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Ticket to Mars

South African theoretical physicist Adriana Marais was shortlisted for a one-way ticket to Mars. Becoming an extra-terrestrial is a dream she continues to pursue.

Blessed with a particular pattern of thinking that considers an extremely broad view of the universe, it is not surprising that South African born Adriana Marais was shortlisted to fly to Mars in the Mars One mission, which was cancelled in 2019.

“When I first read about the call for volunteers for a one-way mission to Mars in 2012, I felt nauseous, struck by a strange childhood memory that suddenly rushed back to me in perfect clarity. I remember being on my black scooter, and as it rattled down the brick driveway, I had a series of imaginings. I pictured a global radio broadcast: a call for a volunteer to go on an urgent journey to find a new home for humanity. The volunteer would travel through space far away from Earth and send back a message if a suitable planet was discovered in time. It was a one-way trip. I would volunteer, I silently decided. I must have been four or five,” says Marais.


Her childhood prophecy almost came true when in 2015, Mars One announced 100 astronaut candidate finalists selected from 200 000 applicants from around the world, and she was one of them. Sadly Mars One declared bankruptcy in February 2019, but while the project never went off, it did succeed in influencing popular culture and getting people outside of the space industry thinking about human exploration beyond Earth.

“Nothing changes for my plans. The mission to Mars is bigger than any one of us – we’ll get there, one way or another,” Marais says. “The technology we require to inhabit Mars already exists; living in the International Space Station or even on the Moon is more challenging from an engineering perspective than setting up camp on a rocky planet with significant gravity and an atmosphere.”


However, at over 200 million kilometres away, the remoteness of Mars defines a different approach to infrastructure choices, with a focus on sustainable production and consumption, and recycling of waste. But at the heart of the success of a Mars community is learning how to live in extreme and resource-constrained conditions. In fact, this is mission critical.
In 2019, Marais founded Proudly Human, bringing together engineers, explorers, astrobiologists, psychiatrists, transition coaches, technologists and others to contribute their skills and knowledge in order to develop solutions for how to best live off-world. The solutions could also be applicable here on Earth to improve standards of living.

In 2023, under the Proudly Human banner, Marais launched The Off-World Project – a series of habitation experiments where teams build off-grid structures and communities in perilous environments. “Location scouts have taken me to Antarctica, Norway, deserts in the US, Middle East and Africa, the Aquarius Reef Base underwater habitat and submarine naval bases. Antarctica is arguably more remote than Earth orbit or the Moon – during the winter, there is no way in or out, no boat can crack through the sea ice to access the continent and no pilot and co-pilot can be expected to risk their lives in the dark, windy and treacherous conditions that prevail,” she explains.


The project will culminate with six experts living underwater for 78 days in the Aquarius Reef Base, a 10km off the coast and 19m deep undersea facility in the Florida Keys. The conditions of confinement within the Base in an environment where life-support is necessary, has parallels with the spaceflight to Mars or beyond.

The Aquarius Reef Base was originally built in 1986 as a sea lab to research oceanic life. The extreme environment has also been used to train NASA astronauts, as an analogue to the International Space Station (ISS), before departing for Earth orbit. “While I was in Florida, I met an astronaut at a pool party celebrating the first all-private Axiom-1 crew being launched to the ISS by SpaceX, and we got to talking about Aquarius. He said that having spent time in the ISS, living in the undersea base is the closest experience he’s had to being in space. There are many analogies: the need to suit up to explore the region beyond the habitat, the experience of zero gravity while doing extravehicular activities, emergency evacuation taking 17 hours for decompression – in fact evacuation from the ISS is quicker, achievable in four hours,” says Marais.


Marais believes that in the long run, we will have to leave Earth and begin our expansion into the stars in our lifetime and she hopes her project will inform how best this can happen. There is no doubt that Marais was born ready for the journey.
“For many, Earth is their favourite planet. But for those who feel a curiosity, an affinity and indeed a sense of belonging with that overwhelming majority of what is beyond, Earth is but a pale blue dot in a universe of star-stuff waiting to be known,” she says.

By Veruska de Vita


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