By Nick BeJeaux
To go where no man (or woman) has gone before has been the desire of every scientist since the days when humanity looked into the night sky and saw the shapes of gods, heroes, and monsters wrought in the stars.
Today, our understanding of the universe is much deeper, but we’ve only scratched the surface. Mars One, a privately funded international adventure, is set to deepen that understanding by sending a manned, one-way mission to Mars in 2024 with the hopes of establishing a human foothold beyond the Earth’s orbit.
Randall Lee Paylor, hydrogeologist and a Ph.D Candidate at Louisiana State University, has a better shot than most at landing a spot on the mission. He has already made it into phase two of the crew selection process – which weeded out over 200,000 applicants – and is confident that he will pass phase three. DIG caught up with him at his office in the Howe Russell-Kniffen Geoscience complex at LSU to discuss what attracted him to the program in the first place, what he hopes to accomplish while living on Mars, and many other things related to cool rocks and space travel.
DIG: What attracted you to the idea of a one-way trip to Mars in the first place?
Randall Lee Paylor: I’ve always been interested in space – ever since I was a little kid. I grew up in a rural area of Tennessee and all there was to do there was stare up at the stars or go hang out in the woods. I spent a lot of time looking up at the sky; I got my first good telescope when I was 16 and it was the first time I could see the planets with my own eyes. Mars was really interesting because, even with a little backyard telescope, it looks almost habitable. Ice caps, weather patterns – things like that.
DIG: I can understand the fascination with space – I have that myself – but you may leave Earth for quite possibly the rest of your life. How difficult was the decision to apply for the mission and stick with it?
RLP: It’s tough. [sighs] But as a scientist, I’m curious about everything. I have a bucket list, I guess you would call it a “departure list,” before I leave for Mars that’s a mile long. I could live ten lifetimes and never do everything I want to do on earth. But I think going to Mars would trump all of that. Not only is it the adventure of a lifetime, but it’s a massive step for humanity to reach another planet and live on that planet.
Also, scientists like Stephen Hawking and Neil Degrasse Tyson have been saying for a long time that because there is some risk of a catastrophic event happening on Earth, we better find another place to live. Otherwise, humanity may be completely destroyed in the future. The dinosaurs went that way, and we could too if we’re not careful.
DIG: You mentioned a departure list. What are some things at the top of that list you want to get out of the way before you leave?
RLP: [Laughs] Oh boy…there’s too many things to list. Travel is definitely up there. I’ve traveled quite a bit, but I haven’t been to Europe that much so I guess I’d like to see more of it.
DIG: Any place in particular?
RLP: All of it! [Laughs] I love different cultures and actually that’s one of the things that attracted me to Mars One in the first place. They want the crew to be as multicultural as possible. The way they want it is four candidates from different regions across the world and I love that idea.
DIG: What do your friends and family think about this trip?
RLP: Well it ranges from being supportive to ‘you’re freaking crazy!’ At first they thought it was a pipedream, but it’s real. A lot of people were skeptical at first about Bas Lansdorp and his ideas on how to fund all of this. But it has really picked up steam and it looks like it’s going to happen. My family is very supportive now – I have had long discussion with them about this and they eventually came around.
DIG: Are you in a relationship?
RLP: No. There are a few people that signed up with spouses and kids, but some dropped out. But a number of them are still in.
DIG: And your colleagues here at LSU; what do they think?
RLP: Honestly we haven’t talked about it that much. They think it’s interesting, but they have a ‘wait and see’ attitude. I think over the next year the program will get more exposure and people will see that this is happening. The interviews that will be part of the next round of selections will be taped and probably made into TV shows.
“As a scientist, I’m curious about everything. I have a bucket list, I guess you would call it a “departure list,” before I leave for Mars that’s a mile long. I could live ten lifetimes and never do everything I want to do on earth. But I think going to Mars would trump all of that. Not only is it the adventure of a lifetime, but it’s a massive step for humanity to reach another planet and live on that planet.”
DIG: How are you preparing for the journey?
RLP: I’m learning as much as possible. There are so many different things that could go wrong, honestly [laughs nervously] on a mission like that! There are so many things we will have to learn. The people who make it through the next round are going to be going through a really intense six or eight-year training process, which will include isolation. They’re building these habitats on continents across the world to put astronauts through isolation for potentially a year to see how they react psychologically.
DIG: Wow, that really sounds intense. Recently there was a study that suggested that solitary confinement in prisons can degrade a person’s psyche after just 15 minutes. How can somebody handle that and in space, for that matter?
RLP: I remember hearing about a study in Russia where they put six people in isolation for, I think, 500 days. They all essentially went a little crazy [laughs]. But they didn’t give them anything to do – all they did was sit around and play chess all the time.
DIG: The flight from here to Mars lasts about six months. That’s a very long time to be cooped up in a tin can floating through space.
RLP: Yeah, the ideal flight path takes about six months. We could do it quicker, but the six-month plan allows us to return to Earth of something goes wrong by slingshotting around Mars.
DIG: How are you going to stay sane? The drive from here to Chicago is tough, and we’re talking about a trip that’s hundreds of thousands of miles here.
RLP: During six months of just traveling, there’s not going to be a whole to do. There’s some science that can be done with radiation exposure, but otherwise I don’t know. I’m sure they’ll find something for us to do to keep us busy, but I imagine we’ll need a pretty regimented schedule or else we’re just going to go mad.
