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Home / Specials / Mint Profiles /  The man who wants a one-way ticket to Mars

New Delhi: In April this year, an unusual recruitment drive began online through a video from an organisation called Mars One.

A David Attenborough-style voiceover explained that since man first walked on the moon, the human race’s ambition for space exploration has reached new heights: “Mars," the voice intoned, “From now on we won’t just be visiting planets. We’ll be staying.... You will be staying. The search for life on Mars begins on earth." A slogan appeared on screen: “Mars 2023- Inhabitants wanted. Apply today."

31-year-old Vinod Kotiya had been waiting for the announcement for more than two years, ever since he’d first heard about the Mars One project in 2011. He paid the $7 fee and put up his video application on the website the same day.

Since then, the engineering graduate, who works for India’s largest state-run power provider NTPC Ltd, has been joined by approximately 200,000 others, according to Mars One (including 20,800 Indians), who all hope to be among the first four people to colonise the red planet 10 years from now.

The concept for Mars One is fairly simple: in 2016, a communications satellite and a supply mission dropping building materials will be sent to Mars. In 2018, a large planetary rover will follow and, having landed, it will drive around the planet to find the best location for the settlement. In 2020, another rover will arrive as well as living units like conical white pods connected to each other by raised hallways and life support units. A four member crew will depart Earth in September 2022, arriving seven months later once the habitat is ready and enough oxygen and water has been produced.

Mars One says all the technology for every step is already available, and that it has already obtained agreements from suppliers of each component.

There’s one aspect of the mission that drastically reduces the amount of infrastructure and technology that will be needed. As the website points out: “Earth return vehicles that can take off from Mars are currently unavailable and untested technologies and such mission designs incur far greater costs."

One-way ticket

That’s the only catch: the ticket to Mars is one way. There’s no coming back.

If he is successful, Kotiya, who is the father of an 18-month-old daughter and husband of Priyanka, who is in her twenties, will have to abandon his family for good.

Mars One has a strict policy that no couples will be sent on the mission, and it has not been decided if astronauts will be allowed to have children once they arrive there. As Elton John observed in “Rocket Man," his song about the humdrum existence of a lonely astronaut, “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids ."

“I think about that," Kotiya says, sitting in his ground floor DDA flat in Jungpura, Delhi, with his daughter Jeannie bouncing up and down on his knee. She is named after a character in Kotiya’s favourite childhood TV show, I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s American sitcom by Sidney Sheldon, in which a lucky astronaut befriends, falls in love with, and later marries, a 2000-year-old, beautiful blonde genie, played by Barbara Eden.

“We are always having regrets in our life, we live with that," he concludes. “Sometimes I think that suppose I reach to Mars and then I think I have done terrible wrong by leaving my family on Earth, then what can I do? I will have to live with that regret and cope with it."

But Kotiya is hopeful that the journey from Mars back to Earth will eventually be possible. “Right now the technology is not available but in 10 years it could be," he says. “If they are able to launch us within 10 years, then in 10 years more, the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) mission 2030 can be made into a two-way mission." NASA is planning its own mission to put the first men on Mars in 2030.

Priyanka shows less equanimity than her husband and shakes her head in disbelief. “I was very shocked at that time, really," she says of the moment her husband revealed his plan. “What can I say right now? I don’t have any words to say what may happen."

“She is not serious about my chances," says Kotiya, “I have to clear four rounds, she is certain I will not make it. The fourth round is public votes."

Big Brother in space

The Mars One project’s funding model is another unique aspect of the organisation. Unlike government funded projects like NASA’s international space station, Mars One wants to be entirely privately funded, through donations. To fund the initial $6 billion that will be needed for the mission, it has decided that the vetting process from the astronauts will be in the form of a reality TV show.

Bas Lansdorp, co-founder of Mars One, explained the plan in an introductory film made by the Mars One team. “We will finance this mission by creating the biggest media event ever around it," he said on a four-minute video introduction for Mars One’s website. “Everyone in the world can see everything that will happen in the preparations and on Mars."

The public will watch the astronauts train for six-eight years in the skills they need to build a colony on Mars and then vote for the teams of four they like best. After the initial four inhabitants land, Mars One plans to send four more astronauts every two years to grow the settlement. The gap of two years is necessary because it is only then, when the obits of Earth and Mars are at a certain trajectory that a mission can be launched.

While the mission has its fair share of sceptics, it also has some influential supporters. On its advisory team are Brian Enke, senior space research analyst at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, Christopher P. McKay, a planetary scientist with the space science division of NASA Ames Research Centre, and K.R. Sridhara Murthi, a vice-president at the International Institute of Space Law.

Lansdorp and his co-founder, Arno A. Wielders, are both Dutch. According to his Mars One profile, Lansdorp worked at Delft University of Technology before founding Ampyx Power, a wind energy development company, in 2008. Lansdorp sold his majority interest in Ampyx in 2011 in order to launch Mars One.

Weilders is a physics graduate from the Free University of Amsterdam who worked at the Leiden Observatory, Leiden University and then as a research scientist at the Space Department of TNO TPD in Delft as well as with the European Space Agency (ESA). The two men head the mission with a team of five.

Gerard T. Hooft, a theoretical physicist and winner of the Nobel prize for physics in 1999, expressed his initial doubts and subsequent excitement on the same introductory film.

