Sunday, 28 September 2014

Space Sunday - Ten Questions With A Mars One Candidate

As a matter of fact ...

I got the chance to ask ten questions to Bill Dunlap who is one of the 705 remaining candidates for the Mars One mission. The aim of the mission is to colonise Mars as early as 2024! To find out more, check out the article where I talked about it a couple of weeks ago.

I'm fascinated by this mission. One of the things that interests me the most is how permanent it is. Once these astronauts go, there's no coming back. With this in mind, I was excited to ask Bill all about the mission, what it means to him and his own reasoning behind wanting to go. I think you'll find the answers fascinating ...

1) Can you explain, in your words, what Mars One is and what it means to you?

In simplest terms, Mars One is a private organization which is working very hard toward the goal of setting up a human colony on the planet Mars. To add some complexity to the picture let me expound on one of their core principles: When I say “private organization” I mean that Mars One has put a great deal of emphasis on the fact that they will not accept government money. This will remain an ENTIRELY private effort for a lot of reasons but the core guiding principle at work is that Mars One believes that colonization of other worlds should not be a mission of one country or another but that it should be the people of the world, united to extend the reach of humanity.

There are many layers of meaning to me. On a purely intellectual level I say that it means that mankind is reaching again. Mankind has made a lot of progress in a lot of different ways since the 1970s, but exploration is the one area where we haven't really. Please don't get me wrong, the International Space Station is a wonderful project and has done and will continue to do a lot of wonderful things, but in the grand scheme of things since the lunar program ended we haven't really gone anywhere. We've sent our robots all over the solar system (and one into extrasolar space now) but we, ourselves, mankind has stopped. In fact, we drew back from the moon and go no further than low-Earth orbit (LEO) now. 

Bill equates the Mars One mission to previous human advancements
such as the Wright brothers and their first working airplane
Consider the following (to borrow a phrase): When the American colonies declared independence in 1776 people could only leave the ground by jumping or climbing. Shortly after that, in the 1780s we started working on flight by lighter-than-air craft, that is, ballooning. In the 1850s people started serious work on designing heavier-than-air craft. 

Roughly 50 years later in 1903 the Wright brothers made the first sustained, controlled, powered, heavier-than-air, piloted flight. 

Roughly 50 years after that air flight was becoming more commonplace and the first space flight was being performed. By 1970 orbital space flight was becoming more well understood and flight to the moon was being done. If you were to graph that progress and follow the arc, where would you expect us to be at this point, nearly 50 years since the moon? Now that Mars One has stepped forward to lead humanity back onto the path of exploration I feel that we are making progress again.

On a somewhat deeper personal level, Mars One is a personal resurrection of sorts. Being an astronaut had been a dream of mine since early childhood. That goal was my guiding light until my college years when life got in the way. Until I applied with Mars One I had not even consciously realized how painful it had been to me when my space dream died. Having that old dream become possible again after more than twenty years has been transformative. (which leads into your next question)

2) A lot of astronauts have had a lifelong fascination with space. What initially drew you to the Mars One project?

A friend of mine from college had posted a story on facebook about Mars One. I read the story and was intrigued. After all, here is someone proposing a step in the right direction, so I followed the link to Mars One's website and read what they had to say. It didn't take long for me to realize that this is a serious project and that it can be done. That was all that it took to make me a supporter of Mars One and it didn't take much more to convince me to apply.

The Mars one team, headed by Bas Landsdorp, has a
philanthropic nature that first attracted Bill to the mission

The factors that drew me were these: First, the founders of Mars One are not businessmen (by choice. Mr. Lansdorp has become one through circumstance, but his choice was different) or anything else, they are engineers. They have worked on this dream of Mars colonization from an engineering perspective, so they know what they are talking about. 

Second, they have thought it through fairly well. When the website was newly launched the Mars One plan was fairly bare-bones, and people pointed it out and asked questions, and Mars One has answered those questions and filled out their roadmap and their answers make sense. Third: Their choice of Medical officer/Selection committee chair is amazing. If you look at the work Dr. Kraft has done in the aerospace field and read the papers that he has written you will be confident in the seriousness that Mars One has about their project – at least I was.

