by David Capel

The greatest trek of all

A young South African woman, Adriana Marais, may one day be on a one-way ticket to Mars


Sometimes, as they say, fact is stranger than fiction. Or, as Adriana Marais puts it, sometimes science fiction can rapidly become science fact.

This dynamic, not to say highly perspicacious 32-year-old theoretical physicist and problem solver from Durban in KwaZulu-Natal could be undertaking the ultimate human journey, as part of the Mars One project’s attempt to establish a human settlement on the Red Planet in 2025.

Mars One is a private non-profit organisation that plans to establish a permanent human colony on Mars by 2025. The project leader, Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, announced plans for the Mars One mission in May 2012.

Mars One selected a second-round pool of astronaut candidates early in 2014 of 1058 people from a larger number of some 200 000 who showed interest on the Mars One website. The second-round pool was narrowed down to 660 candidates, who were recently interviewed online.

A mission to Mars

On 16 February this year, 100 Round 3 finalists from around the world were announced. From these 100 astronaut candidates, 6 teams of two men and two women will be compiled. The teams will then begin training full-time for a future mission to Mars.

According to the project’s website, the most complex, expensive, and risky part of a mission to Mars is the return trip. Put more simply, there is no coming back.

It requires developing bigger rockets that need a larger landing systems and launch capability on Mars. Permanent settlement is not easy but it is far less complex and requires much less infrastructure sent to Mars than return missions.

Mars One has already started contracting established aerospace companies to work on the required systems. All systems require design, construction, and testing, but no scientific breakthroughs are required to send humans to Mars and to sustain life there.

According to the website a habitable settlement will await the first crew before they depart Earth. The hardware needed will be sent to Mars in the years ahead of the humans. This unmanned mission is currently scheduled for 2024.

Quantum cryptography

Marais went to school in Pietermaritzburg, and studied theoretical physics and philosophy at the University of Cape Town.

She then completed her MSc summa cum laude in quantum cryptography at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), and was awarded her PhD in quantum biology at the same institute this year.

She is a member of the Quantum Research Group established by Prof Francesco Petruccione at UKZN, and plans to continue doing research in quantum biology, specifically studying quantum effects in photosynthesis as well as the origins of prebiotic molecules and life itself.

In 2014 she was one of 200 Young South African achievers recognised by the Mail and Guardian. In 2015 she was one of 15 recipients worldwide of a L’Oreal‐UNESCO International Rising Talent Grant for Women in Science for research into the origins of life. Most recently, she became a Royal Society of South Africa 2016 Meiring Naude Medal awardee for a young researcher, for fundamentally important high impact research in the field of quantum biology.

Science fact

Her reply to the question, “A one-way ticket to Mars? Surely not…? Is short and simple: “We are living in a most exciting era where science fiction is becoming science fact at an unprecedented rate,” she says.

“I heard about the project in January 2013, and the deadline for applications was August 31 2013,” says Marais.

“According to the Mars One website, astronaut candidates should have characteristics of resiliency, adaptability, curiosity, the ability to trust and creativity/ resourcefulness. Specifically, we had to answer a number of questions in our online application, particularly regarding how we would respond to challenging situations and also describing our character and personality. Out of around 200 000 people who showed interest on the website, 1 058 Round 2 candidates were selected and announced in January 2014.”

After a medical examination, 663 candidates remained in Round 2. During December and January 2015, Mars One Medical officer Dr Norbert Kraft conducted online interviews where candidates answered questions on material that was distributed to them with information on both Mars and the Mars One Project. The current Round 3 Mars 100 were announced on 16 February 2015.

“This year,” says Marais, “we face the final round where the 100 remaining Mars One Project candidates from all around the world will be narrowed down to 24 who will be offered full-time positions as trainee astronauts with the project. We will be required during this selection to study material and perform tasks to overcome challenges in teams, as well as undergo a final isolation screening process.

“The 24 selected will be offered full time employment with the Mars One Project as astronauts in training. The training will take place over 10 years, leading up to the departure of the first four in 2026.”

The Right Stuff

Asked if she has she seen the movie, The Right Stuff, and whether or not she has it, she says: “No, but I will save it to my list of things to watch. I am a theoretical physicist and a problem solver. I have applied my knowledge of physics to areas as diverse as information security, photosynthesis and the origins of life. I spend my days thinking about fundamental questions about the world around me. As a researcher, being one of the first human minds to experience living in a totally new world would be a dream come true. The possibility of contributing to the discovery of evidence of life on Mars would get me out of bed each morning.

“I think I must be a kind of extremophile, thriving in physically and mentally challenging situations, and in this sense moving to Mars would be an ideal opportunity!” Extremophile, maybe, but also the master of the understatement.

