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Dying on Mars

Updated at the Bottom

I read an article tonight on the history of manned space flight as well as an upcoming adventure to colonize Mars called the Mars One project.  It’s a one-way ticket to outer space.  Maybe it won’t make a lot of sense, but the article made me massively sad.

I’m sure there are others who read the article with excitement, that thought that even if you’re not going, it will be cool to follow along from home as they send back news.  And others who maybe applied to be one of the people on the flight.  But I felt like crying as I thought about these people, unable to ever reach home again, to be near anything or anyone familiar.  I felt panicked when I was in Norway and had to wait a few days to catch a flight back to the US.  I can’t imagine being in a situation where regardless of money or ingenuity or desire, you would never be able to be on earth again.  Not even a specific place on earth or with specific people on earth.  I mean never be on earth again.  Period.

It would be like having to be conscious of being dead.  Like mindfully being dead for months or years.

There was a Battlestar Galactica episode — the Resurrection Ship — that got under my skin moreso than any other, and it was when Apollo ejected into space, and he was just free-floating; knowing that the air was leaking from his flight suit.  That image terrified me.  I know there are worse ways to go than getting to die in a sea of stars.  But I still thinking about that moment; when he knows that he is going to die and yet he isn’t dead.  He is young and healthy, and moments earlier, he thought he had years to live.  Then through an event, a twist of fate, he is suddenly in the last minutes of his life, conscious that he is living the last minutes of his life.

We do it all the time.  We explore knowing the risks.  We travel and climb and swim knowing we may never come back.  Some of us will get a chance to say a long goodbye, and some of us will die quite suddenly.  It happens every day.

And yet the thought of this Mars trip makes me feel very quiet anyway.


I was talking about Mars One with the twins this morning, and of course, the conversation turned inevitably to the Challenger and the Columbia.  I can’t believe that after this many years, I still cry when talking about the Challenger and how we found out that the astronauts were gone.

Tying into this idea of life on Mars is the recent report that NASA had an inkling that Columbia’s return to earth may be problematic.  We were talking about which option was most “humane,” humane being an operative word since different people would respond differently to each option.  They could have warned them that reentry was impossible and they would die in the explosion.  They could allow them to circle in space until air ran out, killing them without the explosion.  Or they could not tell them at all and hope for the best, knowing that they would die in a place of happy anticipation of going home, a mission accomplished, without dread?

Would you want to know?  Would you want to mentally prepare?  You obviously know the risks going into space, but the existence of risks doesn’t necessarily mean the acceptance of risks.  Can the human mind really accept that or is it always pointed towards hope?


1 a { 04.29.13 at 9:32 pm }

I can’t imagine who would sign up for that…and what do you do when you change your mind halfway through the journey? I can’t even imagine, but then, I’m glued to the familiar.

2 TasIVFer { 04.29.13 at 10:07 pm }

What makes this sad to me is that you might sign up, be accepted, and leave as one person. However we all live so many lives. Who I am today isn’t who I was a week ago; our hopes and dreams are subtly different. And big events change them even more. What if suddenly, looking at the earth from your spacecraft or from the the surface of Mars, you realised you missed humanity. You realised you suddenly wanted to be one of them again – and you wanted to try to have descendants who could be one of them too? But you cannot. You cannot go back – not to earth nor to the person you were when you left earth who was so excited by the view towards Mars that you thought you would be at peace with not returning. How could you cope then with your slow death?

