"It's not going to do any good to land on Mars if we're stupid. "- Ray Bradbury
When I was a kid, I was a voracious reader of science fiction. So much so I read nearly every sci-fi book on the shelves of the local library.
While I was fascinated by these flights of fantasy, it wasn't until a neighbor invited me over one night to view the rings of Saturn through his telescope that I developed an appetite for all things astronomic. I was beyond enthralled.
Nowadays, of course, an adult who invited a young boy over at night to stargaze would be run out of town as a suspected pedophile. But, thankfully, it was a simpler time.
I quickly joined some interplanetary travel society where I eagerly signed up for a future trip. Venus was my destination of choice because it seemed shrouded in mystery.
Of course, as I learned a little bit more about our solar system, I discovered that the planet named after the Goddess of Love was anything but enticing. Surface temperatures average about 842 degrees, higher than the melting point of lead. The atmosphere is primarily carbon dioxide and the clouds that cloak the planet are composed of sulfuric acid and sulfur dioxide vapor.
Think Bakersfield in August.
It all seems a bit silly now, this notion that someone could sign up for a journey into the solar system simply because they fantasized about space travel.
Or so I thought.
Then came the recent news that 78,000 people have signed up to form a human colony on Mars, responding to a Dutch nonprofit organization called Mars One, which wants to have boots on the desolate ground by 2022.
I wonder how many of these volunteers read the fine print: Due to the physiological changes in the human body due to low gravity, there will be no coming back. It's the ultimate one-way ticket.
Yet the company is expecting 500,000 applicants by the time applications close on Aug. 31. "This is turning out to be the most desired job in history," says Bas Lansdorp, co-founder of Mars One.
It also may turn out to be the worst job in history. And maybe the worst idea.
For one thing, the Mars One gang will need billions of dollars and as-yet undeveloped technology just to land on the planet.
They've got the money part all figured out. The project will be financed through a global reality-TV media event that would begin with the astronaut selection process (with some public participation) and continue on through the first years of living on the Red Planet. Call it "Martian Idol. "
They figure the cost at about $6 billion. By comparison, a NASA mission to Mars formulated in 2009 had a projected cost of $100 billion and 18 years of planning. Of course, those warm-hearted NASA folks planned to return the astronauts alive to Earth. Not very cost effective.
Mars One officials say they will supplement their budget with donations. So far, a generous public has coughed up $84,121.
According to their schedule, the first crew of four astronauts would arrive on Mars in 2023, after a seven-month journey from Earth. Further teams would join their settlement every two years, with the intention that by 2033 there would be over 20 people living and working on Mars.
What would life on Mars be like?
In a word, brutal. The atmosphere is essentially equivalent to a vacuum on Earth. Temperatures on Mars roughly approximate those of Antarctica.
Mars has dust storms that can cover much of the planet and quite commonly last for months. Additionally, Mars has no global magnetic field. Combined with a thin atmosphere, this permits a significant amount of ionizing radiation to reach the Martian surface.
Are we having fun yet?
Then, of course, there is the whole deal about second thoughts. There are none. You'll live the rest of you life on a patch of ground that makes the Mojave Desert look like Yosemite.
At best, you'll be on the cutting edge of space exploration. At worst, you'll be a tragic footnote to a half-baked experiment.
The Mars One plan, as Ray Bradbury feared, is stupid. It is an ill-conceived, underfunded fantasy cooked up by a bunch of would-be Captain Kirks. It is even more astounding that there are tens of thousands of people on this planet who would follow these Pied Pipers into the vacuum of space.
But Mr. Bradbury can rest in peace because this is one launch that will never get off the ground.