August 2019

The Nation Reviewed

Mission to Mars

By Nicola Redhouse
The Australian woman on the shortlist to bid farewell to Earth forever

Years ago, while holidaying in Sydney, Dianne McGrath got a phone call from the fire brigade in her home town of Melbourne to say her apartment had burnt down. “An electrical fault in my new fridge,” she says. What was salvaged fit into the back of her car. It was an unlikely event, but McGrath is in the game of unlikely events, and in the latest her odds are getting lower: she’s one of 100 people shortlisted from an initial pool of 200,000 to be part of Mars One, a venture to establish civilisation on Mars.

Mars One plans to send groups of four astronauts to the Red Planet every 26 months from 2031. There is one key stipulation for the seven-month journey: no return ticket. “There’s nothing to support the ability to leave,” McGrath explains. “No ground crew, no refuelling station, no launch pad.” But she is not daunted by the idea of leaving Earth forever: “I don’t see it as very different to being a refugee who can’t return home. My sense of attachment is not located to place, to physically having to see somebody.” If McGrath does go, she will leave behind her partner, whom she met after applying for the program. Communications signals can take up to 22 minutes between the planets, meaning there would be no quick calls home, no FaceTime equivalent. “I made sure that my partner knew and had the choice to invest or not in the relationship.”

Though the conditions of the Mars One mission are unprecedented, analogue habitat experiments have investigated the psychological and physical effects of long-term isolation and intense confinement. In 2010 the Mars500 mission holed up a team of six men in a simulation spacecraft module in Russia for 520 days. Participant Romain Charles has told of how the experience changed his initial willingness to go on a one-way trip to Mars: “I learnt … that I really need the trip back, the hope.”

Analogue experiments can’t replicate what it would feel like to lose sight of Earth forever. McGrath wonders, spiritually, what effect this might have on her. “You look at all religions, philosophies, and there’s a connection with this world. Mother Earth. What happens if we are not part of this planet anymore?”

For McGrath, whose ageless face, ice-blue eyes and asymmetrical blonde haircut already give off an otherworldly vibe, the apartment fire was an analogue experiment of sorts – practice for the extreme limitations on personal belongings and equipment the astronauts would have placed on them. “I now live beyond minimalism. I refer to it as essentialism: what do I really need to survive?” she says. I notice her toe shoes, which are meant to replicate being barefoot. On Mars, survival will rely on what can be grown and manufactured from the natural resources of the planet, using the scant equipment taken along, which would likely include a 3D printer. The planet’s loose surface contains massive amounts of water in the form of ice, and when combined with the carbon in its atmosphere the astronauts could produce fuels, oxidisers and plastics. It also contains abundant minerals including silicon dioxide, the basic constituent of glass. McGrath is hopeful that Mars won’t soon have its own Great Pacific garbage patch. “You’d reuse and reuse and reuse, because you can’t rely on resupply,” she says. “And the research shows we treat a place differently when we live there versus when we visit.”

But habitation on Mars will be up against greater challenges than pollution. Mars has a third of Earth’s gravity, less than half the natural light, and little atmosphere to protect from the sun’s radiation. The astronauts might need to live in caves or underground. Their bone density will decrease. They will get what’s known as “fat face”, where their bodily fluids pool upwards. Some physiological risks may be eliminated before departure. “It’ll be interesting when they get down to the final crews whether there will be any requirements, like, we have to get our appendix removed, or tonsils,” McGrath muses.

What makes a person willing to undergo organ removal and leave Earth forever, while others just want to lie under their doonas with Netflix? Perhaps McGrath, who will be 50 this year, was primed for the isolated pioneering life: her father was a bookkeeper for government-funding programs, which meant that from age 10 she lived in the desert of the Northern Territory. She honed intense self-reliance, learning by correspondence. “No one ever forced me to study. I taught myself from tapes.” By the time she was a teenager it was socialising she had to learn, so her parents sent her to boarding school.

Her childhood experience also stands her in good stead for food production in the vein of Matt Damon’s forensic potato-harvesting in The Martian. “When we moved to the outback, vegetables, fresh food just didn’t exist. I learnt to grow food in really extreme environments. I learnt to hunt at the age of 11. I’ve killed animals by hand.” She is currently midway through a PhD on food waste, and has a growing reputation as a self-experimenter in the fields of human physiology and psychology, living off food waste for a week, and spending a year without grains, single-use plastic or alcohol. Sleep experimenting is her focus of late.

The Mars One mission has been labelled unfeasible by many – most notably in detailed analysis from researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014. But McGrath says that study is dated, and comes from a position of assumption and incomplete knowledge. She is confident that research underway by space agencies will always find solutions. “NASA is already using light therapy for their long-duration space flight, for example.”

The Mars One project was also widely reported to be bankrupt earlier this year, though McGrath is adamant that’s not the case. “[  T ]he media … think Mars One is bankrupt. No – the company they bought on the stock exchange is,” she says. Its commercial arm, Mars One Ventures, which reports back to shareholders and generates all kinds of enterprises from T-shirts to a planned documentary, went into administration after being delisted on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange because of noncompliance issues. Its not-for-profit arm, Mars One Foundation, which manages astronaut training and logistics, forges on, she insists.

Neither McGrath nor the 99 other candidates waiting for the next selection phase of the process are allowing themselves to be deterred, perhaps in keeping with the unfettered mindset needed to colonise a planet. “There is always negative press as well as positive press when people seek to do the remarkable,” she says. “I respectfully pay little attention to people who express negative personal opinions.”

The 100 are getting to know each other via Facebook and email, and in person where possible, tasked with self-organising into teams of 10. Many of them also have useful skills for a desolate planet, such as medical degrees, but McGrath, who is one of seven Australians shortlisted, says the real test is how they work as a team, and whether there is good cultural, gender and age diversity. “They will train us on everything we need to learn. That’s one of the reasons Mars One is focusing on the people, because… technology, you can build another widget. It’s the human quality [that’s needed]: adaptability, resilience, curiosity, trust and resourcefulness.”

In the meantime, McGrath is continually engaged in her own personal training for the venture. She and her partner have no permanent home, instead house-­sitting and short-term renting in between. “Psychologically, moving house is one of the biggest stressors that people experience, and I thought, well, if I learn to do that all the time, that’s good training.” She is also focused on learning how she behaves in a group, undertaking intensive residential conferences in group dynamics.

There is one thing that perturbs McGrath about the trip: when people ask her why she wants to go and die on a faraway planet. “I am actually going to live for quite some time. It’s called ‘launch’ for a reason. You’re going somewhere.”

Nicola Redhouse

Nicola Redhouse is a Melbourne-based writer and the author of Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind.

Image of The Monthly cover August 2019

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