Mars Attracts!

An Edmonton husband wants to see his wife realize her dream; in fact, he’s willing to file divorce papers so the woman he loves can go to the Red Planet.

Illustration by Jason Lin

Long-distance couples are no longer enigmas; you see them everywhere, spread across the globe. Technologies like Facetime and Facebook have redefined the face-to-face relationship. You can get to know someone from a distance, and the stigma of living in two different cities, provinces, or even countries is gone – this isn’t the domain of the desperate.

But what happens when the distance between couples reaches millions of miles, with a one-way road trip taking approximately eight months? You don’t just feel like you’re on different planets, you actually are. In about a decade, there may be people in this situation as humans could potentially colonize Mars. And Christy Foley, a strategic planner with the Alberta Ministry of Environment in Edmonton, might be among them.

Foley made it through the second round of private company Mars One‘s controversial quest to send regular citizens to the Red Planet, where they’d set up permanent shop. The company’s goal is to send the first group in 2024, and there would be many years of training and a lengthy selection process prior to then. Right now, there are more than 700 candidates, and only 24 to 40 will be picked (if everything works out) and sent over several years in groups of four. Before any of this happens, Mars One needs to raise billions of dollars, and much of the money would come from a reality show that follows the training process. 

We have the technology and resources to send people to the Red Planet, but not to bring them back. And while governmental agencies or private companies may find a way to do it in the future, there are no guarantees. So, if she makes it to the final 40, Foley and her husband, Ian Runkle, who’s a lawyer, might only ever speak to each other again through one-way, time-delayed messages. They did the long distance thing before – when they were first dating: Foley was in Edmonton and her then-boyfriend was in Burnaby, B.C. – and it didn’t work for them. It was a year of phone calls, and heartache. It felt like they were on different planets until the couple realized they needed to be in the same city to make it work.

So, if each actually ends up on a different planet, they know how they’ll handle it. “If I make it to the final round, we will get a divorce about a month before I go. It’ll be the easiest divorce ever because he will get everything,” says Foley. There will be no dispute over who gets the car or the cash. No serial discontent with a side of bitterness. Neither will have cheated or schemed; there will be no irreconcilable differences. Just a whole lot of space between them with no chance of running into one another at the grocery store.

For some, it’s hard to understand how someone could leave everything, especially a marriage, behind. Foley’s mother is among those with raised eyebrows. “She doesn’t understand it.” But Foley says it’s the logical choice; she doesn’t want to hold him back and he feels the same.

“When he found out I was shortlisted, he wrote on Facebook something like: ‘I don’t want to be the type of person to hold her back from her dreams; but I want to help her reach the stars and not anchor her to the Earth.'”

Mars is the new frontier. No human has ever set foot on its sandy surface; only robots have traversed it. Scientists postulate that billions of years ago the Martian atmosphere was somewhat similar to Earth with flowing water; but now, it lacks ozone, and its surface is dangerously radioactive. It’s red, desolate and desperately cold – like hell, frozen over.

Inhospitable nature be damned, Foley isn’t the only one willing to leave those she loves to go there. More than 200,000 people vied for hot tickets to the cold planet. Foley has wanted to explore outer space since she was a child – in an elementary-school yearbook, she wrote that she wanted to live on the moon. 

But the desire to go beyond our atmosphere runs deeper than a childhood need for novelty. Her dream of living on Mars, says Foley, is bigger than any relationship she has on Earth. “There are many reasons for me wanting to go. The idea of exploration and the benefit to humanity are the two really big ones. We’d have the chance to expand knowledge and see how Mars actually looks with human eyes. The scientific advances with what we might find, and trying to get there and live there may be extremely valuable,” says Foley.

Private and government organizations have also seen the value in going to Mars. It’s been on the minds of these organizations for decades, dating back to the late 1980s. NASA had a proposed plan called the Space Exploration Initiative that was unveiled by George H.W. Bush in 1989. In it, NASA detailed plans for another mission to the moon, and a human mission to Mars. But the massive price tag – US$500 billion, give or take, to be dispensed over 20 to 30 years – was too difficult to manage. By the time of the Clinton administration, all serious talk of exploring Mars was dropped from the National Space Policy. At least until recently.

Several others have since created elaborate plans for the Red Planet – Mars Direct, another private company, began speaking of its plans to send humans to Mars in the late 1990s. It didn’t raise enough money to launch the rockets off the ground.

“People give their lives for lesser things,” says James Kass, an advisor to Mars One who is helping with the selection criteria of the crew, along with some of the training. He’s trained astronauts and worked on several space missions including those conducted by MIR, Spacelab and space shuttles, and he worked with the astronauts of the first U.S. space station, Skylab. “Adventurers take huge risks and sacrifice their lives for it,” says Kass. This adventurous spirit is often compared to the risk-taking explorers who, as they travelled the far seas, thought they might even fall off the edge of the world. But, despite the risks, they had an inexplicable desire to see what was beyond our horizon.

