Reginald Foulds is ready to go on a one-way trip to Mars. His dream may be a step closer as he is amongst the final 100 candidates chosen by Mars One, a private organisation that is planning on sending humans to Mars by 2025.
This is indeed impressive.
Initial applications for this Mars trip numbered close to 200,000. He is now the only Pakistani left in the pool. A retired helicopter pilot of the Pakistan Air Force, Foulds has a one in four chance of being picked for the ambitious, first human settlement on the red planet. If selected, he will be pushing 70 by the time of the first proposed Mars One mission.
At this time, we do not know if Mars One will even be successful in getting everything ready for a human mission to Mars. Nevertheless, this project has generated considerable amount of public interest in Mars exploration as well as some criticism. One of the most common criticisms deals with the one-way aspect of the mission. Many call it a suicidal mission, as there are no plans yet to bring the astronauts back to Earth. In fact, it is this very one-way nature that makes the mission affordable in the near future.
But I would not call this “suicidal”. The plan is to have 24 individuals initiate a permanent human presence on Mars. Cargo vessels are expected to deliver habitats suitable for Martian living well before the first human mission leaves the Earth. The goal of going to Mars is not to die, but to live. Such an adventure is not for everyone. But there have always been explores amongst humans and it is probably because of such early adventurers that some of our ancestors left Africa and eventually established presence in almost every corner of the Earth. People like Foulds are just extending this tradition to a neighbouring planet. Others in the future will take our descendants to outer planets and may be even to other stars.
What will be the impact on Pakistan’s space program if Foulds is selected amongst the astronauts headed for Mars?
On the face of it, nothing much.
Mars One is a Dutch organisation that plans on using primarily American aerospace companies to achieve its goals. The funds for the project are being collected through sponsorships with a promise to deliver, if it at all happens, the most watched reality show ever. As a scientist, the last sentence is as disheartening as it can get.
However, there are intangibles that can help science in Pakistan. Foulds’ selection in the final batch of astronauts will certainly boost interest amongst school children in Pakistan. Even without Foulds, I can imagine a spike in interest about Mars, the solar system, astronomy, and science in general. How can it not? But the presence of a Pakistani astronaut on Mars can make that endeavour that much more personally identifiable.
But there is another aspect as well. There are 35 countries represented between the 100 candidates shortlisted for the Mars mission. The reality show aspect aside, this is a stunning diversity for the case of exploration. Several of our neighbours are represented: India has three candidates and both Iran and China have two each. It is almost a certainty that the final 24 candidates will be from several different countries, ethnicities, and religions. A successful permanent presence on Mars will necessitate overcoming prejudices that divide us here on Earth. This is the good side of humanity and Foulds’ presence, if he is selected, will allow us to indirectly experience it as well. If you bet on the darker side of humanity to rise again then we can imagine that the descendants of the first batch of astronauts on Mars will end up creating their own identity as ‘Martians’ and may develop a prejudice against humans on Earth and/or vice versa. But that may still be decades away.
All that aside, it is exciting to have a Pakistani represented in the shortlist of candidates for Mars. I hope Foulds is among the astronauts that experience red sunsets and sunrises on Mars. Echoing Carl Sagan’s message to future Martian explorers,
“I wish I could be there with you.”
This post was originally published on The Express Tribune blogs page