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A One-Way, One-Person Mission to Mars

Article Updated: 26 Dec , 2015

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Will humans ever really go to Mars? Let’s face it, the obstacles are quite daunting. Not only are there numerous, difficult, technical issues to overcome, but the political will and perseverance of any one nation to undertake such an arduous task just can’t be counted on. However, one former NASA engineer believes a human mission to Mars is quite doable, and such an event would unify the world as never before. But Jim McLane’s proposal includes a couple of major caveats: the trip to Mars should be one-way, and have a crew of only one person.

McLane worked at NASA for 21 years before leaving in 2007 to work for a private engineering firm. Being able to look from afar at NASA’s activities has given him a new perspective, he says.

But McLane was still at NASA when he originally had an idea for a one-way, one-person mission to Mars. He calls his proposal the “Spirit of the Lone Eagle,” in deference to Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927.

McLane’s idea came from his acquaintance with a Russian cosmonaut. “I noticed the cosmonaut seemed to be a slightly different type of person than the American astronaut,” McLane said. “Cosmonauts are primarily pilots, and like test pilots, they are very focused on getting the job done. The current American astronauts are picked for things such as their speaking ability and social skills, and most of them have advanced degrees. But the cosmonaut struck me as an adventurous, get-things-done-type person, like our original astronauts back in the 1960’s.”

A return to the “get it done” attitude of the 1960’s and a goal of a manned landing within a short time frame, like Apollo, is the only way we’ll get to Mars, McLane believes. Additionally, a no-return, solo mission solves many of the problems currently facing a round-trip, multiple person crew.

“When we eliminate the need to launch off Mars, we remove the mission’s most daunting obstacle,” said McLane. And because of a small crew size, the spacecraft could be smaller and the need for consumables and supplies would be decreased, making the mission cheaper and less complicated.

While some might classify this as a suicide mission, McLane feels the concept is completely logical.

“There would be tremendous risk, yes,” said McLane, “but I don’t think that’s guaranteed any more than you would say climbing a mountain alone is a suicide mission. People do dangerous things all the time, and this would be something really unique, to go to Mars. I don’t think there would be any shortage of people willing to volunteer for the mission. Lindbergh was someone who was willing to risk everything because it was worth it. I don’t think it will be hard to find another Lindbergh to go to Mars. That will be the easiest part of this whole program.”

And like Apollo, such a mission would stimulate new technology and reinvigorate science. McLane feels a mission to Mars should be international in scope, encompassing contributions from multiple nations to represent a milestone for the whole human race.

Mars mission.  Image Credit:  NASA

“I think people have forgotten how exciting the Apollo program was, and this would bring that excitement back,” he said. “And it wasn’t just here in the US; the whole world was excited. This enthusiasm would be the greatest effect of a program that places a man on Mars, over and above anything else, whether it makes jobs, or stimulates the economy, or creates technology spinoffs. We’re all humans and the idea of sending one of our kind on a trip like that would be a wonderful adventure for the entire world. The whole world would get behind it.”

And the whole world would be watching, said McLane, so it wouldn’t be as if the lone astronaut would be completely by himself. “You would have constant communication,” he said. “The astronauts on the International Space Station have an army of people on earth keeping track of what they are doing. They really have no peace. Somebody is constantly planning and monitoring their activities. I don’t think being lonely will be much of a problem on a mission to Mars.”

Of course McLane’s hope is the solo astronaut would be joined by others shortly in the future. Orbital mechanics provides a desirable launch window from Earth to Mars every 26 months. “This person wouldn’t be there by himself for very long. It’s just returning home that would be impossible,” he said. Another option McLane has offered is a one-man and one-woman crew, possibly creating an Adam and Eve-type situation.

Unmanned landers would carry living accommodations, supplies and communication equipment to Mars’ surface before the human mission would even launch. The best location on Mars would be a low, sheltered area, perhaps at the bottom of a canyon, which would provide protection from radiation and weather, as well as the highest possible atmospheric pressure.

While technical issues abound for even the simplest human mission to Mars, McLane says technical issues didn’t deter the Apollo program, and they shouldn’t deter a mission to another planet.

“I can remember during the early days of the Apollo program, there were even many more technical issues than we face today in going to Mars,” said McLane. “People don’t realize that, or have forgotten that fact. Several things were tremendous unknowns back then, any one of which could have been a showstopper for a human moon landing.”

