found that residents of Easter Island had South American DNA.

All through history, intrepid explorers have pushed human frontiers ever-outward. In that context, Mars is just another frontier—if the furthest yet—in this grand story of human exploration. Mars One certainly seems to think so. And what is human history without Mars? You can imagine the earliest humans staring up at the heavens, stars twinkling every which way they looked, and then there’s this little reddish dot that doesn’t twinkle, since planets don’t twinkle. What mysteries explain that redness?

This year, NASA gained images suggesting the existence of water on Mars, a shot in the arm to those dreaming of humans expeditions to the planet. DEMOTIX / CORBIS

The Romans named the planet after the mythological father of the twins who founded ancient Rome, revered as that great city’s god of war. In wars, the land runs red with blood, and maybe the Romans imagined there had once been some unimaginably horrific bloodletting orgy on that unblinking planet. Indian astrologers called Mars Mangala, associating the planet and its deity with war as well. To this day, Mangala represents heroism, anger, strength and other virile, soldierly characteristics. Mangala’s presence in astrological charts is believed to cause destruction and harm; thus the word manglik, in Hindi and some other Indian languages, describes those born under that maleficent presence, and the associated worry that their marriages will be filled with troubles. Mars has been associated with Tuesday forever, and across cultures: “mangalvar” in India, “mardi” in France, “martes” in Spain and more. “Tuesday” itself has roots in the name of an old Norse god of war, Tyr.

The Mars associations have continued well into modern times. Martians bring war and destruction to Earth in the classic HG Wells novel The War of the Worlds. It was in my dimly remembered adolescence that I first learned of and chuckled over the effect the young Orson Welles supposedly had on his radio audience in the United States in October 1938. He directed and participated in an adaptation of The War of the Worlds that some took as an on-air news bulletin and panicked. It’s likely the scale of the panic has been exaggerated in the telling, but certainly it wasn’t funny. In 1978, the musician Jeff Wayne turned the Wells novel into a lush musical album, whose artwork featured an enormous spider-like Martian spacecraft destroying a puny human warship.

Wells, Welles and Wayne imagined malevolent Martians. But plenty of others have instead claimed evidence of intelligent ones, capable of making beams of light, radio signals and perhaps most famously, canals. The legend of the canals was born when, peering through his telescope in 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he saw straight lines on the planet. Despite later observations that showed these were no more than fanciful illusions, the canal myth lived on until spacecraft got close enough to photograph Mars—these were the Mariner missions, conducted by the US agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, in the 1960s.

We have now seen some other, non-illusory lines on Mars. Scientists have been searching for water on Mars for years, and in 2011, a Nepali student called Lujendra Ojha noticed something very interesting: so-called “recurrent slope lineae.” Think of snowmelt flowing off mountains in the warmth of summer. Come winter, they dry up and recede. The Martian lineae look and behave exactly like that. At the end of September this year, NASA scientists confirmed that the lineae are formed by flowing salty liquid.

The HI-SEAS experiment in Hawaii attempts to study how humans can live in close quarters and relatively alien conditions. ROSS LOCKWOOD

Plenty of evidence suggests there was water on Mars in its distant past. It’s also the real reason Mars is red. The surface has plenty of iron oxide, or rust, formed when iron deposits reacted with water—and so the planet looks, well, rusty. We also know there is ice at its poles. The lineae offer compelling evidence that there’s liquid water on Mars now. That opens up the breathtaking possibility of sustaining life that we might send there.

Mars is close enough to Earth that humans can at least imagine making a trip there and back in a reasonable time. Its force of gravity is about a third of our planet’s. But especially, its distance from the sun, also about 225 million kilometres, makes it conceivable that conditions there are similar to Earth in some ways, and so it might be possible for humans to live there. Take surface temperature, for example. Venus, the next closest planet to us— although its orbit sometimes swings it even closer to Earth than Mars—bakes at over 450 degrees Celsius. Jupiter is a chilly 150 degrees below zero. Mars is usually frigid, like our polar regions, but summer daytime temperatures near the equator can rise to a balmy 25 degrees. (Thus those lineae.) Earth excepted, no planet in our solar system ticks life boxes as Mars does.