“My first reaction was—I think like everyone who would be confronted with such an idea—this will never work," said the scientist. “But look and listen more closely. This is really something that can be achieved, I think that this might become the most spectacular media event ever, watched by everyone on the globe. Big Brother will pale in comparison."

Mars-hopeful Kotiya is also nervous about the entertainment element of the project; he fears that many of the applicants are drawn to the project for the wrong reasons. “If they are going to select people that are normally on reality TV shows, they will end up killing each other before they even get there. But Mars One has no other option to generate the revenue," he says.

Kotiya estimated that only a small percentage of the 20,800 Indian applicants are serious. “I have seen most of the videos," he says of the applications that are available online. “They are taking it as an adventure or just for fun. It may be the criteria for a few people that they just want to get on TV. But I am totally serious. I have been following this program from its inception."

Kotiya’s ambition to go to space has been a long time in formation. He grew up in a remote village in Chhattisgarh, where he lived until the age of 18 with his parents and two younger brothers. “It was my childhood dream to become an astronaut," he says. “I gave the pilot aptitude test for Indian airforce and I cleared that but I wasn’t selected eventually. It was very difficult at the time to become an astronaut in India."

Instead of joining the army, Kotiya studied engineering in Bhopal and specialised in information technology. In 2011, when NASA launched an astronaut selection program for the international space station, Kotiya thought his chance had come, “but there was also a limitation in that in that only US citizens could apply for that so I was not able to," he says. He thinks Mars One may be the only chance remaining. “You don’t have to have a PHD, anyone can join," he adds. “They are not demanding specialised skills, in the training period of seven years you can be a doctor, be an engineer, do anything. The other part is that you should be able to handle stress and work in isolation, these things matter."

A seat on the spaceship

His fellow Indian applicants seem to be equally excited about the fact that any civilian can apply for a place on the mission, but a glance at Kotiya’s competition is enough to show that he is among a minority of serious applicants.

The vast majority are men, with only nine of the publically viewable profiles belonging to women. There is no eligibility criteria for the project except that applicants must be over the age of 18, and in good physical health with no drug addictions. This shows in the quality of the profiles.

Some have used the forum as an opportunity to share their personal philosophies. “WORLD PEACE SUCKS! CLIMATE CHANGE IS A SCAM !" writes 54-year-old applicant Bipan Kuldip Dewan. “I HAVE LIVED 3 LIVES SO FAR AND AM LIVING MY 4TH.. and 5th somewhere on MARS!"

Others are more concerned about justifying their unique suitability for the role. For example Dinesh Kumar, 35, an electronics and communication engineer, who writes, “Within 20 second of news of US Spaceship Crash in which Indian Kalpana Chawla was a crew member, I told all my friends the exact reason."

“Within 15 seconds I can start any software-dead computer." he adds, as a further proof of his credentials.

There are also a fair number of students, including Sarthak Sharma, 23, who has created a spin-off blog to chart the progress of his application.

“Yes, yes, it means never returning to earth, never meeting my family or friends again, never being able to see the places of special memories," writes Sharma on his blog, “But look at the brighter side... Being one of possibly the first few humans on Mars... Being one of the founding fathers and mothers of a new civilization on another planet... Establishing a whole new world, I do not want my life to be wasted... I want to avoid mediocrity."

Kotiya shares this motive to some extent. He is not particularly enamoured if his office job in Delhi, having spent the first six years of his career with NTPC in a remote area of the Himalayas near Uttarkashi, working on installing communication infrastructure for a hydropower project on the Ganga.

“I was there in Himalaya for six long years, isolated from my family and friends," he says. “I worked in isolation with limited team members in difficult terrain and extreme weather conditions," he reflects. “It will not be very difficult for me to live on Mars."

Kotiya married Priyanka, who is also from Madhya Pradesh, in 2009, four years into the Himalaya stint. “It was very difficult for her to live there (near Uttarkashi), she was very disappointed, but later on she managed and it was a very happy time of ours."

Neither particularly likes living in Delhi, where they have been for the past two years. The potential hardships of Mars, which has been compared to the Antarctic and South California’s Mojave desert, on the other hand, seem a small price to pay to Kotiya for inscribing his name on the history books.

“I’m going to be part of history by doing this. It will be a great achievement. In my lifetime on Earth what can I do? I have to do this job, and someday I have to die here; it’s better to die there and contribute in the history of human survival."

Whether or not he makes it, Mars One has given Kotiya a full time hobby outside of work, he says. “Most of my time, I spend reading about the feasibility of the mission, what technology they need, etc. We have formed a group on Facebook, with around 1000 members and we regularly communicate with each other. We are organising a meeting in India of the applicants."

Kotiya, who has put his mobile number and email contact on his public profile, has been contacted by lots of fellow applicants and has helped a few of them by paying the $7 application fee through his own PayPal account. “Lots of people don’t have the (account)" he explained.

He is also concerned about learning to play the guitar and improve his sketching. The seven-month journey to Mars will be made in very cramped conditions, with no washing facilities (the astronauts will use wet wipes) and a strict exercise regime to prevent muscle wastage.

“Right now my hobby is travelling," he says. “I like to drive, I do 700km to 3000km in a week, once I did 700km in 16 hours in hilly areas. That will not be possible in Mars, you can’t move from the base camp. I have to work on some more hobbies."

For now, though, there is little Kotiya can do but sit and wait.

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