The Martian X-Factor

Meet two people who want to spend the rest of their lives on the red planet

Second Home
Sep 28, 2016 · 37 min read
Wannabe Martian, Dr Maggie Lieu

With SpaceX, NASA, Mars One and MarsPolar all setting their sights on the Red Planet, the coming decades could see the first crewed expeditions to Mars — and because of the vast distances involved we could be there to stay. so what would a small settlement and off-planet society be like?

Second Home roaming members, Super/Collider, brought leading astrobiologist Dr Louisa Preston and prospective Mars settlers Maggie Lieu and Clare Weedon to our Hanbury Street campus to explore the daunting challenges but incredible potential of life on another world. Lieu and Weedon were chosen as prospective astronauts for the Mars One expedition — an ambitious plan to send four settlers to the Red Planet on a one-way trip to establish mankind’s first off-world colony. Lieu, who has now left the project, is pursuing a PhD with the Astronomy & Space Research group at the University of Birmingham and believes that a ‘race for Mars’ between several key players means she’ll get to Mars one way or the other.

Louisa Preston: I’m an astrobiologist and planetary geologist who does not want to go to Mars anytime soon. I’ve come here to talk about what it might actually be like to live on Mars — the environment on Mars and how that might affect Maggie and Clare. It’s probably going to come across quite negative…but I’m there for you [laughs], I’ll help you as much as I possibly can.

Obviously we’re talking about moving to Mars, we have our two main planets — we’ve got Earth and everything we’re going to be sending from Earth, and then we’re going to be sending it to Mars. I’ve put the moon in there as well because the chances are we might start colonising the moon before we start colonising Mars. The reason I’ve included [the moon] is because if we start going to the moon first, it might actually help us to get to Mars a lot quicker.

The moon is an ideal staging post where we can accumulate materials and man power without having to worry about the confines of Earth’s gravity. So if we want to send people off to Mars and not have to worry about taking all the extra fuel to get off Earth in the first place, potentially the moon is the best place to start.

“If we want to send people off to Mars and not have to worry about taking all the extra fuel to get off Earth in the first place, potentially the moon is the best place to start.”

So we all know that everyone is completely in love with Mars, although Pluto might have slightly taken over now, but why is that? The reason is because Mars is actually a lot like the Earth, it actually has the most clement environment in the solar system after the Earth, and it’s pretty close as far as planets and moons go.

It has 38% of the gravity that the Earth does — so it’s got more gravity than the moon, but does have less than the Earth which is something we’ll have to deal with. It actually has a lot of water, it might be frozen and buried and we’ll get into that later, but the moon doesn’t have any water, at least not very much of it. And it also does have a thin atmosphere which is something we’ll also hear about how much we need that.

So Mars already has the starting blocks so that we can think about having life on Mars, either humans or maybe even tiny organisms. So what else is it about Mars that makes us so interested in it and reminds us so much of the Earth?

“If we start going to the moon first, it might actually help us to get to Mars a lot quicker”

First, it has land, it’s completely land, and that land is about 30% of the amount of land that you have on the Earth. So the Earth is 30% rock and the 30% land we can live off, that’s about the same size and space that you could live on on Mars.

It has an axial tilt of around 25 degrees, which the Earth has an axial tilt of 23.5, so they’re not too dissimilar. That tilt means that Mars has seasons, just like the Earth does. The seasons are twice as long because it takes Mars 1.8 Earth years to orbit around the sun, and a Martian day is only 39 minutes longer than an Earth day, so it’s not going to feel to dissimilar when we’re there.

It does have an atmosphere, it is very thin, so it’s not going to provide a lot of protection — sorry! — against all the radiation that’s coming towards the surface, but it might help a little bit.

So what made us first fall in love with Mars? Apart from the fact it’s quite close and we were able to see it very early on in history, it’s because we have found evidence that in its past it had a warmer, wetter climate.

So around 3.8 billion years ago it had a much thicker, denser atmosphere, and that meant that the surface had a much higher temperature and liquid water bodies could’ve been stable on its surface. It potentially had an ocean that covered a third of the planet.

“Around 3.8 billion years ago it had a much thicker, denser atmosphere, and that meant that the surface had a much higher temperature and liquid water bodies could’ve been stable on its surface. It potentially had an ocean that covered a third of the planet.”

We know from geological evidence that there are rivers, or there were rivers, there were fluvial planes, deltas, we found lake sediments. We also looked at minerals such as hematite and clays which we know can only form if there had been liquid water around. So we know that in the past, Mars had an environment that life might’ve wanted to survive in.

In four billion years, Mars has gone from this lush, potential paradise, to this very cold, potentially barren desert. So the conditions on Mars today that any human colonist is going to have to survive in, it’s cold, the average global surface temperature is around -63°C, the atmosphere is very thin and it’s non-breathable — it’s made up of 95% carbon dioxide. It has UV radiation bombarding the surface, and it suffers from global dust storms which will make things very difficult.

So the best things to do is to talk about some of these factors and all of these environmental conditions on Mars, and how we may be able to survive them. So we’ll start off with gravity, because that’s the one we really can’t plan for that well.

