Could there be life on Mars?

Science and Technology

It’s an odd experience when I have to interview someone from my own college; it’s odder still when that person is more used to being interviewed by the national media. So when I sat down to chat with the Oxford student shortlsted to walk on Mars, I was curious about how he was going to introduce himself.

“Hi, I’m Ryan MacDonald, I’m a physics student at University College, Oxford, in my third year, and I want to be the first man on Mars,” he said with a confident smile.

Ryan was clearly excited about the good news announced by the Mars One project towards the end of December. Being shortlisted as one of 1,058 hopefuls from more than 200,000 applicants means that he’s certainly well on his way to the red planet. And, with 40 people due to be selected for final training, he has just over a three per cent chance of seeing his dream come true.

In the one-minute video application that he submitted to the project, and during his previous interviews with Radio Derby, Radio 5 Live and BBC Breakfast, words like ‘dream’ and ‘inspire’ could be heard again and again. An ideal place to start our chat, then, seemed to be asking why dreams and inspirations are so important to him?

“When someone has a dream, and they really, really go for it and focus on it completely, there’s very little they can’t achieve. Once you have an idea, and you commit yourself to it, then that’s the most powerful force that you can have.”

Having been enamoured with space for as long as he can remember, Ryan struggled to focus on any single event that inspired his interest, simply saying, “I would always jump on any chance to get to go.”

And if he’s going to go anywhere, he’s heading straight for Earth’s closest neighbour. Explaining that Mars is humanity’s only realistic target for colonising other worlds, he raised the prospect of creating a new society and the potential philosophical, world-changing implications of discovering life on Mars.

“It would almost humble us to know that we’re not just the only life in the Universe; we are not special. And when we’ve got big problems going on like climate change, it would reduce our arrogance.”

In an interview with the BBC, Ryan claimed that he was willing to, “sacrifice normal things to get extraordinary things’” – ‘normal things’ apparently consisting of seeing his friends, getting married and all the milestones of an ordinary life. Yet, when I raised this with him, he seemed indifferent.

“You are giving up lots of things, but nowhere near as many things as when the first people went to other places in the world like Australia.”

“I remember it was a one-way trip when the first people were going to America. They didn’t know there’d ever be a chance to come back, so this has been done before. But relatively to them, we live lives of luxury: there will be TV and internet on Mars and I’ll be able to stay in contact with my family (albeit with a 20-minute delay).”

“You only get to live once. And when you think about it: how would you want to be be remembered in the eyes of generations to come.’
“I don’t want to just make myself and my family happy; I want to help improve the general well-being of the human race as a whole. I don’t think there’s really much more of a noble goal than that.”

And that noble goal is a broad one. According to Ryan, the trip will inspire an interest in science and technology in a new generation, leading to rising levels of innovation and quality of life for all. In the longer term, of course, the goal is to make Mars a habitable neigbour, so there is a second planet for humans to live on. “It’s really too dangerous to just be living on one planet when we know from the fossil record that asteroids hit us, and disasters happen. If we want to ensure the survival of the human race, and since we are the human race, there’s not much more we can do than that.”

Despite these pioneering sentiments, Ryan emphasises that the Mars One project shouldn’t ever be seen as a one-way mission: “Although I would be going and not coming back, the real -world impact that the mission will be making to people on Earth will be directly coming back and making people’s lives better.”

“What we stand to gain from the mission back home – that’s what really motivates me,” he elaborated.

He himself, however, has no plans for a return journey. If the participants live on Mars for more than ten years, Ryan explained, their physiology would adapt to the planet’s conditions to the extent that their muscles and bones would be affected by the weaker gravity. If they got on a shuttle back to earth, they would weaken even more due to there being zero gravity on the trip. By the time they landed, their muscles and bones wouldn’t be strong enough to allow them to breathe Earth’s air.

Ryan added that the technology to facilitate a return trip simply doesn’t exist, as there is no way to bring the amount of fuel that it would require. “We did that for the Moon: you go there, plant the flag, return, and you’ve not really achieved anything.”

Unachieving as they may have been, the moon landings were reported by countless media outlets across the globeand attracted huge interest in science, engineering and exploration. Ryan is already enjoying some of the fame a Mars mission would undoubtedly bring in the form of interviews with many radio and TV channels. Surely even a dedicated pioneer must enjoy some of the glory the spotlight brings?

His face reddened. “The media attention is very intense; it’s fun when you’ve actually done it.”

He went on to say that the project would inevitably, “involve media attention because we want to be selling the broadcasting rights of this mission in order to raise most of the revenue for it. So I’ll have to get used to the attention at some point and it’s better to get the practice and preparation early on.”

Of course, if Ryan becomes one of the 96 per cent of the shortlisted candidates that don’t manage to get through to the next round of selection, he may have to settle for an oridnary life, filled with ‘normal things’. Having come so far, does he think that he could go back to a life without space colonisation?

“Yes,” he affirmed, “because I want the best people to go to Mars. If it turns out that I am not one of the best then I have no problems with that. I want the mission to be a success even if I don’t get to go.”

It doesn’t seem likely that Ryan would ever abandon his passion for space, though, as he added that he would love to study for a PhD in astrophysics.

Before ending, I asked the astronaut-to-be if he had a message for other Oxford students, should he be selected for the programme.

“If you have something that you want to do, you’ll need to really, really commit to it. And never, ever give up on your dreams. No matter how hard and insurmountable they may seem, just by believing that you can do something, that’s what can make it actually happen.”

Words we’ll no doubt remember when an Oxonian takes their first steps on a different planet.

Phtoto/Ryan MacDonald