Leave No Martian Behind?

Would you be willing to take a one-way trip to Mars? That's the question NOVA Online's Peter Tyson takes on in a new story on NOVA's Web site--and now that NASA and DARPA have teamed up on something called the 100-Year Starship study (a project whose evocative name belies the fact that its end product is a sheaf of paper, not the Enterprise), you might actually have an opportunity to volunteer--in a century or two.

The 100-Year Starship is actually a year-long effort to develop a public/private business model that will incentivize investments in leading-edge spaceflight technologies, and thanks to NASA Ames director Pete Worden, it's been linked with the idea of the one-way ticket. But NASA and DARPA aren't the only ones talking about a one-way voyage. Among the one-way-ers in Peter's piece: Paul Davies, a physicist/astrobiologist/cosmologist/all-around-big-thinker at Arizona State who recently co-authored a Journal of Cosmology paper advocating one-way space travel, and true believers Buzz Aldrin and Robert Zubrin. Lawrence Krauss, the Arizona State physicist who wrote The Physics of "Star Trek," also urged one-way travel to Mars in an Op-Ed for the New York Times last year.

Say that we, as a nation or a planet, could muster the political and technological will to send colonists off to Mars. Who would go? Who should go? Synthetic biology pioneer J. Craig Venter has been thinking about this question, and he has proposed using genetic screening and genetic engineering to fortify future astronauts. Once we ID genes responsible for vigorous bone regeneration and DNA repair, we can select astronauts best able to resist the damage that cosmic radiation and microgravity wreak on the human body. If you're thinking "Gattaca," well, yes, exactly.

Less creepily, scientists could also use synthetic biology to craft a tailor-made knockoff of the bacterial colonies found on and in the human body. The right "synthetic biome" could keep astronauts smelling fresh and free of dental diseases like gingivitis. (Someone call P&G.) More creepily, scientists might someday genetically engineer the astronauts themselves, using tricks they've picked up from super-hardy bugs like Deinococcus radiodurans, which eats radiation for dinner. (Not really. But it can survive radiation doses that would easily kill humans.)

So, what do you think? Would you volunteer for a one-way trip to Mars? How should we choose who gets to go? And what would you miss most about good old planet Earth?

User Comments:

A one-way trip to Mars? What would I do once I got there? Where to go on weekends? No, I'm not interested. Besides, it's too cold there!

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