McLane said the early designers of the Apollo spacecraft gambled that in 3 or 4 years, high powered transistors and small guidance computers would be developed. That was the only way the spacecraft would be lightweight enough to land on the moon. “It was almost science fiction, but someone thought it could be done in just a few years, and sure enough the technology was perfected in time to make the mission possible,” he said.

James C. McLane.  Image Credit:  courtesy James McLane
Image: Jim McLane during his career at NASA.

While Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and noted author and physicist Paul Davies have also advocated a one-way trip to Mars, in our risk-averse society most people look askance at such an idea.

Even though explorers in the past traveled, for example, to the south or north pole, knowing they might never return, and thousands of immigrants moved to the US in the 18- and 1900’s, knowing they would never see their homeland again, the human psyche has seemingly changed enough that a one-way ticket off the planet is not acceptable. According to psychologist Molly Dooley from Springfield, IL, it might take a major crisis on Earth for humans to seriously consider such a mission. “Usually it’s the disenfranchised that are willing to take those kinds of risks,” she said. “When our present situation no longer works for us, we become more willing to take risks. The difference between the folks who are interested and those who aren’t is their attachment to their current situation.”

McLane says the main reason NASA hasn’t been able to focus on a human mission to Mars is simple: NASA doesn’t get nearly enough money. “This has been the case for many years,” he said. “They didn’t get enough money to fix problems with the shuttle, and they’ve always been chronically short of money. How we fund NASA is a big handicap, since every year, NASA has to go begging to Congress for funds and justify their budget. The Chinese space program, on the other hand, has an advantage in that they budget their projects in five-year increments. If we really want to go somewhere, we’ll have to change how NASA gets its money.”

But McLane thinks NASA is at fault for not even considering a one-way mission to Mars. “For over forty years they’ve studied all sorts of options, but haven’t admitted to ever looking at a one-way mission to Mars,” he said. “We shouldn’t be stuck on this rock forever. I believe it’s in our human nature to try to go somewhere else, and we’ve almost worn this world out. I think now is the time to reach out and go somewhere else to start with a clean slate. There is no reason not to try.”


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mr.owen
Guest
mr.owen
March 4, 2008 9:46 AM

ha ha

to mars, when we can’t even get to the moon.
lets stop these bogus ways to spend tax payers money.

ranjea
Guest
ranjea
March 4, 2008 7:02 AM

“adam and eve”

yes sure, and then, if they have lets say a daughter, the father makes a new baby with her? or passes her on to the next astronaut going: “here man, lets start this freaking planet, have my daughter” infront of the whole human race..
makes me laugh

but the idea in general i do like

Thunder Pig
Guest
March 4, 2008 7:37 AM

I like the idea.

Perhaps it could be expanded to add an additional person or two every 26 months, along with more consumables and material to construct a greenhouse for growing food and producing Oxygen, and for other purposes, perhaps a low-power nuclear reactor or thermal battery could be added.

That way, an outpost for humanity could be established over a period of decades.

Something like that would indeed capture the imagination of mankind…and our children.

Although I am not qualified to go, I’d love to go!!!

Peter
Member
Peter
March 4, 2008 7:50 AM

I don’t see the problem with sending a rocket in 52 months (that’s over 4 years!) that would get them back into orbit. (Remember Mars’ lower gravity) Then a simple supply ship orbital transfer, and back to earth orbit. Can you imagine their welcome home? A one way trip is too depressing unless you really do intend on populating a real colony. Either way, what solid stuff they’d be made of to make that jump! You’d have to be assured of quite the camping gear when you got there. No Coleman stove for them!

geokstr
Member
geokstr
March 4, 2008 8:11 AM

Why would a “one-way” trip now have to mean “forever” for the initial explorer(s)? We can assume that many of the problems currently associated with a round trip will be solved in the relatively near future. So in five or ten years, crews could be rotated every several years if necessary, including the first ones.

I think it’s a very exciting strategy to get people there in the next five years.

Peter
Member
Peter
March 4, 2008 8:16 AM

Five years!!! Wow, optimistic! Even if there was a trip on the books!
Shouldn’t that pic at the top have had its sky altered to orange? No blue skies on Mars!

Any volunteers? For the trip, I mean.

John Mendenhall
Member
John Mendenhall
March 4, 2008 8:22 AM

The previous posters are right. Send following one-way missions and build a colony. What a terrific idea!