Mars has around 38% of the gravity that we do on the Earth. We can’t practise this, we don’t know how the human body is going to react to living in 38% gravity. What we can do, is look at how astronauts survive on the ISS and what happens to their bodies, just to give us a kind of clue. Unfortunately, we know that they get muscle wastage — their muscles lose strength, they lose power — we know their immune systems can be a bit compromised, they decrease in red blood cell counts, their cardiovascular system is affected, they suffer from sickness and potentially even eyesight problems. But what’s really interesting is that the human body adapts to whichever gravitational situation it’s in. So whilst they’re in space, most of this isn’t really a problem, especially if they keep exercising. It’s when they try and come back to Earth that we start to have the problems when suddenly they have to cope with much higher gravity.

So potentially you guys heading off to Mars won’t actually [cause] too much of a problem when you’re there, just don’t try and come back — or if you do, you might need to have some reinforced-suited armour with reinforced spines so you don’t get crushed under Earth’s gravity. Or if you have babies on Mars… I don’t even know how that’s going to work [laughs].

“If you have babies on Mars… I don’t even know how that’s going to work!”

The other thing about gravity, it’s not just based on the humans, it’s based on how can we build? Because building in zero gravity or reduced gravity could be a lot easier — everything weighs less, moving things won’t be as difficult. But there’s a lot of things — cooking, going to the toilet, eating, drinking — that are going to be harder. We know what astronauts do, but they will have more gravity on Mars, so we just don’t know how we’re going to be able to do that. And to design for that is even more difficult.

So if you’re going to move to Mars, there are two things you’re going to need. You’re to need water — and you’re going to need liquid water. Currently all water found on Mars is frozen beneath the surface, and actually the only example we have of actual water ice that we can see is in the north polar regions. We do you estimate that there is over 5,000,000km of frozen water in the subsurface of Mars, we just need to figure out a way to get to it.

Transiently, sometimes you do get liquid water appearing on the surface of Mars, but there are no standing bodies of liquid water. The reason is because of the thin atmospheres, it only has 1% of the atmospheric pressure that we have at sea level on Earth, combine that with the fact that it is -63°C means that any liquid water, if it does appear, will either evaporate straight away or freeze. So we need to find a way to make that water liquid.

One of the ideas is to use microwaves to try and release the water from the ground. We could also dig, which I think would be absolutely awful and would take a very long time. There are a couple of other options where we might actually just melt the ice and sublimate it — turn the ice straight into a gas, then once we’ve got the gas and don’t need to worry about all the little bits of sand and dirt that are in it, then condense it to make the liquid water.

“ To get water from Mars we might turn its ice straight into a gas, then once we’ve got the gas and don’t need to worry about all the little bits of sand and dirt that are in it, then condense it to make the liquid water.”

It’s amazing how far some people are willing to go to for a bit of peace and quiet… 33.9 million miles infact

Potentially there is a complete liquid water reservoir underneath the surface of Mars, we don’t know, the chances are quite low but you never know.

So as well as water, we’re going to need oxygen. Unfortunately, if you try to take a breath on the surface of Mars, the atmospheric pressure is so low that you actually probably wouldn’t be able to breathe in to take a breath, but if you managed to take a breath it would be basically like breathing in the atmosphere of Venus — it’s about 95% carbon dioxide. The Earth’s atmosphere is 21% oxygen and we can survive on a bit less than that, but not as low as on Mars, Mars has just trace quantities of oxygen in the atmosphere.

So the way oxygen keeps us going is we take the oxygen into our red blood cells and it goes around our body. If you took a deep breath on Mars and breathed in the carbon dioxide, it would replace the oxygen in your red blood cells and you’ve probably got about three minutes before you would suffocate. So obviously if you’re going to move there, you’re going to spacesuits, you’re going to need amazing habitats that can not only produce the oxygen and the atmosphere of the Earth that you need, but also the atmospheric pressure as well.

“If you took a deep breath on Mars and breathed in the carbon dioxide, it would replace the oxygen in your red blood cells and you’ve probably got about three minutes before you would suffocate.”

The other thing is the link between oxygen and water, because obviously the chemical composition of water — H20 — one of the ways we could get oxygen is if we can break that apart, take the oxygen out of water, and actually maybe use the hydrogen for fuel. There are technologies that are being looked at that potentially we could even take the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and break that up to get oxygen.

The reason why [the atmosphere] is important is because we have an ozone layer on the Earth — an ozone layer is made up oxygen, without oxygen on Mars there is no ozone layer, and no ozone layer means we have no protection from all the incoming UV radiation and cosmic radiation. So although Mars does have a thin atmosphere, it doesn’t have what it needs to protect any surface inhabitants from this radiation.

So we’re going to need to build habitats with really strong and really good radiation shelters — I’m not even too sure we have the technology to do that yet. But what would be a really good idea would be to build these underground, or at least build them and cover them with Mars soil and Mars rocks which would really help with the protection.

