Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Interview: Heidi Hecht, Mars One Candidate

Panorama under a pink sky at the NASA Mars Pathfinder landing site, 12 October 1998. Image Source: Dr. Timothy Parker / JPL / NASA.

At some point between the moon landing and Survivor, space colonization became a media event about amateur astronauts. In the rush to have humans land on Mars, the first trip will likely be one way only (see here and here) - and fully televised.

A manned Mars mission is vastly expensive and technologically demanding. The list of manned missions which never materialized is long. Telepresence proposals involved astronauts reaching Mars and studying the planet only from orbit.  NASA has a manned Mars mission scheduled for around 2030. But Mars One, a Dutch non-profit co-founded by Gen Xers Bas Lansdorp and Arno Wielders, aims to beat them to the punch, sending its first four-person team by 2025, with five more four-colonist teams to follow by 2035.

Terraforming Mars is expected to take one thousand years. Image Source: ScienceBlogs.

Mars One sent out a global recruitment call from 22 April 2013 until 31 August 2013. Out of 200,000 applicants, 705 candidates remain in the Mars One selection pool. Final selection is expected by July 2015. By now, older applicants have already withdrawn. Most applicants are members of Generation Y: they are largely under the age of 36 and well educated. Of the 705 pre-interview candidates, 313 are from the Americas; 187 are from Europe; 136 hail from Asia; 41 come from Africa; and 28 are from Oceania.

Mars One organizers plan to fund the project by covering the candidates' Round 3 selection, training, preparation and departure in the biggest reality TV and Internet spectacle in the history of modern media. The show will have to raise USD $6 billion. Mars One takes its media model from the Olympics, which raised USD $8 billion between 2009 and 2011. Lionsgate was initially slated to produce the show. Those production rights have now passed to Darlow Smithson Productions, whose strengths lie in "factual storytelling to an international audience." Darlow Smithson is owned by the unfortunately homophonously-named company, Endemol (end 'em all). Wiki: "Endemol created and runs reality and talent game show franchises worldwide, including Big Brother, Deal or No Deal, Wipeout, The Money Drop, and Your Face Sounds Familiar."

Today, Histories of Things to Come is pleased to interview Mars One candidate, Heidi Hecht, about her application to travel to Mars. Heidi told me:
"My main attraction to Mars One is that it’s giving ordinary people a chance to prove they have what it takes to handle space work and especially the colonization of other worlds. If it works out, it’ll show that space travel doesn’t have to be just for rich people paying for rides or an elite few who do it professionally. Sure, it’s hazardous, but have you ever tried to cross the street in New York City? It’s about being willing to choose what I’m risking my life for."
Heidi studied computer networking and she is also a blogger. Her blog, Nothing in Particular, covers her Mars One experience here. She has a great post on time-keeping on Mars, which mentions the Mars watch crafted by master watchmaker, Garo Anserlian; she also discusses the Martian year, marked by the signs of the Zodiac, which was the basis of the Martian Darian calendar.

Mars One habitat. Image Source: NBC.

Artist's rendition of a Mars One habitat interior. Image Source SpaceHabs via Nothing in Particular.

ToB: Have you always been interested in space exploration and Mars? Why did you to apply to Mars One?

Heidi Hecht: I’ve always been a science fiction fan with a moderate interest in space exploration. Over the past few years, though, my interest in space exploration has grown and especially my curiosity about exactly why we haven’t been to Mars yet. The short answer would probably be the insufficient budgets, massive bureaucracy and lack of vision from political leaders that NASA has had to put up with. I applied to Mars One because, first, it’s a chance for ordinary people to become involved in the process of exploring and settling Mars and, second, they’re small enough that the sheer amount of people won’t get in the way.

ToB: Successful candidates will never return to earth. What do your friends and family say about your application? How do you regard leaving earth forever?

Heidi Hecht: Most of my friends and family are okay with it though there are one or two who have gotten hung up on the “one-way trip” part of my plan. I’ve tried to put the idea of leaving Earth forever in the context of American history. The first colonists had no plans to return to Europe and, although many people died from being unprepared for the hazards of the frontier, eventually things settled down and the United States became a superpower.

ToB: Mars One has received a lot of criticism, which you addressed on your blog. Do you feel there's an automatic negative backlash against a huge project like this because of how it would change things? Do you think people are afraid Mars One could work, and you could, as you put it, go to Mars to live rather than die?

Heidi Hecht: I think it’s a lot of the same kind of backlash that Christopher Columbus must have gotten when he thought he could reach India by sailing west. He didn’t exactly reach India, but he did change the world. It could be that the ones who are criticizing the project for lack of ethics and sending people off to die simply don’t realize that the volunteers do have an idea of what they’re getting themselves into and think it’s worth the risk. I suppose right now they’re afraid that they might be wrong and Mars One will work, and they won’t have plausible deniability because their words will still be floating around somewhere on the Internet. My main answer to the idea that it won’t work is that we could last three months on Mars or we could last three decades, and either way, it’ll be worth it.

Where we're headed? Image Source: The Barry Bullock Hour.

ToB: Reporters always mention that you will never return to earth. Although that is the current plan, other missions may return. Currently, the shortest duration for a trip to Mars is seven months. But improvements in technology over the next decade could shorten that trip to three months or less! So when it comes to 'never return' do you and other candidates say, "never say never"?

