Oxford MPhys candidate Ryan MacDonald is shortlisted for the controversial Mars One interplanetary pioneer project. Here he explains why on earth he wants to go.
By Ryan MacDonald (University College, 2011)
There are few feelings more exciting than coming towards the end of your degree; to see the vast potential of an infinite sea of possible futures laid out before you. But even as I imagine these possibilities, one thought is ever-present at the back of my mind, an innate uncertainty unique to this moment in history, for I know not which planet I will inhabit for the rest of my days. Come 2027, I could be living on Mars.
Allow me to backtrack. My name’s Ryan, I’m in the final few weeks of my MPhys degree. Recently, I completed my Masters’ thesis, wherein I investigated designs for a thermal-infrared instrument that could be used for landing site selection on a sample-return mission to the moons of Mars. Such a mission has been studied as a joint cooperation initiative between the European and Russian space agencies; holding the potential to unlock some of the mysteries of planetary formation (and perhaps lay the groundwork for future human expeditions to the Martian system). But this work is simply the latest manifestation of a life-long passion for science, space exploration and human spaceflight that has only flourished since I came to Oxford.
During my time here, I was thrilled to discover an active Space and Astronomy Society (OUSAS), with regular talks from world-leading academics, its own observatory, and even the occasional rocketry session! Eager to become more involved, I served as both secretary and then president. For me, opening up our talks to the public and running events in local primary schools were the highlights of my presidency. But in all my time studying and learning about the universe beyond our home planet, I never thought I would be presented the chance to experience space myself one day?
In April 2013, halfway through my degree, a global astronaut selection process was announced by the not-for-profit Mars One foundation. I’d been following the project for a while, but something resonated with me when one organiser proclaimed, ‘Today, the search for life on Mars begins on Earth.’ I thought back to my childhood, how as a young person growing up in Britain the dream of becoming an astronaut seemed always out of reach — ‘Sorry kid, in the UK we send satellites, not people, into space.’ I wondered how many must still think along those lines, despite the fact that the UK’s first official astronaut, Major Tim Peake, will be flying to the International Space Station this November. That moment my mind was made up. Here was a chance to show those people losing faith in their dreams that for a determined individual even the stars themselves are within their reach. After spending weeks on my application I was ready to submit. Click! And with that I tossed in my hat in for the most competitive job application in history – to become one of the first humans on Mars.
My family and friends had somewhat mixed reactions on hearing I intended to apply, and even more so as I’ve advanced in the selection process (down to the final 100 in February 2015). Although my family, particularly my younger sister, don’t want me to go, they understand that doing this would be fulfilling a lifelong dream and have been supportive at each step. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve always been willing to address criticisms.
I have no illusions about the dangers of this mission. The fatality risk will likely exceed climbing Everest by at least a factor of two. We will have to contend with seven months of zero gravity on the way to Mars, all the while bombarded by the relentless radiation of interplanetary space. It will be cramped, the hum of ventilators will be constant, there will be no showers and we will have to spend days at a time in a dedicated radiation shelter (if a coronal mass ejection erupts from the sun). Making it to Mars, we will face the frightening ordeal of landing, trusting our lives entirely to an automated system — tested eight times in the unmanned precursor missions, but still the most dangerous aspect by far.
But just imagine the moment human beings first set foot on another planet. Across the world, four billion people will crowd around any screen they can find to witness a shift in human history as monumental, at least, as the Apollo moon landings. Those who grow up watching the first humans on Mars will become our next generation of scientists and engineers. But this mission is about so much more than planting a flag — this time, we will be staying.
Photograph of Ryan MacDonald at Oxford’s Planetary Spectroscopy Facility © Monica Alcazar-Duarte, reproduced with permission. Mars image © Ksanawo via Shutterstock.