It’s not just radiation on the surface we need to be worried about, it’s also the radiation in transit. So Mars science laboratory, the Curiosity rover, took radiation measurements on its journey to Mars in 2011–2012 and the results it got basically said that for a human being travelling, it would be the equivalent of having a CAT scan every couple of days for the rest of your life. The radiation is beyond the parameters of which they would recommend an astronaut to have in their lifetime, but it’s not like it wouldn’t stop them letting you go. So that’s something to also take into account — for 6–9 months you’re going to be blasted with radiation, potentially even strong bouts of radiation from flares, and then you’ve got to get to Mars and survive the radiation anyway.

“For 6–9 months you’re going to be blasted with radiation, potentially even strong bouts of radiation from flares, and then you’ve got to get to Mars and survive the radiation anyway.”

You [also] have to be worried about rocks from space. So this black dot is potentially a life-threatening thing for you — these are called micrometeorites and they can range from 50 microns to 2mm in size. These are flying around everywhere, they’re landing on the earth all the time. Up to 60,000 tonnes of material from these lands on the planet every single year. But we don’t notice it because we have an atmosphere — this atmosphere breaks them up, burns them up, so they come down tiny like that, which barely has any effect on us.

The lack of atmosphere on Mars means that these guys are going to come in as much larger particles, they’re also going to come in much faster, probably about 10km a second, which is pretty dangerous if they can hit a habitat or an astronaut roving on the surface. It might not seem too extreme, but whenever a shuttle has come back from space, they have pock marks and impact craters all over their hulls, and that’s from these guys. One even cracked one of the windows of the International Space Station recently.

You’re also going to need power, because without power, none of this stuff is going to matter. There are three options — wind, solar and nuclear. Nuclear is obviously the way to go because it’ll provide you with quite a reliable 24-hour power supply.

To be more environmentally friendly, obviously wind and solar is best, solar would be great when the sun’s shining, but night-time hopefully you’ve got enough power stored up, and then if we have a global dust storm that can block out sunlight for months at a time, you’re going to want a backup and that’ll be definitely nuclear.

Plus, I think someone, maybe a robot, maybe you guys, will actually have to go out on Mars and put all the windfarms up and put all the solar panels out — if you’ve read The Martian, you know that that’s quite a daily job.

On Mars, although we think of it as a very cold, dry place, it actually has huge fluctuations in temperature. These fluctuations mean that at night frost will form on instruments, on rocks, on habitats, but as dawn comes and the temperature starts to rise, that frost will turn to a gas. Quite often, in the dawn on Mars, it can be up to 100% humidity. So actually, for humans, that’s okay, we survive in extremely cold temperatures in the Antarctic as long as we have the right power and the right equipment. 100% humidity for a few hours just to stay indoors doesn’t matter. It’s the habitats that are going to suffer, they’re going to suffer from being cold, to warm, to cold, to wet, to dry, and that’s quite a lot of stress on buildings — they’re definitely going to have to plan for that.

A dust storm can form within a few hours, a few days, and it can last for up to a few months. They can be global and envelop the entire planet. The problem with those is not necessarily the fact that you’ve got hurricane-force winds, it’s actually the fact that it’ll block out sunlight, and if you block out sunlight, your solar panels for example will not be able to power the habitat.

“A dust storm can form within a few hours and can last for a few months. They can be global and envelop the entire planet. It’ll block out sunlight, and if you block out sunlight, your solar panels will not be able to power the habitat.”

Ironically, dust storms are powered by sunlight — it heats up the air in the atmosphere and that air starts to move and picks up dust, and that’s where it all begins. It’s also related to strong variations in temperature. So if you’re in the equator area, differences between day and night, you’re at more risk of these dust storms. Most of the global dust storms start in one single place which is the Hellas Basin — the deepest impact basin actually anywhere in the solar system. The base of that crater is 10° warmer than the surface of Mars.

Another issues are the dust devils — these guys are so cool — they’re 10 times larger than any tornado you’d find on Earth. They’re just spinning air, to be honest, and the only reason we can see them is because they pick up all of the Martian dust. Because the atmospheric pressure on Mars is so low, if one of these hit you, you probably wouldn’t actually feel any wind because there’s no pressure. What you would feel is the 100mph bits of sand that are pelting you — so it’s the sand that we have to be more worried about than the wind itself.

All the rovers and probes that have been to Mars have suffered these global dust storms and dust devils and they’ve survived — in fact the dust devils have really helped out the Spirit rover, it actually cleaned off its solar panels so it could actually start working again.

Brian is an amazing Canadian who designed the images for Mars One, and I actually emailed him a number of years ago and mentioned how I was really interested in this stuff. So he sent me a load of his designs for different habitats. They’re very interesting, he designs them very specifically for where they’re going to be on the planet — whether they’re going to be at the equator or in the poles.

Martian living quarters and a holodeck for hopeful colonists

I haven’t mentioned how we’re going to eat on Mars, which I think is kind of important. So the idea is we could build greenhouses, because plants and humans are ideal travelling companions — we need oxygen, but when we breathe in oxygen, we breathe out carbon dioxide. Plants need carbon dioxide for photosynthesis and they release oxygen as a waste product. So together we can work quite well.