Marais says she has a firm set of beliefs. “I believe that leaving Earth is necessary for the long-term survival of our species, but also that surviving the relatively hostile environment on Mars will lead to new technologies that will help us on Earth to tackle climate change, poor resource management and the poverty in which so many of us live. Life on Mars will be a precious and fragile resource, and I believe that an attitude of deep appreciation for life and all that is needed to sustain it will characterise morality on Mars. It will also, I hope, influence the way people think on Earth.”

As far as understanding what life is, she waxes profound: “We are limited by a lack of precise knowledge of the conditions under which life emerged on Earth, in a possibly singular event. Barring the sudden discovery of evidence of life on Mars by the Curiosity rover or a roving Mars One colonist, for now, we will have to be satisfied with a definition of life as the continual state of change preceding death, and with the knowledge that the rabbit hole goes as least as deep as we are prepared to venture.”

Is she a Star Wars fan? “Not particularly,” says the young physicist. “I’m a big fan of more conceptual science fiction. I am a huge fan of the Big Bang Theory. I was over the moon to watch the episode when Sheldon applied for the Mars One Project! And, of course, I’ve watched The Martian quite a few times. I read the book a few years ago and was very excited to hear about the making of a movie based thereon. Scientifically accurate movies like The Martian are an excellent medium for preparing the public for the big science of the future, like human space exploration.”

Extending boundaries

She is a senior Kung Fu student with the Chinese Martial Arts Centre and says she has been doing Kung Fu since 2007. “It has been an extremely valuable experience, extending boundaries both physical and mental. Highlights include beginning to learn how to use a sword and doing more pushups than you believed possible”.

Mars, she says, has a number of characteristics that make it a feasible option for settlement, the most important being the presence of water, which is in ice form due to average surface temperatures significantly below zero. Oxygen can then be extracted from this water by electrolysis, using a power supply such as solar or nuclear energy.

Living quarters can be set up prior to the arrival of the settlers, and the extraction of water and oxygen monitored. “As long as the equipment necessary for living on Mars can be brought and replenished from Earth, with these three essential ingredients available, namely energy, water and oxygen, I believe both humans and the plants they will eat can live on Mars. Advances in 3D printing will contribute greatly to the sustainability of the settlement and its potential to be decreasingly dependent on Earth.

“We will rely heavily on technology for our survival – on Mars the atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide, the pressure 0.6% of sea level pressure on Earth, the temperature around -60 degrees Celsius on average and without a protective atmosphere the solar radiation is extreme. Humans would die fairly quickly on the surface of Mars without technology!”

Serious concerns

Assuming that the living units established on Mars in advance of human arrival are shown to be habitable i.e. that sufficient oxygen, water and heat are constantly available, and assuming that the first group of astronauts lands safely on Mars, there remain serious concerns for the first Martians. These include the effects on the body of radiation exposure during the journey and on Mars itself, of reduced gravitational and magnetic fields, and whether the available medical supplies and nutrition will be sufficient to deal with some of the resulting health implications.

“I think a lot of research on these questions, and others, needs to be done in the next decade or so before the first planned human departure,” says Marais.

How people will deal with life on Mars psychologically, however, is another question.

But, she says, despite these challenges, “in fact Mars is the obvious destination for the next Great Trek! Humans are explorers by nature, and now for the first time the possibility to live on another planet has arisen.

“Over 95% of species ever to have existed on Earth have eventually become extinct. By creating a home for terrestrial life on another planet, we have an insurance policy against disasters which may be self-inflicted or the result of such events as large asteroid impacts.

“I think amongst other social issues, those of ownership and accountability for actions on Mars also need to be addressed.

Bacteria-fermented soybeans

“As far as day-to-day activities are concerned, when I lived in Japan I got to like eating things like bacteria-fermented soybeans and small brown bony fish for breakfast. So I’m sure I would quickly adapt to an insect-based breakfast of champions on Mars! While grain and vegetables will be grown (organically of course) on Mars, bugs reproduce quickly for a good supply of fats and amino acids.”

What the first settlers will do on Mars is really the pinnacle of 4 billion years of evolution: life forms from Earth will for the first time put on their suits and set out to do a day’s work on a planet hundreds of millions of kilometres from what was previously home.

Initially, she says, the first colonisers will have to spend a lot of time setting up, checking and maintaining all of the equipment that will keep them alive.

“Almost every aspect of living on Mars will involve discovering something new: pioneering new areas of science as well as a new human community in a new environment. I’m extremely excited to take part in establishing and possibly finding evidence of life on Mars. I can’t think of anything that could compare to suiting up and setting out on my own very first Mars-walk, or rover road trip, just to see what is out there.

