The Echus Chasma, one of the largest water source regions on Mars. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Laurie Penny on Mars: Modern life is science fiction – but would you dare go on a one-way mission to Mars?

Would you sign up for a perilous journey, knowing that you’ve got just one shot at making the human race a bit better, a bit braver?

If you were offered a one-way ticket to Mars, would you take it? It’s a serious question. The first manned Mars landing, organised by a Dutch company called Mars One, has put out a call for applicants. In 2018, the planets will literally align, making a journey to the Red Planet more than feasible. You don’t have to be a trained astronaut but you must be willing to spend 521 days in a very small space with three other people, with limited supplies and drinking water reclaimed from your own effluvia. You will also be under constant video surveillance, because this mission to Mars is relying on global TV networks to cover its considerable budget. It’s the ultimate Big Brother, with no way out: after a year and a half the colonists will either shag or kill each other, or both. The ratings will be fantastic.

Most of all, you must be willing to say goodbye for ever to your family, your friends, the barista at your favourite coffee shop. This is a one-way trip: even if they make it through the gruelling physical ordeal of the journey, it is possible none of the astronauts will ever come home. Sounds like a raw deal, right?

Yet in its first few days of operation, Mars One received more than 10,000 applications for four places. This was despite a considerable entry cost designed, ostensibly, to screen out spam applicants. The company has already made a small fortune in application fees, making me wonder if it’s a scam. If so, it’s an extremely elegant one, conning millions of desperate people to hope there might be a future for the human race outside this cramped and poisoned planet, and that we might get to be a part of that future. It’s not as if Earth has a great deal going for it right now. No wonder people are falling over themselves to sign up.

It's a little ironic that I'm writing this column on Earth Day, the international celebration of the natural wonders of the third planet on behalf of a population whose leaders are doing their best to burn those wonders for money and choke the rest of us in the process. In the forty years since the first Earth Day in April 1970, with successive world governments having failed almost entirely to tackle climate change, the event has taken on the sort of grim party atmosphere of a nonagenarian's birthday party. Give grandma some cake, everybody! She might not be around to enjoy it next year! I only found out that it was Earth Day on typing the word 'Mars Mission' into the Google Search bar. This further illuminates the logic of exploring other options if you can raise the cash, which most of us can't.

So, would you go? Since I heard about the Mars project, I’ve been putting that question to everyone I meet, because I think the answer says a lot about who you are and what you value. I still can’t decide. I’d have to balance the certainty of playing a heroic role in the early history of human space exploration against the possibility of being locked in a tin can for the rest of my life with a closet Tory, or someone who finds Al Murray amusing.

Furthermore, as one of two women aboard the Mars One, I would eventually be expected to reproduce with my shipmates. Doing the deed wouldn’t pose too many problems – after 521 days adrift in the unfathomable vastness of space, I’d probably find a cheese sandwich attractive if it looked at me in a saucy way. But if I’m going to represent humanity, I’d rather it be because of my natural talents or my winning personality – anything, quite frankly, other than my uterus. Seven generations of women’s liberation activists didn’t fight for education, health access and political representation only to see the first women on Mars reduced to spare wombs. Besides, although sex in zero gravity sounds fun, childbirth is probably less so, especially after more than a year of sitting around drinking your own urine and not washing. Hmm.

Like it or not, most of us are stuck on this planet. Earth, as the physicist Carl Sagan observed, is where we make our stand. The moment you comprehend this fully is the moment recreational drug use becomes either substantially more exciting or less so, depending on what sort of person you are.

When they’re selecting the pioneers to leave the smoking remains of the earth, I will probably lack the requisite skillset for a place on one of the colony ships, because most of what I’m good for is writing articles, drinking coffee and complaining when I have to climb a lot of stairs. The closest I’ll get to outer space is watching interstellar cruisers blow each other into glittering bits on Battlestar Galactica and feeling, as always, that painful longing that digs in right under the ribcage: the understanding that my distant descendants might be lucky enough to see such wonders in real life but I never will.

I imagine that’s how my great-greatgrandparents felt when they read about marvellous inventions such as the internet and the contraceptive pill, both of which were science fiction a scant century ago, and without both of which my life would be unimaginably less free. There is something in us that is hungry, even in the most desperate times, for a future we can only half-envision, and the reason the Mars mission has captured the public imagination is that it promises something that these days is rare and precious: a real journey into the unknown.