In September 2014, India, too, made it to Mars. Or at least, an Indian spacecraft got there, or nearly there. Launched nine months earlier, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Mangalyaan slipped smoothly into orbit around the red planet. It was an event that occasioned plenty of rejoicing across this country, with good reason. It was a stupendous technical achievement. Theoretical calculations had to cover the intricacies of using Earth’s gravity as a slingshot to build speed for the journey; ISRO needed a precise understanding of the orbits of planets that are themselves racing through space at different breakneck speeds; and the mechanics of slowing down enough, and at the right time, so as to settle into a Mars orbit. Then came the engineering challenges of building, launching and propelling the craft.

Of course, Indian scientists were not the first to solve these problems. NASA’s Viking missions, the successors to Mariner, were the first to land on Mars. The agency’s Curiosity rover has been roaming on the planet since August 2012. The European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission launched in 2003; while its Beagle 2 lander failed on landing, Mars Express has remained in orbit around Mars since then. But what captured Indian imaginations was that Mangalyaan succeeded on what was—when compared to NASA and ESA—a positively shoestring budget. Famously, we learned that the fare for an autorickshaw to Mars would have been more than we spent to send this spacecraft there, an average of seven rupees a kilometre. (The rickshaw would have taken a little longer than nine months to get there too, but that’s another story.)

This history, and a fascination with astronomy, is why I follow our forays into space, and to Mars in particular. I’ve long and quietly nursed a cosmic connection to Viking 1, the first craft to land on Mars. For Viking 1 arrived there on 20 July 1976, just four days after I arrived at a campus in Rajasthan to begin my college years. Our exploration of Mars, I’ve always thought, parallels my own coming of age.

Several missions went to the moon before Apollo 11, with Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, actually touched down in 1969. Thus, you can consider all our Mars campaigns as the groundwork for eventually sending humans there. Unmanned missions have given us vast knowledge, certainly. But a mission that carries Taranjeet, Xiaoxia, Jaymee and Ighodalo—to pick four random names from the Mars One shortlist—there? We’re talking romance and wonder on a totally different scale.

Even so, a manned mission isn’t a goal universally considered important. The technical challenges it presents are orders of magnitude greater than those of an unmanned one. Humans need supplies of oxygen, water and food, all of which are heavy and thus expensive to carry into space. Even if there’s water on Mars, astronauts will need it on their journey there. Besides, there are concerns about how humans will travel, live and work together. In his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth, Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut celebrated for his dazzling photographs from the International Space Station, explained that space travel needs “people who can be locked in a tin can … and excel, so temperament alone could disqualify you.” All this is why plenty of scientists believe the knowledge-gained-per-rupee-spent equation is skewed heavily in favour of unmanned space missions. This is one reason the only manned expeditions since the last Apollo moon mission are the relatively less glamorous forays into space with shuttles, and the International Space Station, all restricted to circling the earth.

Taranjeet Singh Bhatia says that he will take a one-way ticket to Mars if given the chance. COURTESY TARANJEET SINGH

Mars One seeks to change that. It isn’t the only such mission underway, though. NASA’s Mars 2020 will launch that year, and land a rover packed with experiments on the planet, ahead of later manned efforts. The entrepreneur Elon Musk, inventor of the Tesla all-electric car, founded the SpaceX project in 2002 to research cheaper and efficiently reusable space transportation, with Mars as an explicit focus of the endeavour. In fact, Musk is one in a long list of billionaire entrepreneurs who have invested in space travel: so have Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Larry Page, among others. But Musk thinks he can land humans on Mars in about another decade. Meanwhile, Mars One it was that asked ordinary folk across the world to sign up for a shot at Mars.

TARANJEET SINGH BHATIA SIGNED UP on the Mars One website along with thousands of others. Then he had to fill a form, send in a resume and a fee. On the form, he answered questions about his sense of humour, how his friends would describe him, how he would handle stressful situations, and more. Part of the application process was a one-minute video that applicants had to upload to the Mars One site, where they are still available. They make for intriguing viewing.