DIG: Will you be allowed to bring anything to keep you sane during the long trip?
RLP: Well, yes, but I don’t think the weight limit on personal items will be that much. I’ll be bringing photos of family of course and a few books I like and my violin – I learned how to play violin just for this trip. But we’ll have access to a whole database of books and, basically, the Internet with a 20 minute delay through satellites that they’ll be launching before we leave. So we will actually have communication with Earth pretty regularly. It isn’t complete isolation. In fact, some of my friends won’t even realize I’m gone! I’ll still be updating Facebook and they’ll go ‘Oh! there’s Randy, I wonder what he’s up to.’ [Laughs].
DIG: ‘Hey, you want to go grab a drink tonight?’, ‘No man, I’m on Mars!’, ‘Oh yeah…’, ‘LOL’.
RLP: [Laughs] Yeah, they probably won’t realize I’m not on Earth any more! Still you don’t have instant messaging or phone calls, but emails and Facebook updates are doable.
DIG: Are you going to be posting photos on Facebook?
RLP: Absolutely! One of the whole ideas about this is to show the public everything we’re doing while we’re up there.
DIG: So, potentially, you could take the first selfie on Mars!
RLP: [Laughs] Maybe. I’m a photographer and I love taking landscape photography. I’m looking forward to taking some artistic landscape shots.
DIG: Say you land a spot on the mission, touchdown on Mars, and do what you are assigned to do. Once the hype wears down, do you think that in time you will regret your decision to go where no man has gone before?
RLP: That’s a hard question. I’d say that if we make it there okay and everything is working and we’re doing good science, I won’t regret it. I’m a field geologist; I love being out in the field and Mars is every field geologist’s dream. It’s just one giant frontier with the same landmass as Earth. Can you imagine being one of only a handful of geologists on an alien planet? It’s like the best Christmas present in the history of whenever.
DIG: What would you like to see in the rock and ice on Mars as a geologist?
RLP: I fully expect to find fossils of microbes and bacteria on the planet – maybe even living ones in the ice. Recently here on earth we found organisms that survived for millions of years under the ice in the Arctic. Who’s to say we won’t find the same thing on Mars?
DIG: What will your job be, rather, how would you contribute to the mission and the colony?
RLP: Well they’re going to need a geologist to find the resources the colony needs. Water, for example. Where’s the ice under the soil, or mineral resources we could use? How do you purify the water? Those are all in my background. I work in mining resources, groundwater and contaminant remediation, so I’d be good in all that. All that technical training will definitely help my chances because they’ve said up front that you don’t need to have any training whatsoever, as long as you think you have what it takes to learn.
I think by doing that they have done a tremendous service by interesting regular people in going to space. It’s getting people more engaged in the discussion of going to Mars than NASA has, frankly.
DIG: What will the living situation be like? Have you been told what the habitats will be like?
RLP: They’re sending up the modules before us along with a rover and other equipment for gathering water and oxygen. By the time we get there, there ought to be about four modules in the habitat. I think there will be two modules for sleeping, two for storage and for growing food.
DIG: Have they figured out how to land the craft on Mars? That’s not exactly a simple process.
RLP: They’re working on that. There are still some technical hurdles to overcome. I think one of the things that Lansdorp has often said is that the technology we need to get there already exists or soon will exist, and that’s more or less true. One of the main things we need is a larger rocket to get bigger payloads into space, which NASA and SpaceX are working on. But the biggest problem, which you hit right on the head, is actually getting people on the surface of Mars. That’s probably going to be the hardest part of the whole thing. NASA is looking at a combination of an inflatable heat shield, rockets and parachutes.
DIG: The launch is scheduled for late 2024 and the actual landing will be early 2025, so by the time you get there NASA will have two probes on the planet, Curiosity and the 2020 rover. One of the biggest problems with remote rovers is that you can’t fix them if they break. Do you think NASA will give you guys a call and ask, ‘Hey can you go clean the rover’s camera lens or something like that?
RLP: [Laughs] I was at a Mars conference in Houston last week and we were joking about that. They’d probably just send us up there with some duct tape and ask us to reattach the wheel or something. But the chances of us landing near the rover are actually very slim. The places that are best for NASA to do their science are not necessarily the best places to land a craft full of people. We have to land near ice and mineral resources. Gale crater is located near the equator and we need to be at about 35 degrees for us to have the resources we need.
DIG: How will everyone get around, besides walking?
RLP: At least one of the rovers they’re sending will be a workhorse rover for hauling stuff around, including us. I imagine that could double as a vehicle, which would be nice to have.
DIG: What about the space suits? I imagine you would be doing some delicate work in gravity, so the bulky suits we always see might not cut it.
RLP: No – in fact there are several companies working on that. The best ideas are already out there they just need to be developed. It isn’t an air pressure suit; it uses mechanical pressure. It’s like an elastic web that stays really close to your skin that keeps the pressure high and stays skin-tight. I don’t know about the helmet though. I guess you want that to be kind of big.
DIG: Say that you don’t make the final cut. Do you think all the preparation you’ve done will still be worthwhile? For example, you learned the violin just for this trip.
RLP: Absolutely. I think that’s a benefit of planning to take a trip like this. You have to better yourself to be able to make it. I’m working out a lot more and reading a lot more about things that just didn’t interest me before. Even if I don’t make it I think what I’ve done to prepare for it would have been worthwhile.