“On the ISS there’s a lot of information on the psychological benefits of having plants to tend to, having something to care for, and I think on Mars having a little greenery would be quite welcome in the vastness of red.”

We can eat a lot of different forms of plants, and the waste that we produce can be used to fertilise a lot of plants. We could potentially even grow plants so that we end up with wood and building materials in the future. Especially on the ISS there’s a lot of information on the psychological benefits of having plants to tend to, having something to care for, and I think on Mars having a little greenery would be quite welcome in the vastness of red.

So why are we thinking of going to Mars? Is it to terraform it — to actually move to Mars and end up making it another version of the Earth? It wouldn’t be too hard to do — we need to find a way to release the carbon dioxide and water in the subsurface of Mars, and their greenhouse gases, we can get them up in the atmosphere and they can start trapping heat. Once they start trapping heat and thicken up the atmosphere, then the surface temperature will rise, then you could have liquid water bodies stable on the surface.

You still need oxygen to live there as a human, well, if you’ve got liquid water bodies then you can start gardening — once you’ve got some photosynthesising plants, you can start to get oxygen in the atmosphere. I say it very cavalierly — it’ll take thousands and thousands of years, but theoretically that is exactly how it would work.

The other thing is to say, ‘Why would you go to Mars when you have a perfectly good planet here?’. Many people would say, ‘Well, in three billions years the sun will enter its red giant phase and we’ll be screwed anyway’, or, ‘Overpopulation’, or, ‘Lack of resources’. Most people say humanity will go to Mars as a lifeboat. I severely disagree with that idea.

One of my friends described it really well. She said, ‘The idea of using Mars as a refuge for humanity is like the captain of Titanic telling everybody that the real party is later on on the lifeboats’, it’s probably not going to work.

“I want to spend the rest of my life on another planet. I want to go because it would just be the most amazing achievement ever. I want to inspire the next generation” – Clare Weedon

Mars One candidate Clare Weedon. (Manuel Vazquez for the Guardian)

Super/Collider: Why do you want to go to Mars?

Clare Weedon: I want to spend the rest of my life on another planet. I want to go because it would just be the most amazing achievement ever. I want to inspire the next generation, and overpopulation and climate change is a real big thing at the moment. I really want to inspire the next generation of kids, get them thinking about science and the future of the human species. Everyone will be interested, everyone will be watching, and I want to have the greatest achievement ever in life.

What is Mars One, what’s the plan?

Clare Weedon: It was set up by two entrepreneurs from the Netherlands in 2011. They basically opened the applications to the public, anyone could apply, you didn’t have to have any specific skills — I’ve got no background in science, I’m just passionate about the project and willing to give everything.

So they are planning to colonise Mars, they want to send the first humans up in 2026 to land in 2027, before then they’re going to have eight unmanned missions to prove the technology and science, and to practise and they need to launch two communication satellites, one in Mars orbit and one in Earth orbit to allow for 24/7 communication with Earth.

They also need to launch a rover to go out and find where the humans will live — it needs to be in the northern hemisphere so there’s enough water in the soil, and needs to be flat enough obviously so [we] can expand the camp. Then they’ll be launching more and more missions, up to eight, to launch living habitats, supply units etc.

So when you get there there’ll be lots of stuff there already?

Clare Weedon: Yeah, so the rover will be sent first to find the space for us to live, and then they will follow that up with another rover trailer to move the units and they will also send two living units, two supply units and something else which I forget. That will all be moved into place and set up before humans even land.

What’s the funding?

Clare Weedon: So most of it is investments and sponsorships, it’s all kind of under wraps at the moment, we’re hoping that there’s some announcements coming soon on their big investments.

Are they still planning to do a TV show?

Clare Weedon: There is [a] plan to do a documentary series, so I’m in the final 100 and only 24 will go into full-time training. So in September 2016, us 100 will all meet up and it’s all going to be filmed whilst they make the cuts to the final 24.

Louisa, you’ve only just found out that you’re going to be involved.

Louisa Preston: I’m not sure that as a scientist I should admit that I’m doing this bit. But yeah, tomorrow I’m flying to Iceland and meeting up with her new boss, Baz, to scout out some places for your training camp. If you’re going to represent humanity, you’re going to work for it.

Maggie, you’re no longer part of Mars One but are thinking of getting involved in another venture called Mars Polar, is that right?

Maggie Lieu: I’m not sure if I will actually get involved in their plan because there’s just so much going on at the moment. NASA have their Orion, their tests are very promising, SpaceX want to launch 1,000 people to go to Mars all at once, SKYLON want to use reusable space planes to build a spaceship in Earth orbit before sending people to Mars — their plan looks amazing as well and UK government are pumping so much money into it, there’s just so much going on.

Can you tell us a bit about Mars Polar?

Maggie Lieu: Mars Polar is a company based in Dubai, I’m not sure much about their plan, but it is a pretty similar setup as Mars One with the date to land on Mars two years earlier, and a plan to return — promise of return — after 10 years.