“Satnam,” Bhatia begins his video, greeting viewers with the Sikh invocation. He touches briefly on his love for engineering, his congeniality and, via a clip of him skydiving, his adventurousness. He likes meditation, “which makes me cool and calm in any circumstances.” Addressing the question about his sense of humour, he cavorts on stage in some kind of talent show. His voiceover says “Charlie Chaplin is my favourite,” even as his rubber-limbed movements bring to mind the Marx brothers. “Given enough training and sufficient research facility,” he says, throwing his shoulders back, “I can be a batman. … I mean, Mars man.” Early on in the video, Bhatia muses that going to Mars “comes at the cost of leaving Earth forever.” Then he quotes Eleanor Roosevelt: “But future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Together, the fee, the form and the video whittled the number of applicants down to just over a thousand. In the second round of the selection process, Mars One asked them to take a physical examination that checked, among other things, the “range of motion and full function in all joints.” In a video interview, Mars One asked candidates specific questions about the project, to determine how well they had absorbed material they were required to study. There were also questions designed to determine if they would be good team players.

In February 2015, not long after the Mangalyaan triumph, Mars One announced its shortlist of 100 candidates. Among them were three Indians, new Indian links to Mars: Bhatia, Ritika Singh and Shradha. (One more, Bhupendra Singh, was added later.) Suddenly, Mars was no longer some remote possibility that didn’t need much thought.

I was in Orlando soon after learning about the shortlist, serendipitously, and sought Bhatia out. The Starbucks he suggested for our meeting was close to his campus. He was waiting in his car when I arrived, and emerged with a huge smile. We got our coffees and sat at a rickety table outside, under a branch that dropped an occasional leaf on us. We must have spent three hours there. And as we chatted in English and Hindi, I could not get over the thought that the man across the table might end his days as a name known all over this planet, for choosing to permanently move to another.

Yet Bhatia was surprisingly matter-of-fact through our conversation. He told me that his father lost his entire business in the town of Sagar during the 1984 violence against Sikhs, and had to start from scratch in Indore. He chuckled over memories of a whirlwind swing through Europe after a conference, with his Pakistani labmate: “We both had the same language, both were religious, so it was a good trip. Lots of fun!” What about dying, I asked. Surely, that’s a very real Mars One possibility? His reply was cryptic: “Death should be your bride.” I took that to mean that we should embrace the prospect.

He knew why he was on the shortlist, he said—because of his answer to a question from his video interview, a question he remembered very well: “If a return vehicle becomes available at some point, will you come back to Earth?” Bhatia replied, simply, “No.”

“This is my mindset,” he told me. “If we’re already there, already living there, why should I come back?” To him, this was exactly what the Mars One folks were looking for: people who would take the move to Mars, right from the start, as a permanent one. He thought most of his fellow applicants probably answered “yes” to the question, and that eliminated them. Bhatia was almost proud that he had not even thought very much about it when asked. Far from being overawed by the prospect of committing to Mars like this, he saw it as “extra motivation”: it will “prevent homesickness and mental trauma,” he said, because “nobody will come to take us home.”

The Mars One literature, which doesn’t reveal what questions were asked in the video interview, does state: “Finally, we asked a question that got people to reveal their real reasons for being part of Mars One. We were looking for people who really are sincere about settling on Mars for humanity.”

In spite of his brave Eleanor Roosevelt quotation, Bhatia’s application video had made me think that he didn’t fully grasp the significance of what he was getting into. Now, having spoken to him face to face, I came to believe that Bhatia is indeed that sincere. For him, a one-way ticket was the only way such a mission would work. Even with the scepticism I brought to our meeting, I couldn’t help admiring that clarity.

But it was what came a little later in our conversation that really gave me pause. We talked about his courses at UCF, the technology and his particular qualifications for the Mars mission, when he suddenly said: “I’m now learning more about my religion, and getting more compassionate about the world.”

This was so out of the blue that I actually underlined it in my notes right then. Bhatia went on: “Our Gurus”—the prophets of Sikhism—“taught us about taking care of others, and I’m thinking about that and taking the time to explore myself also.” I was intrigued that Mars One had triggered introspection of this order, and asked Bhatia if he thought he had changed in some way.