I think it would capture the imagination of the entire Earth. We might make some progress towards a real and responsible world government.

Pidgereedoo
Guest
Pidgereedoo
March 4, 2008 8:25 AM

Dear Earthlings,

Please remember to send an ‘attractive lady’ next time around, like in the attached photo. This plug-plug compatibility thing is just not working and Ted does not like the same films as me.

Regards,

Frank,
Mars

Sara
Guest
Sara
March 4, 2008 9:11 AM
I liked the idea up until the last paragraph. We haven’t “worn out” this planet. Nor would we be able to start with a “clean slate.” People being what they are, we’d take all of our baggage with us….and in a much, much more harsh environment, humans would have far less margin for error. That remark suggests to me that McLane doesn’t actually have a very realistic idea of everything that our home planet provides for “free.” The ecology that supports us is extremely complex and can’t be reproduced with a few high-tech camping supplies. We would have to commit to not only sending the explorer there, but supporting him or her at great expense for the rest… Read more »
Timber
Guest
Timber
March 4, 2008 9:12 AM

Let’s send Jim McLane on the first trip

derek
Guest
derek
March 4, 2008 9:32 AM

this guy is an idiot. If we have no hope of bringing someone back dont go. i would not send my dog.

Langaly
Guest
Langaly
March 4, 2008 9:34 AM

I like the idea… hate the analogies. Its nothing like immigrants coming to America knowing they’ll never see their homeland… its more like diving to the Mariana Trench completely dependent on supplies from the surface and a harsh LETHAL environment just outside. But yeah, assuming it may still be possible to return and you can trust supplies to make it safely (the track record for sending things to Mars isn’t to reassuring) and assuming there is protection from Martian dust storms and radiation, then yeah, this sounds like an excellent idea.

Molecular
Member
Molecular
March 4, 2008 9:37 AM
A one-way, one-man mission to Mars is a bit pessimistic considering technology is ever-evolving. If a one-cosmonaut mindset is likely to get the job done, then surely, a two, three, or four of a like mindset would be even better. Speaking of mindsets, if we keep up with this “NASA” mindset, we may just be limiting our selves from being open to uniquely radical approaches of venturing out to other places beyond Earth, in shorter periods of time, and, while having a roundtrip factored in. There very well could be countless solutions to problems of this nature if we would just reach out more often to draw input from other sources. The mindsets of cosmonauts aren’t restricted to… Read more »
Owen
Guest
Owen
March 4, 2008 9:38 AM

I think it would be great to have a colony on mars. It could be an international project like the ISS that could be completed in segments over years. With different nations contributing different things.

ericick
Member
ericick
March 4, 2008 9:43 AM

I accept the risk. I’ll volunteer to go.

I want 3 years supplies with power (a nuke) and equipment (stuff to get me kick started) to have a reasonable chance to stay warm, make my own air and grow my own food on Mars. And my shelter has to be mobile so I can spend the rest of my life exploring.

Dark Gnat
Guest
Dark Gnat
March 4, 2008 9:45 AM

A one way ticket to Mars may be logical, but what would be the point? At some time, you need to bring the guy home, so wating a few months and sending a second ship (with return capabilities) would be more expensive than just sending a round-trip ship to begin with.

baley
Guest
baley
March 4, 2008 9:56 AM

There is no way that NASA will ever launch towards Mars or the Moon anytime soon. A joint mission would be more realistic but I don’t think we have what it takes to make the trip at least for 30 years.
That’s why ISS is a very important test ground for various technologies to use for later missions.

joe
Guest
joe
March 4, 2008 9:57 AM

i can easily see the astronaut getting bored, then depressed, then insane, you know, cuz he’s there alone for a while. constant communication? i don’t know how long the delay is to send data to mars and back, but it can’t be like talking on the phone. i guess he can keep himself bust, but once the guy’s done all the initial setup, what’s he going to do all day? collect samples? take pictures? play solitaire? maybe he should get a vehicle too, so at least he can move around. hehe, it’s gotta be some real tough hardass who goes to mars.

Vitor Martins
Guest
Vitor Martins
March 4, 2008 10:00 AM

Greetings from Portugal

I think we all should welcome any ideia on this and other subjects, no matter what each one of us thinks about it. I like this ideia, do not think Jim is an idiot and would volunteer to go in a heart beat.

alex
Guest
alex
March 4, 2008 10:01 AM

i ll go !!
i dont have a job … so i can go …
smile

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