A new life on the red planet

Updated: 2013-05-24 07:15

By Peng Yining (China Daily)

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 A new life on the red planet

An artist's impression of a settlement on Mars. The Mars One project has attracted more than 78,000 applicants worldwide. Photos Provided to China Daily

 A new life on the red planet

An artist's impression of the interior of accommodation at the colony.

 A new life on the red planet

Living quarters inside the settlement, as envisaged by an artist.

 A new life on the red planet

An imagined vegetable garden inside the settlement.

A putative program to establish a human colony on Mars has met with a strong response from hopeful Chinese citizens, as Peng Yining reports in Beijing.

Chinese people have explored most places on Earth, from the arctic icecaps to Amazonian rainforests and the valleys of the Himalaya. Now, it seems, they want to plant a footprint much further afield - on Mars, to be exact.

A private Dutch project called Mars One, endorsed by the 1999 Nobel Prize-winning physicist Gerard 't Hooft, aims to take four people on a one-way trip and establish a permanent human colony on the red planet in 2023.

The news has stirred enthusiasm for space exploration in China. Applications opened last month and of the 78,000 people who had applied by early May, 10,241 came from China. Only the United States had more applicants with 17,324, according to Mars One's official website.

"What if the four people were infected by a mysterious virus on Mars and became zombies, killing and eating each other?" asked one netizen during a group chat on Mars One Fans, one of the online chat groups dedicated to the mission, which has more than 260 members.

"You watch too many movies!" Another netizen's comment popped up in the chat window.

"Chinese people are increasingly interested in space technology and astronomy, but they need to acquire a greater depth of scientific knowledge. The Mars One project could be a chance for people to learn," said Peng Xiaobo, the director of research and development center at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology.

Yan Huiming, a 22-year-old applicant from Beijing, said that before he applied to join the project, his knowledge of Mars came mostly from Hollywood movies and science fiction. John Carter centers around the exploits of a US army veteran transported to Mars, where he's able to jump to great heights and perform incredible feats of strength as a result of his different bone density and the planet's low gravity, which is around 38 percent that of earth.

"It was fascinating to watch him jump so high and to see all the aliens in that movie," said Yan, a freelance game designer for mobile devices.

Before he paid the $11 registration fee to upload his application, Yan spent a couple of hours researching the red planet on the Internet. He discovered that he would be hard pressed to play the movie hero if he made it to Mars, mainly because, unlike the character in the film, he wouldn't be able to venture outdoors without a space suit - the planet's thin atmosphere mostly consists of carbon dioxide and water vapor, and the average temperature is - 63 C.

However, Yan wasn't downcast. He had learned a lot about the real Mars as his romantic notions dissolved. He said most of his friends don't know much about the planet or the universe, and he wouldn't have spent hours learning about space science had it not been for Mars One.

"I wouldn't be able to jump high. In fact, I would be lucky to not be blown off the surface by the almost-constant sand storms, which are five times stronger than the fiercest typhoons on earth. I work at home and never leave my studio unless I really have to. Once a week, tops," said Yan, a self-confessed computer geek.

"I am only connected to the world by the Internet, so what's the difference between living on Earth or Mars?" he asked.

Lack of knowledge

A lack of scientific knowledge means most online conversations don't make any sense, according to Yang Shimeng, founder of China's most-popular bulletin boards about Mars One, and also Mars One Fans, an online chat group.

"But we can still learn from asking and answering questions - even though some of them are silly - especially when someone questions the feasibility of the project. It encourages people to use science to defend themselves," said Yang, a 24-year-old metallurgical engineer who has also applied for Mars One. "After all, there aren't many chances to talk about the Big Bang and space travel in our daily lives."

An obsession with astronomy saw Yang devour popular science books in high school, including Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which helped him to come up with the idea that the universe resembles a huge soap bubble.

"If two soap bubbles collided, would they break or would they just become a larger bubble? Would one bubble have a smaller bubble inside it? These were the ideas whirring around my brain," he said.

Some of his teachers thought he was just wasting his time because the gaokao, China's national university entrance exam, would never include a question about bubbles.

In the end, the only bubble that burst was his dream of becoming an astronaut or a space scientist: "You have to be very competitive to get into those top universities and become a rocket scientist, I wasn't able to do that. Anyway, I've been shortsighted since third grade - have you ever seen an astronaut wearing eyeglasses?"

An upsurge of interest

Mars One is opening an astronaut-training program for applicants that meet the basic criteria. They need to be at least 18 years of age and, in general, normal medical and physiological health standards will be used, according to the project's website. It is not necessary to have military training or experience of flying an aircraft. Not even a science degree is required.

"It's like telling people that your dream of being an astronaut might come true," Yang said. "Who doesn't have that dream?"

Considering China's enormous population of 1.3 billion, more than 10,000 applicants seems small beer, but public interest in outer space has been growing in recent years as China's space industry made huge leaps, said Peng Xiaobo, the senior launch vehicle scientist.

Since launching its first manned space flight in 2003, the country has sent a number of astronauts into outer space. "Chinese people are becoming more interested in space projects. The upsurge of interest stirred by Mars One gives people a chance to learn, but scientific education should continue during and after the project," said Peng.

As for the feasibility of Mars One, Peng believes that the existing technology is not mature enough to support the plan and interplanetary emigration is too complex a matter for a nongovernmental organization, at least at the present time.

In addition to the billions the project would have to spend on technology, Mars One estimates that the cost of putting the first four people on the planet will be around $6 billion. Funding is being sought through sponsorship, the projected revenues for broadcasting rights to the project, and the sale of related merchandise, which includes a $25 T-shirt bearing the Mars One logo.

However, as of May 12, the revenue earned though merchandising and donations was roughly $100,000 and only $294 of that came from China.

Although Mars One claims that more than 10,000 Chinese have applied, only about 25 people have published their applications on the official website.

"Most people might have just signed up through their e-mail address on the website, but only a few have paid the registration fee and completed the application process," said Li Dapeng, a 31-year-old applicant from North China's Hebei province, who works for the State forestry bureau.


There also has been widespread online skepticism about the project. On May 20, Chinese media reported online speculation that Mars One is a fraud and has already been suspended.

In an e-mail to China Daily on Tuesday, Bas Lansdorp, the project's co-founder, insisted that Mars One is doing very well and is still committed to landing humans on Mars in 2023. But, as with many highly ambitious and complex projects, there is always the risk of delay and Mars One is working hard to stay on schedule.

Lansdorp said the 78,000 applicants had taken the time and effort to fill in the application form and show their interest in going to Mars, and even if some decided they didn't want to pay the application fee, that doesn't necessarily mean they don't still want to go.

"If the project fails or is even shown to be a fraud, I wouldn't regret applying," said Li, who has started working out, practicing English and reading astronomy books since he applied to join the project.

"I like my situation right now - hopeful and confident. I know the odds aren't good, but at least I have tried to grab the chance to contribute to the space industry and humanity."

Contact the writer at pengyining@chinadaily.com.cn

Jiang Xueqing and Tang Yue contributed to this story.

(China Daily USA 05/24/2013 page5)