“For a long time, most things will be a first on Mars – first sunrise, first sunset, first birthday celebration, first tears, first sighting of the Olympus Mons, first messages from home, first ‘home-grown’ food, first Martian custom, and perhaps even the first discovery that life on Earth originated in a meteorite from Mars.”

What if she gets there and hates it? “Well,” she says, “the fact that people have volunteered for the project, together with the 10 years of training, will reduce the probability of this happening.” To which we can only add, let’s hope so…

An unimaginably large universe

Marais doesn’t equivocate when it comes to the really big question: is there life elsewhere in the universe? “In my opinion”, she says, “if life can exist on Earth, in an unimaginably large universe, it must also exist, or have existed, elsewhere. The study of living systems on Earth, and the mystery of the emergence thereof, is always going to be severely limited by a lack of precise knowledge of the conditions under which it emerged, in a possibly singular event.”

Finding evidence of life on Mars would be one of the most important possible discoveries of all time for humanity. The question of whether life exists or did exist on other planets besides Earth is one of the fascinating questions that the researchers living on Mars will try to answer.

“So far our investigations of the surface Mars have not revealed any large living organism,” says Marais. “Life as we know it could not in fact exist on the surface due to the high levels of radiation, and temperatures well below freezing. What we are still looking for is microbial life, either fossilised evidence thereof from a time when Mars was once much warmer and wetter, some three to four billion years ago, or perhaps currently existing life beneath the surface where habitable environments away from the harsh surface conditions may exist.”

Marais warms to the subject: “Some say that the surest indication that intelligent life is out there is that they have not tried to contact us! If life emerged in some regions of the universe soon after its beginnings 13.8 billion years ago, it is mindboggling to consider just how advanced that life may be, given that the Earth is only around 4.5 billion years old, and humans have only been around for about the last 200 000 years.”

Space exploration

Asked what she will do if she is not selected to go to Mars, she says she will continue to do research, and promote science and space exploration. “whatever planet I end up on.”

“I am a member of the Quantum Research Group established by Prof Francesco Petruccione at UKZN, and plan to continue doing research in quantum biology, specifically studying quantum effects in photosynthesis as well as the origins of prebiotic molecules and life itself.”

Last year she did a 10-day silent retreat with her mother, to see how she responded to periods of isolation, and she says the silence was deeply satisfying.“I really enjoyed not talking! I’m a social person, but I’m also quite happy spending time alone. It was physically, mentally and emotionally challenging to meditate in the same position for 11 hours a day. But I found it hugely beneficial—a cleansing of the mind— and I highly recommend the experience.”

How would her parents feel about what would certainly be the farewell to end all farewells? “My parents understand and are proud of my motivations for volunteering for this project and they and the rest of my family have been very supportive,” she says. “While farewells would, of course, be extremely painful, and while the first settlers may not enjoy the possibility of coming back to Earth, one of the priorities will be setting up the infrastructure necessary for return missions, as well as trade and tourism between Earth and the new world – Mars”.

She is prepared to give up her life on Earth for the unprecedented contribution she would be able to make to the sum of human knowledge from a new world. It’s the ultimate sacrifice, yet she is somewhat phlegmatic about is. “We are living in a unique point in the history of life on Earth. Each of us 7 billion humans need to think very carefully about how we will contribute to society and justify our use of resources on this planet. We have reached the point where our activities are having an effect on the Earth on a global scale, and food, clean water and fresh air are fast becoming luxuries to which not all of us have access.

Seeing the bigger picture

“In order to sustain our existence on this planet, and perhaps others, we need to make an effort to see the bigger picture, and think carefully about how we can contribute to the solution of the many problems and global issues that exist today.”

Looked at from another perspective, going on a one-way trip to Mars is no big deal. After all, everyone on Earth, she says, is the survivor of a one-way trip.

“We are all survivors of one-way trips, wherever on the surface of the Earth we happen to currently live. According to the fossil record, homo sapiens emerged in central eastern Africa around 200 000 years ago, and beginning with the first African explorers who left the mother continent, we have been exploring the surface of the Earth ever since.

“My ancestors made the hazardous 5 month trip from Europe to the Southern tip of Africa in 1688 without any intention or means of return. I am the 11th generation of descendants of Huguenot refugees from France, now proudly South African. And 500 years from now there may well be human Martians telling tales of the perilous one-way journey their ancestors made in the early 21st century from Earth.”

In ten years from now, it may be time to say goodbye to this remarkable young South African forever. But her unique contribution to the human journey will remain forever not the stuff of science fiction but of science fact. 

David Capel

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