3 Brid { 04.29.13 at 10:35 pm }

It makes me think of 2001: A Space Odyssey when Bowman gets turned into the space/star child. He ends up in this strange place. The people on Earth know that something happened up there, so they presume he is dead. But, he’s living and experiencing this strange place.
I fall into this confusion of definitions about afterlife scenarios because he is effectively dead… Even though he’s portrayed as alive, he transcends to some strange unknown, and seems to be living, but because he is considered dead by humanity, is he really dead, or is he in the afterlife? Even if he’s actually alive, he’s still dead in this sort of afterlife defined by humans.
Maybe it’s like Schrodinger’s cat. I wonder what Schrodinger thinks about the afterlife – is it one big sealed box – the biggest superposition there is?
(Please note, I haven’t yet read the article, just your post, so perhaps this comment is utterly out of context)

4 jjiraffe { 04.29.13 at 10:51 pm }

I just saw the David Bowie exhibit and this reminds me of “Space Oddity.” I understand why you think this is disquieting. To never return to earth, ever? I can’t even imagine how anyone could undertake such a mission. It makes me shudder to even think about it.

I also think Ian McEwan could write one helluva novel about this topic…

5 Lori Lavender Luz { 04.29.13 at 11:13 pm }

This part grips me: “when he knows that he is going to die and yet he isn’t dead.” It’s less the dying that is fear-inducing as it is the awareness of imminent death.

I love being on the earth.

6 Lori Lavender Luz { 04.29.13 at 11:14 pm }

Oops. That wasn’t all supposed to be in italics.

7 Jen { 04.29.13 at 11:21 pm }

You’re not the only one. My very first thought was how sad it would be, once they got there and the final foreverness of it set in. You can’t prepare your mind or heart for that, so you probably go into it with some level of disbelief or hope. But then once you got there, the inescapable reality of it finally hits you.

And then I had a panic attack for the very same reason; that thought of being away from everything I’ve ever known and not being able to get back.

But I’d love to watch those who feel they are truly prepared for never seeing home again. I guess a way to safely live vicariously through them.

8 persnickety { 04.30.13 at 12:30 am }

Interesting. Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a series a decade or so about the colonisation of Mars (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars). In that book, all of the colonists knew they were never going back, even though in the end, some do. I always accepted that, and never questioned it.

But in a lot of ways that is what the settlers/colonists of early america did- not the ones in the South, who came over for economic reasons, nor the Spanish but the religious ones- those that settled the NorthEast- they knew/believed that they were leaving all they knew behind, never to return. That was why the practice of kicking out those who did not conform so powerful, and why it is still powerful in smaller closed communities (usually strongly religious)- it does kick one out of the place and people they know.

I can understand going, but I would be more concerned with the personalities of the others who went along.

9 TasIVFer { 04.30.13 at 3:09 am }

The beginning of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles has been going through my head all day:

The Men of Earth came to Mars. They came because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or did not feel like Pilgrims. There was a reason for each man. They were leaving bad wives or bad towns; they were coming to find something or leave something or get something, to dig up something or bury something or leave something alone. They were coming with small dreams or large dreams or none at all…it was not unusual that the first men were few. The numbers grew steadily in proportion to the census of Earth Men already on Mars. There was comfort in numbers. But the first Lonely Ones had to stand by themselves..

10 Sushigirl { 04.30.13 at 3:13 am }

I think the only thing worse than going on a mission that like myself would be stuck with the other people who’d signed up!

11 GeekChic { 04.30.13 at 4:27 am }

I think that it would be awesome and I’m only sorry that I’m too unhealthy to sign up. Then again, I don’t associate with place very strongly (I’ve moved too often) and have very little family (only my Dad and my husband) so I don’t have ties like many people do.

It reminds me somewhat of my great-aunt and my grandparents. They emigrated from Wales to Canada just before WWI. They knew that they would never return (too poor and unlikely to ever get richer) and indeed they never did. None of them expressed sadness over this fact – just excitement about reaching a new country and getting a new start. Reading their letters and journals has always inspired me.

12 Chickenpig { 04.30.13 at 6:52 am }

Yet our ancestors did it. They held living wakes because they would never be seen again. There was a time when coming to the United States, or Australia for that matter, was a one way ticket. Then there were all the people who were dragged here in chains. At least the people on Mars will be there of their own free will. I think that just like death, it is frightening but it is the people left behind that will be grieving. I think the ones that make it to the other side will be having a blast!