And, while 10 years time might bring a divorce for Foley, she’s still hopeful things will go a little differently. Her husband also applied for the Mars One mission. His initial application was denied, but there is the opportunity to try again. Even if he doesn’t make it, Foley is hopeful that they may see each other in person again, proving that she wasn’t exaggerating when she said it’ll probably be the “easiest divorce ever.”

“There aren’t going to be any hard feelings; so we’ll still be the friends we were for six years before we got married,” she says. “And I’m sure there will be tons of cool things to talk about.”

Simulated Living

Mars One plans to start training in 2015 with selected participants going to a remote location, learning how to grow food, make repairs and live as they would on Mars. And while Mars One is studying the psychological implications of living on another planet, so are many governmental organizations.

Global space agencies have a whole collective roadmap for how to approach settling Mars and the spaces surrounding it. They’ve banded together to pool resources, and a huge amount of knowledge has already been developed for the first human mission. The global landscape of space travel has changed, so the days of specific countries racing to mark planets with their own flags are over. Governments are working together, and private companies are in the mix, often with more resources and less red tape.

Ross Lockwood, a PhD student at the University of Alberta, is participating in the University of Hawaii’s HI-SEAS program (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog & Simulation) with $1.2 million funding from NASA. The project is a Mars simulation (running from mid-March to July) on the volcanic slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa. The project is part of a series, including one that took place a few years ago, that tested the types of shelf-stable foods that would be feasible to take on the mission. This simulation will test the psychological problems that could arise from living in close quarters with others, and being secluded from humanity.

From apprentice to astronaut?

Many people are skeptical as to whether Mars One will be able to fulfill its mission. Graham Christensen isn’t deluded about the challenges the company could face financially or otherwise; but he’s very hopeful that the mission will be successful. Because, if it is, he may be part of it. The Vegreville, Alta. resident, who’s worked as an electrical apprentice, has also been chosen in Mars One’s second round. Unlike Foley, he won’t be leaving a spouse behind, but that doesn’t mean the decision to leave the planet was taken lightly.

Going into space is something he’s always wanted to do. When he was a child, and his mom wanted to read him nursery rhymes, he asked her to read him stories about space instead. Growing up, he spent hours reading books about other planets at the local library. He collected meteorites, including one that originated from Mars that, if possible, he’d like to take back to its home.  

But Christensen sees the opportunity to go to Mars as something more than just the fulfillment of his own dreams; he sees the mission as the first of many to follow that could shape how we live. “Thousands of years from now, I think we’ll be throughout the solar system and possibly even on planets around other stars. We might look back at this time as being the first moment when we became a multi-planetary species. I’m willing to put my life on the line for that,” says Christensen.

After learning he made it through the first round of the Mars One project, Christensen also found out the company that employed him as an electrical apprentice had to let him go due to lack of funds. The change in his situation provided the perfect opportunity to see more of the world. He went on a road trip through British Columbia, stopping at various points to take in the different landscapes. “There’s no ocean on Mars; I’ve got to see it now, or I’ll never see it again, aside from through a telescope and that’s it,” says Christensen. As for what the Mars inhabitants would find, he says the options are endless, and that’s a huge part of what he finds exciting about the mission. 

“We have 10 million species on this one planet, around this one ordinary star. If all the other planets don’t have life, that means that life is so rare it’s just on this one planet around an obscure star at the edge of an unremarkable galaxy. But on the other hand, if we’re not the only life in the universe, that’s also really interesting, and you wonder what’s out there,” he says.

Regardless of whether he’s chosen, Christensen now has a Mars bucket list. He wants to see as much of the Earth as he can before he leaves it, whether it’s by rocket, or not. And Foley is extremely excited about the possibility of a eight-year-long training session, where she says the first group of four would be taught everything from medical studies to government structures – learning how to get along with each other and even how to form their own society.

Life on Mars

While there are huge challenges associated with humans trying to live on Mars – radiation, freezing temperatures, a lack of atmosphere, just to name a few – we know that it’s technically possible to inhabit the Red Planet. Carlos Lange, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, worked with the university’s Institute for Space Science, Exploration and Technology program on the Phoenix Mars Mission in 2008. A joint venture between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency among others, the mission sent a lander to the Red Planet to gather information. The lander discovered layers of ice beneath the Martian soil and moisture in the atmosphere. “And by the end of the mission, which happened in the Maritian summer, when it became colder, it saw snow falling on Mars,” says Lange. 

It might sound minor, but a discovery of underground water on a planet, even in the form of ice, is huge. Water is one of the most important aspects of sustaining life and future inhabitants can also use it as a shield against dangerous radiation. The Phoenix lander also determined that Martian soil is like our soil. “You could put this soil in your pot and grow plants; it’s normal to us,” says Lange. The discovery makes travel to Mars much more realistic.

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