Clare Weedon: I [didn’t] think the body could survive after 10 years, you can’t come back to Earth?

Maggie Lieu: Actually, you’d be surprised that NASA and ESA are working on new bodysuits that are preparing people to adapt to the kind of gravity that you’d experience in low-gravity environments.

You’re also looking to do it through the European Space Agency and become an astronaut, can you tell us more about that?

Maggie Lieu: Yes, so far since ESA’s launch 30 years ago, they’ve had free application processes to become astronauts. Roughly it’s every 10 years. The last time they did this was in 2008 and Tim Peake, the UK’s first British astronaut, was selected as one of those candidates.

After next year, all of the people of class 2008 ESA astronauts will have flown to the ISS. That means they’ll be opening new applications for astronauts and hopefully I’m going to be applying for that.

Louisa, you seem pretty down on the whole going to Mars thing, are [all the people organising it] just stupid?

Louisa Preston: I’m not completely down on it, obviously I wouldn’t go myself… All the different companies, all the different space agencies trying to go, developing the technology to go, the science training people to do is all absolutely brilliant. The problem is because the technology doesn’t exist yet, so they don’t promise, ‘Yes, you can go to Mars by 2030 and we will have created all these things’, maybe they will, maybe they won’t. I need a little bit more science and a bit more tech behind it before I’ll get on board with it.

What are the key challenges with it?

Louisa Preston: Oxygen, water, food. Simple.

Maggie Lieu: I want to disagree, I think that we have all the technology ready to go to Mars, we could go tomorrow if you wanted to, if you could give the money up. We went to the moon in the ’70s and we haven’t been back since then. Yes, there were a lot of risks, if there was a solar flare at that time, all the astronauts would’ve been fried, but still they sent people there and they came back and it was safe.

Louisa Preston: We have technology to get there, but we can’t keep sending supplies, we can’t keep sending technology.

Maggie Lieu: If we had the money to then we would be able to.

Louisa Preston: So you can split carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to breathe?

Maggie Lieu: There are some researchers in the UK, I think it’s the UK, they’ve built these electronic leaves.

Louisa Preston: Oh my god, electronic leaves on Mars…

Maggie Lieu: They literally take in light, they take in water and carbon dioxide and they produce oxygen.

Louisa Preston: Then we just have to miniaturise it and send it to Mars

Maggie Lieu: They just have to produce them because they’re quite expensive.

Olympus Mons

Are there any specific things on the surface [of Mars] that you’d like to check out?

Maggie Lieu: Obviously Olympus Mons — I think it’s six times the height of Everest.

Do you know any more about where they would settle?

Louisa Preston: Wherever you settle will be a complete trade-off, there will never be a perfect place. It will probably be driven by the amount of resources you can get hold of, the ease of landing, the ease of getting things there, the science, there’s no point going somewhere if you’ve got to travel hundreds of miles to go and get some science. The problem is that you’d probably be around the equator.

Clare Weedon: They’re meant to be just north of the equator because they know that there’s enough water there.

Louisa Preston: Do they?

Clare Weedon: Potentially [laughs] and they know there’s enough solar energy there to power.

Louisa Preston: And the temperature is as good as you’re going to get. But then if you do want water, there’s a lot more at the poles than there is there, and that’s where all the dust storms are.

[Other than Mars] are there other options in the solar system?

Louisa Preston: We can’t send humans further than Mars at the moment so Mars will be the place to go. The moon would actually be the best place to go, it just requires quite a lot of technology, but it’s such a short trip it shouldn’t be too bad. Mars is just cool — I think everyone just wants to go to Mars, I think everyone’s lost the love for the moon a bit.

“Mars is just cool — I think everyone just wants to go to Mars, I think everyone’s lost the love for the moon a bit.”

Maggie Lieu: I was at the UK Space Conference earlier this week, and it’s like the largest space conference in the UK, and actually the main theme was to create what they call a moon village — they’re already talking about a transport system up there, autonomous vehicles. They’re bringing it in the UK but they’re going to be testing it on the moon where there won’t be collisions from human drivers and people running out on the streets — so it’s a lot easier to test it up there than it is here.

Louisa Preston: And NASA is sending up a greenhouse hopefully in 2015 — it’s going to be tiny, it’s going to be about a kilogram. The goal is whoever wins the Google Lunar XPRIZE, apparently they’ve said they’ll put this experiment on whoever wins. It’s just a little greenhouse with some wet litmus paper and some seeds. It’ll last about a week, but it’s just to see whether plants can germinate on the moon in the radiation and the gravity, and just see what happens.

Would either of you be happy going to the moon, or are you set on Mars?

Maggie Lieu: There’s no resources to enable us to keep sustaining on the moon. If we want to live permanently, Mars is the next step.

Clare Weedon: I agree, and I think there’s still so much to learn about Mars — we haven’t set foot, and we don’t know as much as we know about the moon, and there’s hopefully exciting things to discover.

Will you be alone on Mars, is there going to be other life out there?

