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Sat Dec 03 17:39:03 SAST 2016

The Big Read: Let me put some life on Mars

Darrel Bristow-Bovey | 2016-09-02 07:49:00.0
SPACE CADET: The HI-SEAS project in Hawaii, built to simulate Mars, ended this week
Image by: ANGELO VERMEULEN/UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII

Every so often I have a desire to do something that very few others have done, so that in old age I'll be able to rock back on my barstool and recall it in exquisite detail for my lucky companions.

I've always wanted to spend a season in Antarctica in one of those research bases, huddling bristly over my morning coffee, absent-mindedly ruffling my favoured husky who in my head I've already called Hemingway, keeping a weather-eye open for comets that might crash in a nearby glacier and awaken a centuries-dormant sleeping menace beneath the ice.

I've pursued this dream the way most of us pursue our dreams - by sitting around and hoping someone asks me to do it - but lately I've thought maybe Mars is the thing. I think I'd be good at going to Mars.

Not Mars One, though. Mars One is the Dutch-based project intending to establish a human colony on the red planet by 2027. They've already winnowed down the first applicants through recruitment interviews and medical tests and I assume psychological evaluations ("You seem sane - no thank you"). Part of the Mars One business model involves raising funds through a reality TV show involving the final candidates, competing to make the cut for the final four. I'd watch that show.

The main drawback of Mars One is it's a show that can't be cancelled. Once the volunteers leave Earth, they can never come back. The idea is they'll settle down in geodesic domes built by automated rovers, and start breeding and living out their lives far from heat and light and the arms of humanity. Well, I suppose if they can do it in Fish Hoek, they can do it on Mars, but it doesn't appeal to me. What's the point of gathering stories to tell when you can only tell them to people with the same stories as you?

I'm more interested in the HI-SEAS project, which ended this week on a cindered volcanic hillside in Hawaii. For a full year six people simulated living on Mars, sharing a 365 square metre tent and wearing a spacesuit to go outside. It doesn't sound so bad. They tried to make it sound extra gruelling by announcing that in order to replicate the brutal conditions of deep space, e-mails back home were subject to a 20-minute delay. They don't make astronauts like they used to. When Buzz Aldrin trained for his moon mission he replicated lunar-earth communications the old-fashioned way, by posting a letter and waiting 18 months for the next moon mission to bring him a reply.

The fauxstronauts emerged this week with advice for future star travellers. "Bring books," they said. No problem, I can do that, although I probably didn't need a multimillion dollar research project to provide that insight.

One of them complained about "Earthflashes" - sudden vivid imaginary glimpses of favourite places where she'd spent time - a Manhattan street corner, a spot on the Boston waterfront. No one else from the tent described Earthflashes, and you had rather the sense that there was someeye-rolling going on as she described hers.

The major problem, they all agreed, is spending so much time with faces that have grown hateful with enforced familiarity. I can understand that. Jon Krakauer has described being snowed into a pup tent with a climbing buddy, his best friend, and feeling genuine brotherly love turn uncontrollably to homicidal hatred in the space of 48 hours. I reckon the thing would be to go in with a gameplan for amusing yourself. Here's what I'd do: I'd set about convincing the group that one of us in this tent, unbeknownst to the rest, is a serial killer. I'm not sure how I'd do that. Maybe I'd have to kill someone. All right, so not a serial killer then - maybe I'd persuade them that one of us is a yoghurt thief. I would do this by each morning saying: "Who stole my yoghurt?" and glaring at each person in turn. Then, one night, to make it more convincing, I'd steal someone else's yoghurt.

If anyone suspected me and through a patient investigation exposed me as the covert yoghurt thief and possible nascent serial killer, I'd tell them that I'm not a regular contestant, I'm a Nasa mole sent in to shake things up and write assessments of them, and that whoever gave me their yoghurt from now on could expect a good report.

At night I'd use a special device that I'd brought with me to leave unidentifiable beast-shaped prints in the dust outside around the tent. Basically, I'd use all the same tricks and techniques I use for keeping my marriage fresh. Oh, what times we'd have. Are you listening, Nasa? Pick me for the next HI-SEAS mission. I have the right stuff.

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