The Aussie Woman Seeking a One-Way Trip to Mars



- Dianne McGrath

Melbourne-based sustainability expert Dianne McGrath is on the shortlist to leave for Mars, and plans to help establish the first permanent human settlement there (no biggie). The non-profit Mars One mission, announced by a Dutch entrepreneur in 2012, is scheduled to begin training astronauts next year, with an even mix of men and women in its ranks. We asked Dianne, 48, what she'll miss the most on Earth and how she’ll prepare for the wild ride ahead. By Grace Jennings-Edquist.

Why did you first apply for the mission?
When I saw an online piece trying to attract people to apply to be an astronaut for a one-way mission to Mars, I looked at that and thought, “Wow what could we become? What is the incredible possibility of us as a species, of how we could survive on a planet, and how sustainable could we be?”

Because you can’t rely on resupply in space; you don’t have a Bunnings down the road for more fertiliser. You’ve got to grow your own food and ensure you can be nutrient- and self-sufficient and everything to survive on Mars. I thought, "how incredible to be a part of this extraordinary next giant leap forward for humanity."

I think back to when Kennedy said, “in 10 years we’ll go to the moon,” and nobody thought that was possible. And they did it in less than 10 years. If you set goals for yourself that are beyond what you think you may be able to achieve, it’s incredible what you can do.

Tell us about your background in sustainability and how your background will come in handy on Mars. What do you hope to do on Mars with your skill set?
I do have four university degrees at the moment. I’m doing a PhD. Three of those degrees are around sustainability. Food is one of my main areas of interest, which is kind of handy when it comes to being able to grow all of your food on Mars.

But when Mars One put out their call for applications, they were really more interested in human skills. We had to submit a video application as well, so you could really get a sense of the individual through the video plus their written application. They assessed us on that, and drilled down to resilience, adaptability, curiosity, trust in yourself and also trust in others, and resourcefulness. Having those main qualities is what they were looking for, because honestly, things will go wrong on Mars, it’s not an “if”; A risk-free mission to Mars does not exist. So when things go wrong, how do you deal with it? How do you find solutions from the diversity of ideas that you have in that very small pool of astronauts that you’ll deal with?

How many men vs. women will be on the Mars One mission? Are the organisers choosing people based on what skills they can bring, or is any attention paid to what social role they may play in the mission group?
Out of the 100 left at moment [who are all down to stage three of the four-round selection process,] we’ll be trimmed to 12 to 24 who will start full-time training sometime next year [subject to funding].

Already, in that 100, we are 50/50 gender diverse. The age diversity ranges from 24 of age up to about 64, and our cultural heritage is something like 34 different countries. The diversity also extends into the types of careers we have, and we have a number of people who have different sexual identities. And what they did with the application fee is they made it a sliding scale based on the GDP of the country you're from, which is why we have people from all over the world. Not everyone is white and Anglo-saxon from an middle upper-class background.

And about two-thirds of us have some sort of degree in the sciences, or a related field, but not everybody does. We have people in the 100 who are artists, musicians, grandmothers; it’s a real melting pot of society. I think it’s really important to have culture represented in the 100 and not just pure scientists — because if those pure scientists didn't know how to have fun, they'd be a bit boring.

The Mars One mission is a one-way trip. What will you miss, here on earth?
Most people ask this question because they think about missing their friends and family. But it's something that we have done as a species since time eternal; groups have moved from one place to another because of our own exploration, which has often included leaving our friends and families.

And if I do get selected to go to Mars, I would have access to internet still. There are satellites around Mars today, and Mars One will send some more out, so I would still be able to keep in touch with my friends and family. There would be essentially 24/7 internet communication.

I think what I’ll miss more in some ways are the experiential aspects of being here on this planet. Like the days when you go for a walk down at the beach and feel the sand beneath your toes and hear the ocean. On Mars, you would always be indoors, or if you were out in the planet doing any kind of exploration or maintenance, you would be in a spacesuit. So you would never feel the sun on your skin again, you would never feel the wind in your hair, you would never smell what it’s like outdoors or hear certain sounds. You would never know what it feels like to live in Mars, except the gravity side of things and atmospheric conditions.

When does the mission leave?
The first crew is not scheduled to go tgo to scheduled 2031, which is after Mars One will already have done, I think, eight technical missions in advance of that. It’s sending the infrastructure in advance of all the crews: Two living quarters, life support systems, supplies and so on in advance. Those supplies would be robotically deployed by the rovers, and that includes the production of oxygen, water and having energy already running. So when the first human crew arrives in 2032, because it’s a seven-month journey, it will essentially be like moving into a new apartment with everything already set up.

What’s the training process going to be like?
For the 13 to 14 years of training, one of the aspects of training will focus on technical skills, because we’ll have to learn everything.

Mars One is sending crews of four every two years from 2031 that are gender-balanced, ethnically and age diverse.  There's no plumbers on Mars, no doctors, no IT technicians. We would have to be able to have all of those skills in each crews of four. So you will only have a couple of people in each crew trained in particular skills.

So yes, I can grow food now and that’s kind of handy but that's something they're going to teach us all how to do. We’re all going to have to know how to manage a hydroponic system.

Do they expect people to have babies and reproduce on Mars?
It’s a good question because to be sustainable, that’s about population as well. I mean, it's vastly expensive to send new people every two years. And in the early decades it will only be four at a time, so the community will grow very slowly in size.

Eventually the community will be encouraged to sustain itself when it comes to population. In those early days, we won't have a hospital there. It will be very spartan, the medical and health support here. We also don’t know how a woman’s body would deal with conception, carriage, childbirth, nor how well a child would develop, or even an embryo in such vastly different positions.

And the gravity on Mars is a third of earth’s gravity. Human cells seem to respond to an environment that has gravity in it [in one way, but] when we see things in space that have zero gravity or weightlessness we see things that happen at a cellular level is a little bit different. So Mars One wants to see if it's going to be safe first through more research before it’s comfortable encouraging people to be human in that other respect.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

You can find Dianne on her website, on Facebook, on Twitter, on LinkedIn or on Insta.

Photographs by Nicolette Senserrick and NASA. Digital design: Grace Jennings-Edquist