Ritika Singh hopes that one day people will speak about her in the same way they talk about Neil Armstrong or Christopher Columbus. This is one of her motivations.
This is the legacy she hopes to leave. This is why she signed up for something that has been described as a suicide mission doomed to end in death and disaster.
‘My view,’ says the 29-year-old of Dubai Investment Park, ‘is that you have to die one day, so do something brilliant before.’
She is one of just 100 people from across the world who have been shortlisted – from more than 200,000 initial applicants – to go on the first manned mission to Mars.
The Dh15 billion Mars One project aims to send four of these amateur astronauts to colonise the Red Planet in 2024. It would be a one-way journey. Those who go must accept they will never come back. They will live out the rest of their days – however many they have on a planet that humanity still has limited knowledge of – as Martians.
It must rank among the greatest leaps into the unknown since Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. The seven-month space journey makes Armstrong’s 1969 moon landing seem like a quick trip next door.
‘I’ve always been an adventurous person, from being a little girl climbing trees in India,’ says Ritika, an engineering graduate from Delhi who’s lived in Dubai for four years. ‘So when I heard about Mars One from an ex-colleague, it just seemed tailor-made for me. I wanted to be involved. I researched it and I applied. I want to be one of the women who help take humans to another planet.’
She’s not the only UAE resident on the shortlist either. She’s joined by 38-year-old Polish software developer, Mikolaj Zielinski.
Both applied after seeing the project advertised in newspapers and on TV. They had to send a covering letter and video presentation to Mars One. The only must-have criteria asked for was a spirit of adventure, and the commitment to see the project through. Both were then picked after impressing a judging panel of space experts appointed by Mars One with a video presentation on why they should go, a medical and an email interview. Now, another two rounds of mental and physical challenges will whittle the remaining 100 wannabes down to a final 24.
Those who make the cut will then face eight years of intense full-time training before the chosen quartet are picked for the historic journey. This being the modern world, it will all be filmed for a reality TV show, and broadcast across the planet.
Can we talk about the risks, I ask Ritika early on in our meeting. Of course, she says breezily. They’re considerable. The project by Mars One – a non-profit organisation set up by Dutch billionaire Bas Lansdorp in 2011 – will be meticulously planned. A schedule shows a settlement rover – a kind of space craft – will be sent up in 2020 to seek out the best place for a base, and unmanned missions carrying food, cargo, communication and a full living quarter will follow in 2022 and 2023.
By the time the first humans go in 2024, they will supposedly have everything they need to live long, fulfilling lives on the planet. An internet connection will be established. Specialist pods will allow fresh food to grow. A gym will be constructed within the living area.
Except, however meticulous the planning, this remains a leap into the unknown. In the language of Columbus, there are possible edges of the world around every corner. The uncertainties are so varied and vast that many scientists believe the Mars One mission cannot end in success.
Low air pressure, a shortage of spare parts on board and the risk of explosion will all put lives at risk during the 400-million mile journey. A controlled landing will be hugely difficult to execute – because the vehicle will have travelled 400 million miles at incredible speeds through space and will be landing on a planet that has no landing infrastructure, plus it has never been attempted before. Any breakdown in the machinery that produces food or oxygen would be fatal. High levels of radiation on Mars will increase the risk of cancer. The extreme seasons – temperatures can drop to -143C, and dust storms can last for months – would bring potentially fatal difficulties.
Indeed, when experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analysed the plans, their reaction was one of scepticism. ‘The first crew fatality would occur approximately 86 days into the mission,’ was the main conclusion. For context, that is not even a third of the way into the journey.
Even the boffins at Mars One admit the dangers. They’ve estimated that there’s a 3 per cent chance of take off going wrong and all crew perishing before the ship even leaves the earth’s atmosphere.
‘Of course there are risks,’ nods Ritika, a logistics manager with the Al-Futtaim Group in Festival City. ‘But lift off is nine years away and there’s a road map to minimise every danger. This is a $4 billion project. Planning is of the highest degree.’
She thinks for a few moments before recalling how she climbed Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak, last year. As her group neared the summit, she says, their guides informed them that bad weather was coming.
