If his greatest wish is fulfilled, then Stephan Günther will one day die on Mars. He's already thought about the eventuality. He would like his companions to pack his remains in an airtight coffin before depositing him outside the colony among the rocks.
"Perhaps there are unknown forms of life on Mars," 45-year-old Günther says. "We can't just intervene."
It is a sentiment which displays the enlightenment of today's conquerors. They want to take ownership of a planet, but they are concerned that their own remains could contaminate native bacterial cultures in its dusty, rocky ecosystem.
Mars, to be sure, remains a deserted wasteland today, its ecology intact. But it could be that Günther might bounce his way through rough craters beaming pictures back to Earth. Currently a flight trainer in Magdeburg, Germany, Günther has applied to take part in a unique voyage to our neighboring planet. A return trip is not part of the deal.
Conceiving the journey as one-way makes it vastly more feasible and less expensive. A Dutch foundation, led by businessman Bas Lansdorp, is behind the idea. "We want to send the first four settlers to Mars in 2024," he says, adding that "additional teams will follow."
Some 704 candidates say they are prepared to leave Earth forever. A competition will decide which of them will be sent to be humanity's permanent representatives on Mars. Lansdorp's foundation, Mars One, plans to train those chosen for eight years as preparation for a radically new life.
Mars is not a destination that sounds particularly attractive. It is bitterly cold and dust storms sometimes envelope the entire planet for weeks at a time. Its sights are also limited to gorges that are several kilometers deep and enormous volcanoes, the biggest of which is the size of Poland and stretches 26 kilometers (16 miles) into the Martian sky.
Flying to the Stars
For settlers there, though, the Earth would be but a tiny point in the heavens and if something happened, there would be no help available. The flight takes at least six months -- and the two planets are close enough to each other for such a trip only once every two years.
None of that bothers Günther. He has always wanted to fly to the stars, even going so far as to build himself a space capsule out of cardboard boxes as a child. Inside, he carefully drew an instrument panel, cut holes so he could see out and tipped a chair onto its back for the pilot's seat. Then, he would fly into space. "Even when the weather was good," Günther says. "The other boys would be playing football outside, but I would be flying in my capsule."
Now, he has hopes that he might fly at least 50 million kilometers into space in a real spaceship. First designs for a vehicle that could make it to Mars have already been completed. The US-based company SpaceX, for example, presented their model Dragon V2 in May. The capsule has enough room for seven passengers and it is hoped that it will begin flying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2016. Mars One hopes that it will later ferry the first settlers to our neighboring planet.
Mars One hopes to begin a series of unmanned cargo flights to Mars in 2018 to establish the necessary infrastructure. In 2025, when the first four -- of a planned total of 24 settlers -- touch down, they will find a "reliable living environment," as the website describes it. There will be a living unit for each along with inflatable greenhouses for lettuce, tomatoes and zucchini. Water will be provided by melting ice from the Martian soil and some of it will be broken down to provide oxygen. Solar cells will generate electricity.
There is little doubt that such a mission is technically feasible. But beyond that, it is viewed with significant skepticism. The biggest hurdle is the price tag. Mars One hopes that $6 billion will be enough to finance the project up to the first landing, but experts believe it is almost impossible to calculate what it might ultimately end up costing. The plan calls for most of the money to be generated by the sale of broadcasting rights. Landsdorp notes that major television channels already spend around $4 billion for the privilege of televising the Olympic Games. Wouldn't a settlement on Mars be more thrilling than that? "The audience will be excited like they haven't been since the moon landing," he says.
The Ultimate Reality Show
The show is to start on Earth, with cameras documenting the competition between the teams of potential candidates. Simulated catastrophes, of the kind that would constantly threaten the Mars colony, would provide plenty of story lines. What, for example, would the settlers do if the toilets stopped working? Or if the oxygen flow was interrupted? Or if a meteorite crashed through the roof? The plan is for team members to practice extensively in facsimile capsules, repeatedly isolated from the outside world for weeks at a time. "It will be the toughest training ever," says Günther, not without some pride.