3) Some people I've spoken to didn't realise this was a one way trip to Mars. They find it hard to imagine never returning to Earth again. What would you say to them and will you find it difficult to leave forever?

The most important thing that I would say to people who don't understand is that I have a great life. I think that some people have an exploratory mindset and some don't and the people who don't understand the need to go see what's new and different out there hear that this is a mission of settlement and they try to figure out what is driving us away. The thing is that nothing is driving us away. I have a good life here – wife, kids, job, house, car, cat, dog, garden, yoga, band, everything that I could want. I don't want to leave Earth. 

'Nothing is driving me away ... I don't want to leave
Earth, I want to go to Mars'
Nothing is driving me away, but something is calling me – the unknown, discovering new things, seeing ANOTHER PLANET, helping people on Earth (spinoff tech), scientific inquiry, seeing another PLANET. I don't want to leave Earth, I want to go to Mars.

Difficult to leave? I'm certain it will be. I believe that is the reason Mars One will train multiple teams, because it's going to be hard to leave behind family, friends, neighbors, oceans, rivers, grass, trees, all of the stuff that Earth has and Mars doesn't – and won't for several generations. I think that the last week or so leading up to launch will be so full of activity that it'll be the easiest part, but the few weeks before that – the saying goodbye period – will be hard, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of the trainees quit during that last run-up to launch.

4) What makes you think you'll make the final selection?

Honestly nothing does. I have no illusions there. 

Here's the remaining process as I understand it: Soon we'll have interviews with the Selection Committee, people who are approved by the Committee will enter round three which will be a series of regional contests between candidates, those who win those contests (and others chosen by the Selection Committee) will be formed into four-person teams which will then compete in contests (worldwide instead of regional). Those teams which win/are selected will be hired by Mars One as their astronaut/colonist pool and start training as their full-time job.

The Mars one team are currently working hard on the 'logistics' of the interview process and have little contact with the candidates 

Now that you know what's to come, I'll expand on my answer: I firmly believe that I will make it through the interview. The primary requirements are mental and psychological and I have no doubt at this point that I have the right personality for this. Once it comes to the competition rounds I don't have any idea if I'll make it through or not. In fact I don't see myself winning anything in round three. Nobody knows what the competitions will look like, but any way it falls I could easily lose. If they're tests of intelligence: I've met candidates who make me look like an idiot. I'm a fairly smart guy, but there are some candidates with a staggering intelligence, so I lose in that scenario. Tests of strength: I'm in good shape - through a combination of good genes, a physically demanding job, and doing yoga some – for a man my age, but I'm 46 years old and with age comes entropy. There are plenty of younger, healthier, and stronger candidates, so I lose in that scenario.

However the competitions may be shaped I know that there are people who can beat me, so I don't think I'll make the final selection. That's also a big part of how I live my life though: There is always someone better than me, so I can only work hard, do the best I can, and let the chips fall where they may. So in this case I'll work on educating myself about the mission, work on training my mind and body, do the best job I can at whatever contest comes along, and be ready to win and be ready to lose. At the end of it all, if I can look in the mirror and say that I did the best that I could then I'll be able to live with that.

5) How much contact do you have with the Mars One team at the moment?

We candidates have as much contact as any member of the public right now. If we want to we can email them through the website and get an answer relatively quickly (I've mentioned they're busy, be patient), the CEO and co-founder Bas Lansdorp makes appearances around the world from time to time (you can see a list on the website) and if you happen to be at one and run into him (I literally almost did. At The Mars Society convention in August I was heading for the elevator at a rapid pace, went around a corner and just barely stopped in time) you'll find that he's willing to stop and talk - if he's not headed to an important meeting - and he's very personable, and they interact with people on the facebook group “Mars One – Aspiring Martians Group” sometimes. Other than that we don't have much contact with them. Really, at the moment, we're waiting for them to get in contact with us as they're working out the logistics of interviews and are going to email us with the information once it's worked out.

6) Do you think you'll have a change of heart in the next 10 years?