13 Mina { 04.30.13 at 7:04 am }

There is a tv series called Life on Mars, it only has two seasons and it is quite brilliant. It ends properly, without any buts or ifs, which is nice, considering how many series end badly, due to reasons other than related to story. Anyway. It is about a police officer who has an accident and wakes up in 1973, and does not know if he is dead, in a coma or has gone back in time, but he knows he badly wants to go home, only that going home might mean death after all. I don’t know what is worse, waking up in a new, completely foreign world (like Mars) or waking up in a world similar to yours, but whose differences make it quite foreign as well (1973).
The soundtrack is quite brilliant as well, whoever was in charge knew their stuff and picked only gems.

I always wonder if knowing that I am living the last minutes of my life would help me or not to accept death, to say goodbye, to deal with this passage better or poorer. Sometimes I think yes. Most of the times, no, definitely not. There is a reason why we can’t know the future, and it is doing us a world of good not knowing it.

14 Pepper { 04.30.13 at 8:23 am }

It reminds me of The Abyss, when the main character lets herself drown in order to save another in the hope he will be able to resuscitate her. Watching it makes my lungs tight and I feel all over a bit panicky.

But in this case, there is no resuscitation. You are gone. I would have a hard time with someone I loved signing up for this (but I take a lot of things personally).

15 loribeth { 04.30.13 at 8:59 am }

It is kind of eerie/depressing to think about. It’s really a suicide mission. and I guess you have to be the sort of person who is curious enough about what’s out there & and how it will benefit the rest of us, in order to do it. The early astronauts had to be like that, because they really didn’t know if those rockets were going to work.

As other have already pointed out, my initial reaction was to think of my ancestors, who (like most of our ancestors) came to North America knowing it was very likely they would never see their homeland or family there again. (Although in my genealogy research, I have found evidence of several family members who seem to have made the crossing more than once, which surprised me.)

One of my very first interviews as a young newspaper reporter was a woman who came to Canada as a British war bride. I saw an item in the social column that she and another local woman had attended a war brides reunion so I called her up & asked if I could interview her for the Remembrance Day edition of the paper. She told me about working in a munitions factory and how Churchill came to visit. She told me she was 16 when she met & married her future husband. I found it all fascinating, and I asked her, “What on earth did your mother say when you came home & told her you wanted to marry this guy & move to Canada??” And she got this look on her face & whispered, “She said, ‘I’ll never see my baby again.'” And then burst into tears. I was floored, I didn’t know what to do except apologize & hand her the Kleenex box. It sure taught me to be careful what questions I lobbed at people and how I did it.

I asked her if she ever did see her mother again, & she said yes, she did go back to England once, in 1969.

16 Denver Laura { 04.30.13 at 10:17 am }

At one point in my life, I would have signed up for the mission. After my divorce, I left and backpacked through Europe. I thought often of never coming back. Yes there is a bit of anti-social behavior and perhaps only an introvert could sign up to go to Mars, but it’s a goal. You’d be giving all sorts of data back to Earth. Your life would have meaning and purpose. I think it’d be sad to get to Mars and then what? It’d be boring living a day-to-day life. Nobody is going to follow you getting up every day making astronaut OJ and going on your daily habits.

A book I read as a child was, “Welcome to Moonbase” by Ben Bova. It was like a guidebook to a colony in outer space. All the do’s and don’ts for living without gravity and without much outside support. It’s almost like Antarctica. I have known people who have lived there for 6 months and others a year. Once you’re there, the weather makes it difficult to leave. You’re stuck. There are no pets allowed, and no kids. A lot of craziness happens because there’s nothing else to do. Again, it’s for some people but not for others. And even for some, it’s not the right time.