A handful of generations ago, it was common for men and women who set off on dangerous journeys to places off the edge of the map to have almost no hope of return. In Ireland, “American wakes” were held whenever a friend or family member sailed for the US. Even if they survived the journey, nobody was expected to come home and it could take months for letters to arrive.

Modern life is science fiction. Love letters cross continents at the speed of thought and dead men sing on the radio. Before the telegram and the steam engine and antibiotics and Google Maps, this planet was simply a lot bigger and scarier. And yet people have never been content to stay at home.

One of the things that distinguish Homo sapiens from many of our competitor species is our capacity to dream up and set about stupidly dangerous endeavours just to find out what might happen. I don’t believe in God but I do believe that humanity is one long, terrible adventure that most of us, if we’re lucky, will never get to see the end of.

So, what did you decide? Would you sign up for a perilous journey, knowing that you’ve got just one shot at making the human race a bit better, a bit braver?

The good news, or the bad news, depending on your viewpoint, is that you don’t have to. You were signed up when you were born. We’re all on a journey like that and it’s called living. That’s no reason not to go to space but it might be reason to get up in the morning.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

@_PabloMB
Show Hide image

25 years on, here are the worst ever predictions about the internet

Back in the Nineties, many experts didn't think the internet would live to see its first, let alone 25th, Internaut Day. 

On 27 February 1995, the American magazine Newsweek shared the truth about the internet.

"The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works," wrote Clifford Stoll, in a piece that has thankfully been preserved online for the ages. "How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc," Stoll went on, "Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we'll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Intenet. Uh, sure."

17 years later, Newsweek ceased print publication and became exclusively available online.

On the 25th anniversary of the internet becoming publicly available, it is very easy to laugh at spectacularly wrong predictions like this one. In 2016, we use the web to find jobs and homes, shop for clothes, diagnose our illnesses, make friends, fall in love, and tell strangers that their opinions on the Labour party are wrong. In fact, the web is so pivotal to modern life that two months ago, the UN declared internet access a basic human right.

Still, Newsweek wasn’t alone in failing to understand the impact Berners-Lee’s world wide web would have on the wider world. Even the man himself, posting on a forum of early internet users in 1991, summarised the invention as, “[aiming] to allow information sharing within internationally dispersed teams, and the dissemination of information by support groups”.

“This summary does not describe the many exciting possibilities opened up by the WWW project, such as efficient document caching…” he continued, blissfully unaware of the forthcoming arrival of Nyan Cat.

In fact, its safe to say that a couple of decades ago, absolutely no one had any idea what we were getting ourselves in for. 

John Allen, on CBC, 1993:

"One would think that if you’re anonymous, you’d do anything you want, but groups have their own sense of community and what we can do."

Speaking to the Canadian television channel CBC in 1993, internet expert John Allen mused about civility and restraint on the internet (you can view the full clip here). Allen shared his belief that our internal rules and values would restrain us from saying and doing terrible things to one another over the world wide web.

Incidentally, an Australian study in March this year discovered that 76 per cent of women under 30 have experienced abuse or harassment online

Robert Metcalfe, in InfoWorld, 1995:

 "I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse."

Just five years in to the web's public availablity, Robert Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, gave the whole thing a 12-month life expectancy. Still, he ate his words just two years later when, during the sixth International World Wide Web Conference in 1997, he blended a copy of his column with some water and then consumed the resultant smoothie with a spoon. 

Waring Partridge, in Wired, 1995:

"Most things that succeed don't require retraining 250 million people."

According to a report from the International Telecommunication Union, the number of internet users increased from 738m in 2000 to 3.2bn in 2015. Still, we're not sure you could describe them all as "trained".

Brian Carpenter, in the Associated Press, 1995:

"Tim Berners-Lee forgot to make an expiry date compulsory . . . any information can just be left and forgotten. It could stay on the network until it is five years out of date."

Anyone wary of outdated internet information has clearly not discovered the joy of the 1998 promotional website for the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks rom-com You've Got Mail.

Tim Berners-Lee, in Information Week, 1995:

"I'm looking forward to the day when my daughter finds a rolled-up 1,000-pixel-by-1,000-pixel color screen in her cereal packet, with a magnetic back so it sticks to the fridge."

To be fair to Tim, the least likely element of this scenario is that Kellogg's will bring back free gifts, not that magical screen stickers won't become a thing.

To have fun searching through weird and wonderful predictions about the internet yourself, check out Elon University School of Communications' "Early 90s Predictions" database.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.