A subsidiary of the Dutch television production firm Endemol (which created "Big Brother") has already snapped up the broadcasting rights for the candidate selection process. Initially, they will film the interviews that Mars One will use to narrow down the candidate pool. The plan calls for 25 teams of four to then battle it out, with the six best set to begin survival training next year.
The mission will ultimately depend on its heroes. It needs strong, colorful characters that will be able to entertain viewers from around the world over the course of several years. But they also need abstemious, even-tempered types who won't go crazy in the dusty solitude of Mars.
Lansdorp claims that the requirements aren't mutually exclusive. "Those who can win over the viewing public also have what it takes to become colonists," he says. "Would you want to live on Mars with bores?"
Early on, it looked as though the candidate pool would be inexhaustible. Some 200,000 people sent their applications in to Mars One, most of them via the Internet. Then Lansdorp and his team began sorting through them, eliminating the jokesters and the doleful types hoping for a bit of attention. In the end, just 704 candidates remained.
But it is still a colorful mixture. Daniel, from Kleve, Germany, is one example. A 26-year-old social worker, he loves hiking for weeks at a time through empty countryside. He says the thing that makes him most nervous about the Mars mission is that there would be three other people with him. By contrast, there is Leila, the lively, 46-year-old doctor from Washington who looks forward to the close quarters and bustle the colony would offer. Web designer Khalid, a 22-year-old from Dubai, suffered a brief setback when his mullah ruled that the Mars mission was akin to suicide and thus not allowed for devout Muslims. But Khalid wants to go nonetheless.
The phrase "life's dream" is one that is often heard in the application videos the candidates sent in. Establishing a settlement in space is the most amazing thing possible, they believe.
Audience of Billions?
It is the kind of mission that is irresistible to those yearning for those yearning for uniqueness. Space travelers stand out, achieving a kind of renown that not even extreme mountain climbers can hope to attain. After each new peak, climbers must come down to resume life among the hoi polloi. These Mars travelers, though, would leave the Earth behind forever, destined to become living monuments -- and may have an audience of billions.
But is it acceptable to seduce people to such a potentially deadly project? And if so, who do you choose? Who has the stuff to withstand such a mission? And, if things go wrong, when do you turn off the cameras?
Many applicants dream of establishing a new, utopian society without laws and borders. Mars offers the perfect vacuum for their fantasies. But Günther believes there's no place on the Red Planet for idealists like that. Life there will be much more difficult than it is on Earth, not easier. Lansdorp agrees. "We aren't sending anyone up there who doesn't like the Earth," he says. "Because in such cases, it's not the Earth that is the problem. We need people who have a lot to lose, but want to go anyway."
People like Stephan Günther. He would be leaving his three children behind along with his wife Beate, who has gotten over the initial shock she felt upon learning of his dream. She has come to believe that her husband simply has a need to travel into space, not unlike a salmon that returns to its birthplace to spawn. She comforts herself with the knowledge that they still have 10 years together.
Günther, though, doesn't forget his plans for a second. He has lost 20 kilograms (44 pounds) and goes running regularly, even in the heat of Spain where he often spends his summers. His wife owns a bungalow tucked away among the hotels not far from the beach in Benidorm, on Spain's Mediterranean coast. Here, far away from the flight school, Günther can program in peace. Programming is his second occupation and he develops simulators for space enthusiasts -- a space shuttle, for example, that users can fly through outer space, or an Apollo Mission for gamers.
When he wants to get away from the hotel high-rises, he flies over the arid Spanish coastline in a friend's gyrocopter. From above, the region looks not dissimilar to the planet he hopes one day to call his home.
The Tribulations of Life on Mars
On Mars, of course, he will no longer be able to fly, one of the ironies of this mission. Once the adventurers finally reach their destination, they will have to live a sedentary life. Each settler will only have 40 square meters (430 square feet) at his or her disposal.