Louisa Preston: That’s actually something that we do worry about because we won’t have had chance to explore all of Mars. We won’t know if Mars One will set down on that one area that underneath the surface there is a fungal group growing there or there are bacteria there, there’s no way for us to know if any future Martian inhabitants might be sharing the planet. We don’t know.

Maggie Lieu: I think there’s probably life on Mars, not necessarily originating from Mars though. We’ve sent so many probes to Mars in the past and all the Russian probes specifically weren’t cleaned properly. Nowadays the probes are made in clean rooms and all the people are fully protected in the same room so they can’t contaminate these vehicles. In the past, people have just sent rovers up there and sent satellites and crashed in there, what if we’ve taken our own microbacteria up there and it’s germinated?

NASA robot litters surface of Mars

Louisa Preston: There’s that famous picture of Curiosity where all the scientists saw this image of soil, and then there was this little wiggly thing on the soil and they were just like, ‘Oh my god, it’s life’, turned out it was a bit of plastic that had fallen off the rover or the landing stuff. We were like, ‘Great, we’ve littered on Mars, win…’. But most Earth life might not be able to survive on Mars, and that’s sort of our safety net — there aren’t many lifeforms on the Earth that could survive on Mars, so the hope is that if we have contaminated it that they died pretty quickly so they’re not there now.

“There aren’t many lifeforms on the Earth that could survive on Mars, so the hope is that if we have contaminated it that they died pretty quickly so they’re not there now.”


How much time have you spent thinking about fundamental political and social principles of how you make decisions on a colony — how do you deal with resources, how do you deal with personal conflict?

Clare Weedon: This is one of the most important things for me: my team members. So we’re going to be sent up in groups of four, and if I don’t love and trust these other three people like they were my brothers and sisters, then I don’t want to go. We’ll have been training with them for a decade before we go, we’ll have built up that bond, and we will be family by the time we go — a decade’s a long time.

It’s going to be pretty intense at times, and yeah I have thought about it a lot. I can flare up as anyone can. I think that love and that trust and the type of person you are is very, very important. I’m pretty laid back, but things do rile you now and again, and it’s going to be difficult — especially when you’re in the transition habitat and you’ve got seven months in a box, you can’t even walk away from it — so it’s going to be a massive learning curve for everybody.

I think you’re all in the same situation, you’ve only got each other, and therefore I think that’s really going to come before anything else. And I think you’d be able to sort it out fairly quickly?

Maggie Lieu: Literally there’s nothing they would be able to do — they’re not going to be able to call the police or someone…

Clare Weedon: Of course not, but I really think by this point it’s going to be my brothers and my sisters, and you always forgive your brothers and your sisters. It’s really important that you’re all on the same side and that you’re supporting each other. I really think in that situation you’re going to get riled up, you’re going to turn away, you’re going to take a deep breath and then everything’s going to be alright.

Maggie Lieu: I think it’s going to be really exciting as well, because these people are selected from all over the world, and their political values will be very different. It’ll be nice to see how it evolves over time as a group. But also, the first four people who go up there will be spending two years in transit to get to Mars before the other set of four go — are they going to take dominance over the next four groups? It’s going to be an interesting cultural and psychological research.

Mars One colony pods

Louisa Preston: What will be the main language?

Clare Weedon: English — that was one of the application requirements, that you had to speak English.

Maggie Lieu: It’ll be interesting to see how that develops — America was once part of the UK and their dialect is slightly different. They have terms that we don’t use here and we wouldn’t understand.

You mentioned that Mars has an atmosphere of 95% carbon dioxide, and on Earth it’s a greenhouse gas so it captures heat. So why doesn’t it do it there, and how do you think in the future they will be able to conduct this?

Louisa Preston: So the idea is actually quite difficult because the reason why the Earth keeps its atmosphere is because we have a magnetic field which is generated by our planet, and that protects our planet from solar wind and being blown away basically. Mars doesn’t have that magnetic field, so we might have to continually keep pumping more carbon dioxide and water into the atmosphere, we might have to continually be trying to keep it, it might just get blown away again.

One idea is to try and restart Mars’s dynamo — it’s not going to happen. This is 10,000 years in the future, this terraforming idea, but people are still looking into it. I don’t really know the answer.

A bit of conflict keeps you feeling more human, so if a few people to have a punch-up with might actually be better.

Louisa Preston: One of the things we were [talking about] was that they did say it might be a Big Brother-style TV show, and I said, ‘Well, what happens if people stop watching, and they get a bit bored, and the ratings drop, and then suddenly there’s no more money to send [them] food?’, because to make Big Brother interesting it is the conflict. But we don’t want them to have conflict on Mars, we want them to have a really sort of zen existence, but that’s really, really crap TV, so…

Clare Weedon: There’s always going to be arguments, we’re human.

What do you think are the pros and cons of having opened the selection process to the general public rather than it being invite-only to applicants that had a known expertise or knowledge based around science or particular skillsets that would be valuable on Mars?

Clare Weedon: I’ve got no background in science, it interests me but it’s not the route I went down — I’m an IT geek. I was extremely shocked and flattered to make it through every round that I’ve been through, and it took me quite a while to realise why. It’s more about the personality to be able to survive, and the passion you’ve got about wanting to go. That’s more important because the other stuff can be learnt, but you can’t learn to be that type of person.