The Curiosity rover on Mars sends information and photographs back to NASA headquarters on Earth. NASA/ JPL-CALTECH / MSSS/ GETTY IMAGES

“Of course,” Bhatia said, “my appearance has changed”—and here he pointed to his distinctive turban, saying: “I now wear it in the older historical style.” What he meant was the bunga or tower-style turban worn by Nihang Sikhs, from a more orthodox tradition. Bhatia used to wear the more familiar pagri, but had now come to think of that as “useless”. In contrast, “the bunga is good for everything”, he said, including sports and travelling. It protects the head better and is also more comfortable. He had to fashion the “bunga” every day out of a piece of cloth, Bhatia told me, instead of simply putting on a pre-wound “pag” as others might, and as non-Sikhs might wear a hat. He had grown to appreciate this daily effort. “It contributes to my mindset,” he said, his fingers fluttering to indicate his earlier remarks about this mindset. “It gives me control, discipline and stability.”

I arrived at that Starbucks expecting, naturally, to hear a lot about Bhatia’s thinking about Mars One. I didn’t expect to hear of its effect on his turban. Something about that touched me more than I care to admit.

MARS ONE SAYS it will land its team in 2027, and establish a settlement on Mars. It’s not as if they will start from scratch. Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower had to hack down forests and build homesteads in North America in the seventeenth century, but the first Mars One astronauts will have the luxury of using an already substantial infrastructure, built by several unmanned missions and a rover. By the time the first four humans get there, there will be, among other things, a reasonable stock of water and solar panels in place. The living area will be covered by a thick layer of Martian soil to help ward off radiation from galactic cosmic rays, a real threat when humans leave the Earth. “Five meters of soil,” says the Mars One literature, “will provide the same protection as the Earth’s atmosphere.”

They will have plenty to do to expand the colony. Mars One plans to send four astronauts every two years, thus “nurturing the growing colony.” Growing like that will be slow, partly because the organisation will discourage the first few astronauts from trying to have children there. “In the first years, the Mars settlement is not a suitable place for children to live. The medical facilities will be limited and the group is too small,” their FAQ explains. Besides, “The human ability to conceive in reduced gravity is not known, neither is there enough research on whether a fetus can grow normally under these circumstances.”

The human challenge inherent in the mission is formidable. Put yourselves in the first astronauts’ place and ask: how will you cope with the mind-bending loneliness, with your surroundings, with each other? What happens when you disagree? What happens when you get bored, or depressed, or infuriated? What happens when you get to know each other more thoroughly and intimately than any previous group of humans ever has, and then maybe start disliking what you see? What happens when you fall ill? What happens to sexual and reproductive urges that must remain largely suppressed, sublimated to the larger goal of establishing a colony?

Concerns such as these are real enough that there is actually a NASA research effort, unrelated to Mars One, that seeks answers. Called HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), it consists of a white dome on the side of the extinct Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. Since 2013, it has thrice hosted teams of scientists for a few months at a time, with minimal comforts and no fresh air or fresh food. Any trips outside the dome have to be made in special HAZMAT spacesuits, though they meet nobody else. The dome is six metres tall and 11 metres in diameter—about as much floor space as a middling Mumbai flat — so the scientists have been in each other’s faces a lot. Privacy is close to nonexistent. The idea is to simulate physical and social conditions on Mars. HI-SEAS IV, the most ambitious experiment yet, began on 28 August this year: six recruits are spending a year inside the dome. There must be a certain breed of men and women that is attracted to challenges exactly like these. But at least the HI-SEAS folks know they will be back with family and other earthlings next August.

MARS ONE HAS PLENTY OF SCEPTICS, including me. I have some idea of the enormous human, biological and technological challenges a project of this scope and magnitude must face and solve. Where’s the progress towards all that? Where’s the progress on building the spacecraft? On working out what the Mars men and women will eat, how they will breathe? Certainly it is still early days, but can these problems be tackled, and solutions found, over the next ten to 12 years, and how? Many people simply don’t believe it is possible, not least because other Mars efforts seem much further along than Mars One in grappling with these concerns. Mars One claims that “Permanent settlement allows Mars One to use technology that is not substantially different from existing systems.” Taken as I was with Bhatia, I can’t help but think that that is, at best, excessively optimistic.