"In the Netherlands, we also hardly go out for half the winter," says Pamela Nicoletatos, 41, of Rotterdam. She too wants to go to Mars, though she is married and has two sons. She is already taking courses on astronomy, geology and medicine to prepare.
Will it be easy for her to abandon her family? That, she says, is a harsh way of describing it for someone who has dedicated herself to her husband and children for so many years. "I even home schooled my boys," she says. "It is hard to get more involved in one's family than that." She says she is looking for a new, completely different life on Mars.
Her boys will be in their mid-20s by the time their mother takes off. She will be able to communicate with them by radio, though messages will take six minutes to reach the Earth. And it could be that the separation will be temporary. "My husband and sons want to apply too," Nicoletatos says, "but only for later missions." She knows that, with the risk of death hanging over them constantly, having family members on the same team wouldn't be a good idea. "The team will become a second family to me," Nicoletatos believes.
That is unavoidable. The colonists will become closer to each other than people on Earth can even imagine. There will be no escaping one's ersatz family on Mars. The colony is a laboratory experiment on complete mutual dependence. "Big Brother" for a lifetime. If you're homesick, you can't leave and assholes can't be voted off.
Which is why Stephan Günther looks at the list of 704 candidates with a healthy amount of anxiety. He wonders if this colorful collection of personalities will ultimately yield six indomitable, inseparable teams of colonists. "If the mission fails, that will be the reason," he says.
A New World Order
There are plenty of other unique personalities on the list. Ludwig, a 33-year-old from Bonn, is one example. He says he has an affinity for everything cosmic and sees himself as an "ambassador of a new world order." Or Jan, 64, a film professor from San Francisco who will be well over 70 by the time the first mission takes off. She says she would like to be the first person to die on Mars.
Steve, 29, from Switzerland, has also not yet been eliminated. He insists that he is physically fit enough, noting that he is among the world's best at "distance water sliding over four hours" -- a discipline which is included in the Guinness Book of World Records and requires a particularly tough backside. Steve hoped to "bestow" his girlfriend with a child before launch. Swiss television is making a film with him.
Do all of these odd people really know what is awaiting them on Mars? "The most difficult thing would likely be the lack of stimuli," says Hanns-Christian Gunga, a space medicine expert at the Charité Hospital in Berlin. "In such an isolated colony, there isn't much to observe beyond the constant humming of the life support systems."
The colonists will never again feel the crunch of snow beneath their boots or the smell of a spring breeze in their nostrils. In their isolated world there will be neither the crying of children nor the buzzing of bees. Ultimately, even annoying street noise would sound like a symphony to those in the Mars station.
Every now and then, they might be able to take a spin in a rover to explore a couple of lava caves, but most of their days will be dominated by routine: taking care of their plants, maintaining equipment and machinery and cleaning the dust off the solar panels. And, above all else, exercise.
The Skeleton of a 75-Year-Old
Extensive exercise is vital because otherwise muscles and bones will begin to atrophy. "That happens quickly," says Gunga. "Bone material will begin to deteriorate from the very first day in space." Even assuming two hours of exercise per day, between 1 and 2 percent of bone mass is lost each month. A 40-year-old space traveler who spends three years in the weightlessness of outer space, NASA estimates, would return back to Earth with the skeleton of a 75-year-old.
The colonists, of course, wouldn't be weightless on Mars. The planet's gravity is 38 percent that of Earth's, meaning that bone deterioration would be slower. But some parts of the body are more susceptible than others, such as heels and pelvises -- bones that carry a particularly heavy load on Earth.
Bodily changes are not uniform. Those muscles necessary to stand are the first to atrophy with rear-ends shrinking considerably. "About 60 percent of a person's muscle mass is affected," says Gunga. "But we are only just now learning the multifaceted effects weightlessness can have on the human body."
It is certain, however, that those living on Mars will ultimately look quite a bit different than their brethren on Earth. They will be much frailer with thin arms and legs.
That is one reason that a return is a virtual impossibility. Were they subjected to Earth's gravity after spending years on Mars, the space travelers' bones might break like glass.