I love people, I love making people smile and getting on with people, meeting new people, I’m happy with my own company and it doesn’t bother me in terms of small spaces and things like that. I’m passionate about the project and I really want to achieve this in my life — it would just be absolutely amazing; I can’t fathom it. We’re going to be in training for 10 years, you need to be smart and intelligent enough to be able to learn, and there’s stuff they’re going to test us on in the next round to make sure we can pick things up, we can learn things quickly, because that’s going to be really important.

“Selecting people to go to Mars is quite different from selecting people to go the ISS because these guys are coming back, people that go to Mars go forever.” – Maggie Lieu

Maggie, you were originally a candidate with Mars One, [why did you decide] to not pursue it?

Maggie Lieu: I’m not going to disclose why I’m no longer going, but I agree with most of the things Clare said. If you see astronauts that go to the ISS, they are very all-rounded people. Selecting people to go to Mars is quite different from selecting people to go the ISS because these guys are coming back, people that go to Mars go forever.

The kind of people you want to send to Mars need to be able to get on with other people — you don’t want a person who’s completely isolated or too sociable, you want someone who’s kind of in between. You want quick learners. I have an astrophysics background but that’s not going to prepare me for everything on Mars. You need things like agriculture, learning how to fix components of the ship, all sorts of things.

The kind of people you should select to [go to] Mars are fast learners who can pick up things really quickly.

Do they need to send a doctor as part of the four?

Clare Weedon: I think that would be smart, but you can get two doctor’s degrees in 10 years, right? So…

Maggie Lieu: I think one of Mars One’s plans was that two would be trained as doctors, and two would be trained as engineers so you have a backup if one of them gets ill.

Clare Weedon: And everyone would have basic skills

The impression I have is that perhaps the biggest challenge is landing people on Mars — if you’d put a human onboard any of those probes, it would’ve been dead from the g-forces. Any thoughts on that?

Louisa Preston: I don’t know whether they’re developing how they might be able to land a human. The success rate for stuff landing on Mars at the moment is only 30%, so it’s not exactly good.

Maggie Lieu: That’s true, but they’re all unmanned vehicles.

Louisa Preston: And they can’t even land those [laughs].

Maggie Lieu: But there’s a time delay

Louisa Preston: Once a human’s at the helm, and they’re not remotely operating from Earth, I think it’ll be a lot better. ]

In Ridley Scott’s The Martian, the astronaut had to cultivate potatoes out of his own faeces in order to survive

There’s a lot of experiments about plants and how we might be able to grow them using Martian soil. Martian soil is basically volcanic rock and we find stuff growing on the Earth in volcanic rock all the time, it just needs some bacteria. So we might need to take a little bit of Earth bacteria, do it under controlled conditions so that we don’t contaminate Mars too much.

They’re practising potatoes, cress, mung beans, things like that have all been shown to grow in Mars (sic) soil, and some things have even been shown to sprout in the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere of Mars. I think growing stuff on Mars probably won’t actually be too much of a problem, it’ll probably be setting up the habitat for it to grow in that’s going to cause more of an issue.

What are the developmental issues [with childbirth on Mars] if there are any?

Clare Weedon: We don’t know, there just isn’t the research against it yet. Mars One have advised that no one should go there within the first five years for your body to adapt, and during those five years there will be research done to see how a foetus would grow.

Maggie Lieu: No research has gone into whether or not you can give birth in space or even conceive in space. The Japanese have sent rats up to space who have been pregnant and the foetuses have survived, but it’s quite difficult to conceive because of the lack of gravity. But Mars is different because it has about 30% of gravity, so no one really knows if it will work.

“No research has gone into whether or not you can give birth in space or even conceive in space. The Japanese have sent rats up to space who have been pregnant and the foetuses have survived, but it’s quite difficult to conceive because of the lack of gravity.”

Louisa Preston: And if it does work, you’re going to have a baby grown and born under those conditions so it won’t know any different. Its anatomy will be perfectly designed for Mars, but they will probably never be able to come to Earth because it would be too strong a gravity for them.

Clare Weedon: Also for the first few years we’re going to be setting up, we’re going to be stabilising our living environments, it’s not somewhere you want to bring up a kid. Me, personally, I’m really not interested in having a baby on Mars.

Maggie Lieu: I think it’s something that would inevitably happen on a colony on Mars — if you want your colony to grow that’s the only way to do it.

Clare Weedon: They also say for a healthy gene pool you have to have at least 25 or 30 people, so I think it would need to wait until there was more people.

Previously in the space race you’ve had countries against countries, and now we’ve got countries, and corporations, and private investors, and TV shows, and brands. How do you think that changes things this time around and do you know what the relationship between Mars Polar and Mars One — what do they think of each other?

Clare Weedon: I don’t even know much about Mars Polar, but the investment is… It’s been made very clear by Mars One that the groups that we’re going to be in is multicultural and different ages, and that it’s really important to have a balanced group.