They told the adventurers they should return to base. The freezing temperatures and winds could be fatal. ‘But we talked it over and continued anyway,’ she remembers. ‘We’d gone too far to give up. Sometimes you have to risk your life to really live. That is the nature of things. Nothing that’s worth doing is easy. And in the end the weather held off. We got to the top. It was beautiful up there.’
She pauses for a second.
‘Can you imagine what the views will be like from Mars?’ she asks. Great views are one thing, of course, and leaving a legacy is another. But leaving your family and friends, your life; your metaphorical and literal world behind forever is quite something else entirely. If she makes the final four, won’t she miss... well, planet earth?
‘Of course,’ she says. ‘I will miss my family the most, that goes without saying. When I first applied neither of my parents wanted me to do this. They didn’t want me to leave. I had to travel to India to talk it through with them. Now my dad [Narendra] is very supportive, although my mum [Rukmani] still needs a little convincing. But I tell her what a great opportunity this is. And I’ll be able to speak to her via email regularly.’
She doesn’t have a partner or children, she adds, but she will miss nature. ‘That’s my one true love after my family,’ she says. ‘I love rivers and mountains. I spend most weekends in the outdoors, so that will definitely be something I long to do.
‘But this is nine years away. I have plenty of time to make the most of all these things now. If I am selected for the final 24 I will make the absolute most of those nine years, knowing that one day I will be leaving. That’s not a bad way to live.’
So, how exactly will it work? How will they live once they get to Mars? The details – a bit, one presumes, like the views during a Martian dust storm, perhaps – are still somewhat hazy. But essentially, the idea is that a fully constructed living unit will be sent up ahead of the astronauts arriving on the Red Planet.
This will fall on inflatable landers, be set in place by robotic rovers, and get filled with breathable air by a life support unit. Inside will be construction materials for our space heroes to build more rooms, and floors from the inside. Electrical generators will be included, as will wet areas for showers and toilets. Both oxygen-producing plants and pods for growing vegetables will be landed alongside the living quarter.
All of which means that when the first four people arrive, they will, more or less, be able to simply move from spacecraft to space house within a few days. ‘There’ll be plenty of work to keep us occupied,’ says Ritika. ‘This is the first step for humans to colonise space so there’ll be so much to do.’
Following that first quartet – who will all be paid – four more people will be sent up every two years for 10 years. That will leave 24 on Mars. What happens then is still being decided but at some point, it is presumably hoped, either more people from earth or baby Martians will arrive to keep the colony going.
If it all sounds like the stuff of science fiction, however, that might be because it possibly still is. Many respected scientists simply don’t believe the Mars One mission will happen.
Chris Welch, director of masters programs at the International Space University in Illkirch, France, has been one of the biggest critics. He dismissed the project as ‘not demonstrating a sufficiently deep understanding of the problems, to give real confidence that the project would be able to meet its very ambitious schedule’.
Buzz Aldrin, who was the second man on the moon and knows a thing or two about space, said 2035 would be a more realistic date for a human landing on Mars. That would give time for greater research, financing and technological advancement.
Even Gerard ’t Hooft, the Dutch Nobel laureate who is ambassador for the mission, questions the time frame. ‘When they first asked me to be involved I told them “You have to put a zero after everything”,’ he told UK newspaper The Guardian. That would put the launch date 90 years away.
Yet Ritika is confident. ‘If I didn’t believe in this I wouldn’t be doing it,’ she says. ‘Maybe there will be small delays but everything I’ve seen and been told fills me with confidence that this will happen.’
Now, she’s doing everything to make sure she’ll be part of it when it does. ‘I don’t know what exactly the challenges will be when the next rounds happen later this year so it’s hard to prepare,’ she says. ‘But what I can say is I will give my absolute all to make the final 24. It would be my dream come true.’
Sacrifice worth scientific possibilities
Mikolaj Zielinski says going to Mars would be the 21st century equivalent of Charles Darwin voyaging around the earth in the 1830s. The 38-year-old Pole applied to be part of the project because he wanted to be part of an expedition that will help humanity’s understanding of the universe.
‘We hope to answer many important questions about the history of planets in our solar system with respect to the origins of life. Some of my friends want me to remain on earth, some support the idea and some people are trying to change my mind about going, especially my mother. But that has not caused me to reconsider. I am determined.’