Those who become seriously ill will also have to persevere in their Martian outpost; no interplanetary ambulance can bring them home. But the risk of illness among the colonists is high. On the flight to Mars, they will be subjected to cosmic radiation, which can lead to cancer. The vulnerability to kidney and bladder stones also increases because some of the bone material that erodes remains in the body. Space medicine expert Gunga says he is "very skeptical" of the mission.
What, for example, will the colonists do when the first team member comes down with bowel cancer or renal colic? "We will likely have to learn to conduct surgery ourselves," says candidate Günther. After giving it a bit of thought, he admits that they might also have to consider assisted suicide should a patient demand it.
In a colony that is completely cut off from the home planet, ugly decisions will be almost unavoidable. Carefully balanced morals are hard to sustain if the situation becomes dire. What, for example, if a fungus attacks the plants in the hermetically sealed greenhouse and there's suddenly not enough food left for everyone? What happens then?
Often enough, reality foils utopian conquest fantasies, as one novelist after the other has keenly pointed out. And Mars often provides the backdrop. "Many stories have been written about efforts to colonize Mars," says Philipp Theisohn, a professor of German literature at the University of Zürich. "I don't know of a single one that ends well."
During the 1950s, a time when fears of nuclear war began to spread, the idea that Mars might become some kind of Planet B gained a lot of currency -- maybe the humans could save themselves here after they destroyed the Earth. One of the more popular manifestations of this notion was the somber "Mars Chronicles" by American writer Ray Bradbury. In it, several waves of settlers set off into space in the hope of finding a better life only to find that they have brought all the horrors they had hoped to escape along with them.
Theisohn wonders what possible use there could even be for Mars One's outposts. "It's not even a real colony," he says. "The settlers will remain strangers, isolated in heavy space suits and limited in their movement to a small area around the station."
Still, it's inconceivable that Mars will remain uncolonized forever. For the moment, NASA has no concrete plans to travel to the Red Planet, but private companies are scrambling for the opportunity.
British entrepreneur Richard Branson has been saying for years that he absolutely wants to populate Mars. His company Virgin Galactic has already developed a spaceship designed to provide tourists with suborbital spaceflights. But the project has fallen far behind schedule.
Elon Musk, an American, might have better prospects. In addition to building the electric Tesla roadster, he also founded the successful space firm SpaceX -- mainly, he says, in order to one day send people to Mars. Musk believes as many as 80,000 space tourists would be willing to pay up $500,000 each for a ticket. Though he pulled the numbers out of thin air.
Rhetorically, it would seem, Mars has already been conquered as a virtual colony of billionaires who feel the need to show that Earth is somehow too small for them.
In comparison, there's something almost egalitarian about the Mars One mission for the common man. Still, even these visionaries will need a ton of money in order to achieve their goal. In addition to the sale of the television rights, sponsors are also expected to provide the financing. Conceivably, humanity's first space colony could bear a name like Planet Starbucks or IKEA Village.
Of course, sponsors don't like attaching their names to enterprises that have the potential to fail miserably. In the end, everything will be up to the participants, assuming nothing gets in their way. Will they succeed in drawing a large TV audience? Will people have confidence in them doing the impossible? Otherwise this will be nothing more than a short-lived sideshow with a couple of people obsessed with space that will soon be forgotten.
Günther believes a bit of insanity is indispensable for a mission like this. He also accepts that others laugh at people like him. Even in the era of early man, it took a few eccentrics who sat on beaches and gazed out into the sea before ultimately setting off. "The others must have considered those people to be crazy at the time," Günther says.
And rightly so. After all, how many people must have disappeared in the oceans without a trace? Still, some managed to wash up on previously unknown islands, and eventually Homo sapiens spread around the planet.
To Günther, Mars is just a neighboring island in space, an interim stage where humans can go to gain experience. Who knows? Perhaps the next leap will be the Jupiter moons. "And then," he says, "the journey will continue to the depths of interstellar space."