The whole world is going to be involved, everyone was watching when we went to the moon, when this happens everyone’s going to be interested and it is going to bring the world together. So I think investors are gambling but it’s a good gamble to have because if it gets pulled off it’s going to be massive.

Maggie Lieu: I think also the long-term prospects that you would get out of it by going to Mars people will be relying more and more on renewable energies like developing more efficient solar panels and wind energy — that technology developed for space missions can be reused on Earth so that’s the long-term investment.

Is there much potential on Mars for amazing [discoveries]?

Louisa Preston: There’s always going to be lots of mysteries — we do have a pretty good idea about what’s going on, but the main mystery is still about life. We could land on Mars and there could be life there, and we’ll only ever find it if we send humans because the rovers just aren’t able to dig that deep. Basically when you drive a rover around Mars, you’re sitting at the other end of a screen, and you might be staring at the rover directly in front of you, but to the left of you there’s a little Martian waving and you just don’t see it because you haven’t turned the rover that way.

So we need human beings to go to Mars just so we can actually answer all those questions. There’s lots of potential.

Curiosity, the Mars rover

As there are more private companies involved in trying to get to Mars, does that imply that there’s more [of a] sense of confidentiality around what they’re learning, or are they sharing as much information as space agencies might have done, that scientists are more inclined to do?

Louisa Preston: They’re sharing more. Scientists, and NASA, and ESA, and UK Space Agency, India, China, they’ve all actually been very cagey in the past about sharing results, sharing science, talking to each other, and actually now that’s opening up.

You can tell from Pluto — they’re Instagramming photos, that would never have happened in the past. So actually everyone’s becoming a lot more open about it. Companies and NASA are speaking — NASA’s talking about using Elon Musk’s dragon capsule for things and using their rockets. So they are actually all communicating really, really well, whilst competing at the same time.

I guess the concern is all the major problems are all to do with sending humans, would it not make more sense to do a few hundred years of sending robots, getting it sorted out, much less interesting but maybe a bit more practical?

Louisa Preston: The idea about sending robots vs humans — when we sent astronauts to the moon, the amount of rocks and information they brought back in just the few days that they were there surpassed all information ever obtained by any instrument ever sent to the moon. Humans can do more work, travel further, than any rover can do. They can use critical thinking which means they can properly understand what they’re looking at — it’s such a quicker process.

The pain and suffering aspect — any human who goes there is not going to be forced, they’re going to be gung-ho like this one over here [laughs] and I think they’ll think it’s completely worth it.

I would go to Mars, and I would do geology and science on Mars, [but] only if I could guarantee I could come back.

“I would go to Mars, and I would do geology and science on Mars, [but] only if I could guarantee I could come back.”

Maggie Lieu: I agree. I actually think there’s more to do on the moon — we haven’t really seen the ‘dark side’ of the moon. After Mars we want to go further and further out of the solar system. It’s crazy what a huge universe we live in, and we haven’t really gone further than… The edge of our solar system really — Viking 1 & 2 are just about leaving our solar system and that’s about it.

I work on galaxy clusters, which, if you were travelling at the speed of light, about 1,000 years just to get there. So I would never be able to reach the objects that I study. I think, after Mars, there’s Jupiter’s moons — Europa, there’s plenty of water on there so humans could colonise that eventually, I guess.

Assuming that you do get to Mars and stabilise living, have you been told about what you’ll be doing in your lifetime up there? Here we all plan for jobs, buying homes, having families, what is the intention — just collect info and send it back?

Clare Weedon: We’ll be able to do everything that we currently do when we’re inside. So there’ll be lots of playing games and having fun. I’m not a scientist but even I can see how much there is for us to learn and how many different experiments we’ll be doing. We’ll also, I believe, be taking requests from universities and helping people out on Earth.

I think the exercise and the growing of our food is going to take up a lot of time. I exercise and I love my garden so both those things appeal to me. That’s probably where you’re going to find me most of the time.

“I think the exercise and the growing of our food is going to take up a lot of time on Mars. I exercise and I love my garden so both those things appeal to me. That’s probably where you’re going to find me most of the time.”

It’s difficult to say. I think it’s going to take us a good amount of years to actually settle, but once there’s more people there I could maybe kind of retire from one of my roles [laughs].

Louisa Preston: I imagine there’s no retirement on Mars unless you die [laughs].

So with what’s happening with virtual reality and augmented reality, would you imagine yourself missing Earth and wanting to do things like walking down a street or visiting a waterfall?

Clare Weedon: Definitely, I think that’s really important for the human psyche kind of thing. [I will miss] being outside and feeling the wind in my hair and the sun on my skin [the most], because I am a very outdoorsy person and I do think I’m going to really struggle with that.

Louisa Preston: What would you miss most if you went?

Maggie Lieu: Maybe breathing air… If you’re in a cubicle and all this air is recycled and stuff, imagine if someone farts [laughs]

This talk took place st Second Home, a creative workspace and cultural venue, bringing together diverse industries, disciplines and social businesses. Click here to find out who’s speaking next.

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