Bill refutes the media's labeling of Mars One as a 'suicide mission',
and argues that the candidates 'know what they're signing up for'
I don't believe so. You really never know what may happen over a span of time, so I'd never say  “absolutely not!” but before I hit the <send> button on the application I spent a lot of time thinking through all of the implications and ramifications of such a decision and I'm certain that it would take a monumental change in life for me to unmake that decision. Over 200,000 people applied to become Mars One colonists and before I even applied I had to know that I wasn't going to jump into something in the heat of the moment and then back out later. I felt that doing that would have been a waste of Mars One's time, effort, and money, and it could have meant leaving someone out who could have done better than I. I didn't want to be that guy.

I had an earlier rant about misconceptions people have about the candidates when I addressed their thinking that we must be trying to escape a bad life. Here's another misconception: I've heard people express the opinion that we must not have thought through the implications of such a mission. Far from it! Most of the candidates who I've talked to (myself included) thought long and hard about this choice before applying. We understand what we're signing up for. We know that we're going in for a rough, and possibly foreshortened, life, but we embraced it nonetheless.

7) On Mars, what do you think you'll miss and not miss about home?

First and foremost I'll miss my family. We'll get to talk – voice and video with a delay due to the distance, but I'll miss being able to hug my wife and kids. I'm sure I'll miss forests, lakes, rivers, all of the beauty that is the Earth, but I'm getting to trade that for the beauty of another planet so I'll take that trade. The family is the main thing though.

The one thing that I won't miss is my gardening because that will take up a huge portion of our time on Mars.

8) What do your family and / or friends think of your decision to sign up?

My family is varying degrees of excited about the prospect. The kids are very excited! They've grown up in a world of IMs, texting, and skype so they see no problem with the communication issues. Even a delay of communication due to the distance doesn't bother them. The youngest is now 16 years old so they don't think they'll need the old man close by anyway. My wife is a bit more apprehensive about the idea, but she's been my biggest supporter so far. We try to recognize each others dreams and do what we can to help each other along with them.

9) You've been narrowed down the last 705 potential candidates. What tests did you undergo to achieve that?

You would think that I'd know the answer to that, but it's not really very clear to us candidates. The application had a lot of questions for us to answer which the selection committee used to try to select people with the psychological profile that they were looking for, but that psychological profile hasn't been revealed in detail. I've made guesses based on information on the Mars One website ( ), papers that members of the selection committee have written, and the personalities of the candidates who I've met, but they are only guesses.

Mars One conference in Shanghai last year. Bill believes the team's lack of contact with
the candidates over the past few months might be, among other things, a test of patience

The candidates have all had to pass a medical screening – the same screening that one has to pass to get a pilot's license. Aside from that I suspect that we are currently undergoing a test of patience. We were told several months ago that we'll have interviews with the selection committee and they'll notify us about the details of when and where, and that's the last we've heard. They have quite a lot of logistics to deal with to arrange interviewing 705 people on six different continents so it's no great surprise that it is taking some time, but it makes sense to test our patience. Consider this: Each crew will be in a small transit vehicle for about seven months between leaving Earth and arriving at Mars. You definitely want to have people aboard who don't mind waiting.

10) The mission intends to send a new crew to Mars every two years after the first launch. The population and size of the colony will continually grow. If successful, what do you see Mars looking like 100 years from now?

If Mars One is successful then I'm sure it won't be the only colony on Mars in 100 years. Already the United States, China, and India are showing renewed efforts in the reach to Mars. SpaceX's founder Elon Musk has said often that he intends to start a colony as well. I don't expect the planet itself to look much different – I don't think that anyone will try to terraform Mars unless there's a radical leap in planetary climatology – but I would expect a fairly good-sized population.

Colonising Mars could be the first step in making our solar system a true
'system' with ventures into asteroid mining, distant
space stations and exploring far off moons becoming a reality

I also think that it won't just be Mars. I think our solar system will truly be a system – ships mining the asteroids, bringing the ores to space stations for manufacturing, Earth will be the main source of food for the stations and mining ships but Mars could also have a good trade in farming especially for exploration ships going to the moons of Jupiter. I think that by then we'll have gone to orbiting solar power stations to provide energy for the planetary surfaces.

With the leaps that technology takes a hundred years is a long time and I could be a little conservative in painting the picture I did. If there are breakthroughs in spaceflight engines we could be interstellar in that time.


Mars One: from the mouth of a candidate. I know I've learnt so much more about the practical and ethical aspects of this fascinating mission from Bill's answers. I hope you have too.
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