Loren Acton, an astronaut from Montana, has flown on the space shuttle (mission STS-51-F in 1985). Speaking to me, he suggested that the people who applied to Mars One don’t “fully realise what they will sacrifice.” Once over the excitement of the trip, and faced with actually being on Mars, the astronauts will find that it is a “very drab place to carry on one’s life.” Have they internalised, he asked me, “what an amazingly inhospitable place Mars is for the support of life?” And those may be moot points anyway, because he believes what Mars One is trying to achieve “has only an infinitesimal chance of success.”

Divya Oberoi, an astronomer in Pune, discussed various interesting aspects of Mars missions. One that was, he said, “well outside my sphere of expertise,” but that he nevertheless thinks about: how astronauts will adapt to permanently lower levels of gravity. The effect of gravity is a serious concern when astronauts return to Earth after long periods in space. In weightless conditions, astronauts’ bones grow less dense and therefore weaker. Back on earth, bones weakened this way are immediately subject to stresses that earthbound folks don’t even feel. This will be an issue even with the lesser gravity on Mars. “We don’t adapt well to a loss of gravity,” Oberoi said. Now, it’s true that the Mars One astronauts will need to adapt only once to gravity on Mars, seeing that they won’t return to Earth. But what we don’t know is what that will do to their bodies. “How the human body adapts, in the longer run, to a much lower gravity situation,” he wrote, “might be hard to predict and we have no prior information to go by.”

Michael Hecht, a scientist at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, is working on MOXIE (a delightfully nested acronym: Mars Oxygen Isru Experiment; ISRU stands for In Situ Resource Utilization), which seeks to generate oxygen on Mars itself. MOXIE will be part of Mars 2020. Hecht wrote to me: “Try to convince yourself that [Mars One has] the expertise that will allow them to accomplish what they promise on a shoestring”—of course implying that he was far from convinced himself. He referred to what he called “the extraordinary hubris” of Mars One, in thinking that “they can just leave a crew there and they’ll figure out how to live off the land in a place more hostile than any we can imagine on Earth.”

The idea of life on Mars has long been the subject of scientific research, literature and art such as this illustration, but it is only in recent years that the dream of human settlements on Mars has gained ground. STEVEN HOBBS / STOCKTREK IMAGES/ CORBIS

Hecht also finds it hard to believe in Mars One’s plans to have rovers and robots build the colony there. The real model for a settlement, he said, should be the now-permanent stations in Antarctica. They were built “organically,” by successive teams of men and women who went there to spend only a few days or weeks at a time: “Settlers certainly did not go to Antarctica for the first time and stay.” He thinks Mars One makes the whole idea of going to Mars “sound just too easy.” For these reasons and more, he said with a chuckle, NASA probably aims to stay “upwind of Mars One.”

The writer Elmo Keep published an essay last November about another shortlisted candidate, an Australian named Josh Richards. Keep’s essay captures all our human fears and worries about such a mission in one eloquent paragraph:

Imagine never to feel fresh air again on your face, never to be warmed by sun’s life-giving rays, never to hear an orchestra play, never to feel whiskey sink warm into your chest. No more walking on grass in bare feet, inhaling the scent of the air after a storm, watching kids play elaborate games in their secret worlds. No leisure time. No loved ones. No hope of release. No freedom to roam. No variation in a practically tasteless diet. No sex with the person you deeply love. Cramped quarters. Limited showers. An unrelenting work schedule. Darkness. Isolation. An ineffective sleep schedule. Constant fear, chronic stress, and hyper-vigilance. The ever-present threat of death.

Regardless of the scepticism, a hundred humans across planet Earth are looking forward to the next stage in their Mars One adventure: the mechanism that will whittle that number down to 24 in Round Three in mid 2016, after which those 24 will embark on years of training. Certainly regardless of the scepticism—“People tell me it’s a scam and fraud,” he said, “and I just don’t reply”—Bhatia hopes he will be one of those 24.

But there’s a little more to that “mindset” he spoke of to me. No, he told Mars One, he would not hop on that return vehicle. Except in this one circumstance: if, for whatever reason, he was the last human on Mars.

If you’re on your own, on a faraway planet, even if you first went there as the intrepid explorer pushing human frontiers in an impossibly hostile environment, you’ll take whatever chance you get, do whatever you can, to return to your fellow humans. To come home. For this certified earthling, something about that nicely rounds out this Mars story.