17 Gail { 04.30.13 at 11:49 am }

Personally, I wouldn’t be interested in this. However, the history of the world is filled with people who are willing and able to do this without looking back with regrets. Otherwise, we’d all still be living in Africa because no humans would have been willing to move out of their comfort zones to another continent whether by foot, boat, swimming, etc. And, many of those journeys were one-way and no one came back. This is really no different except that our current level of technology has allowed us to connect with each other instantaneously and to travel anywhere on our planet within a day (if costs aren’t limited). Thankfully, the explorer(s) that would go to Mars would still be able to communicate with people back on Earth, so they wouldn’t be as alone as the explorers of ancient times.
I think it is exciting and is the next step in our space exploration. I look forward to following this closely.

18 suzanna catherine { 04.30.13 at 11:56 am }

So, a one way ticket to Mars–I don’t think so. I’m too attached to my current location on this planet. Some of my ancestors came here a very long time ago. When they got here, within a generation, they were on the move again. (Go West, young man.) I’ve always thought that had I lived at that time I would have been a very unwilling participant.

19 Kristin { 04.30.13 at 12:23 pm }

That episode of Battlestar hit me hard, too. I honestly don’t know whether I would want to know that death was imminent. While I don’t fear death, the knowledge that I would never get to say good-bye would be devastating.

20 Shelby { 04.30.13 at 2:11 pm }

Ack! I can’t even fathom this for myself, but I can understand how some would give their lives to be at the heart of what could potentially be one of the greatest explorations of our time. Their name could very well be indelible and (I’m guessing) people who participate would feel that their contribution would be for the greater good and therefore completely worth it. I guess I’m not that adventurous.

As for whether I would want to know–yes, but only if there is any possibility of corresponding with my loved ones before it happens. I find myself hanging on those parting words of loved ones who have passed away often, so I know how valuable they are to those left behind. I would want to give that gift to my family. However, if that isn’t possible, don’t tell me. I’ll go out in a cloud of delusion and that’s fine by me.

21 Catwoman73 { 04.30.13 at 2:51 pm }

I would go in a heartbeat if I had nothing significant keeping me here, but I could never leave my family and friends. I totally understand the appeal, though- I love the idea of being a pioneer!

As for wanting to know if death was imminent- the answer would definitely be yes if that knowledge would allow me the opportunity to speak with my family and friends. Otherwise- I’m not so sure. I’ve worked in an intensive care unit for 15 years- I’ve watched people pass away who knew it was coming, and I’ve watched people pass away who didn’t. I don’t think, in the end, it made one bit of difference either way. I think that the knowledge of imminent death is far more useful for those left behind than those who are about to pass.

22 Kathy { 04.30.13 at 3:01 pm }

Wow. Such a thought provoking post and discussion here. I am very curious about an adventure like going to Mars, but can see myself giving up what I would have to in order to go. As for knowing when I will die, I agree with those who said of it means I could say goodbye to loved ones then yes, otherwise I guess not. Especially after events like what happened in Boston and Texas recently, I find myself trying to live my life more knowing we don’t know when we will take our last breath. I am more aware of my loved ones and the moments we have together. Another thing I think about the older my parents get, is really soaking in the time I spend with them. I realize how morbid that is, but I never miss a chance to hug, kiss and tell them I love them when we part, just in case. It’s a delicate balance living our lives in a way that if something happened to us and/or our loved ones unexpectedly that we would hopefully have few regrets and not worrying about that happening all the time. Thank you for sharing.

23 Kathy { 04.30.13 at 3:03 pm }

P.S. I meant “can’t” see myself giving up what I would need to to go. Big difference! No missions to Mars for me in this lifetime.

24 sharah { 05.01.13 at 7:38 pm }

I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I immediately thought of (a different!) Ray Bradbury story titled “Kaleidoscope” from the Illustrated Man. Given your feelings about the Battlestar episode, it might be upsetting – it’s haunting.

25 Chris { 05.03.13 at 10:33 am }

I think I’ll wait until we get the space worm holes figured out where we can travel to far off galaxies almost instantaneously. Also called the Einstein-Rosen Bridge in case anyone wanted to dig into further.

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