Heidi Hecht: I think about half of us say that we’re planning on the one-way trip and right now some of us think we won’t bail even if we do get the chance to return to Earth. I’ve tried explaining to family members who object to the one-way trip that it’s possible that someone else will develop a reliable way to go from Earth to Mars and back again, much like Buzz Aldrin’s Martian cyclers, within my lifetime. Really the one-way trip thing is a cost-saving measure that cuts a lot of the complexity of the mission, and someone else might pick up the tab for bringing Martians who have gotten sick of the whole thing back home.

ToB: You're American and Mars One is a global project. The past few years have been tough in the USA. Was there anything in recent American experience that made you want to participate?

Heidi Hecht: I’d say mostly the retirement of the Space Shuttle. Right now the Russians have the only ride to the International Space Station and, while SpaceX thinks they can do it more cheaply and give the Russians some competition, their Dragon capsule isn’t fully tested yet. I’m hoping that Mars One will help to expedite the development of SpaceX’s hardware and it will be interesting to go along for the ride.

ToB: Several novels chronicle Mars colonization. Perhaps the most convincing are the books in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, and perhaps the most depressing is Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Do you have any favourite Mars stories or films that inform your ideas about the planet? What do you think about the fact that we're about to turn science fiction into reality?

Heidi Hecht: I don’t really have a favorite novel that’s purely about Mars, but I did like Mission to Mars as a movie. Especially the climax. I think if we can avoid comparisons to some of the space horror flicks that have come down the pike, this will become another neat case of science fiction becoming real life.

ToB: Let's talk about your upcoming media extravaganza. Deadline London reports: "In order to qualify for the mission, individuals must demonstrate they have acquired the knowledge and skills as well as high levels of psychological and physical performance required for the longest distance voyage ever embarked upon by humans." But there's much more to it than that, with regional and then international selections which involve audience participation. It looks like an extreme space colonist version of American Idol or X-Factor. How are you preparing for this process?

Heidi Hecht: Right now I’ve been reviewing some of the information on the Mars One website – I already know most of it but I don’t want to look dumb in front of the cameras because I forgot some little obvious detail. I’ve also been doing a lot of reading about Mars (fact, not science fiction) – the obvious suspects like Robert Zubrin’s Mars-related books, Buzz Aldrin’s Mission to Mars, and a little of NASA’s Mars mission reports. Mostly, though, I’ve been focused on just getting there and that mostly means scraping together the travel money it’ll likely take to get to the centralized location.

ToB: Given that the selection process and subsequent project will be broadcast, do you worry that viewers and even organizers will favour showmanship over substance? Should we colonize the neighbouring planet by means of a gigantic popularity contest?

Heidi Hecht: I have thought about it. My main worry is that the drama queens will be running the show, and there are a couple of those in the running that I know of. I really don’t think the popularity contest is a good idea even though it’s hard to see how Mars One will raise the money it’ll take just to get people to Mars without the reality show aspect. In theory, the people that go will be qualified, but there have been times when I thought Mars One would trip over the media deal in terms of sending people who are actually ready for the hostile environment on Mars. It would be like in the America’s Got Talent auditions where they show a horrible act in full and then only snippets of somebody who might have actually had a shot at winning if only he could get more airtime. I do think it’s a bonus that some companies have billion-plus-dollar advertising budgets and we’ll be gaining some of that to pay for mission, but the media thing has been the only potential major flaw I’ve seen in the plan.

ToB: The fact that this project is being paid for through a mass media event creates dilemmas. As you mentioned, Mars One is space colonization for Everyman. Ordinary people can participate, both as candidates and as viewers. However, that anti-elitism and anti-professionalism comes at a cost. Everyone talks about survival in the hostile Martian environment. What about survival in the hostile Terran entertainment environment? Are you prepared to become a celebrity?

Heidi Hecht: I hope so. I have heard that becoming an instant celebrity blindsided some of the early American astronauts until they inked a deal with Life that helped keep the reporters off their front lawns. Based on my experience so far – one newspaper interview, a couple of radio morning shows and a student documentary – I know that giving interviews probably aren’t going to be my strong point. But, when it’s just a matter of having cameras pointed my way, I can mostly ignore the cameras unless they become a nuisance. There might be times when I get this “deer in the headlights” look and wish that some hot Hollywood celebrity would show up to take some of the pressure off, but I’ll learn how to cope with it.

ToB: Mars One will oddly mirror our already-established experience with the Internet. Mars One colonists may never return to earth, but they will still be participating in Terran politics, as well as her economy, society and culture every day through the interplanetary Internet and the Mars One show. That means that your experiences with earth will continue but will become completely virtual. And for people watching you, the effect will be reversed: real Earth to virtual Mars. What do you make of these split societies and divided realities?

Heidi Hecht: What I think is that Earth will continue doing what Earth does and Martians will eventually develop their own unique society. One thing we talk about a lot is the idea that eventually there will be children on Mars who don’t remember ever being on Earth. They’ll just regard themselves as being the first native Martians. We’ll still be connected with Earth through, as you said, an interplanetary Internet unless something goes drastically wrong with the Internet or with Earth, Mars or both (which might well make good science fiction fodder in the hands of a talented author). And maybe, because of the connection, our new society on Mars will still have some common elements with societies on Earth. We’ll just adapt our society to suit the unique needs of living in the Martian environment.

Mars One Way. Video Source: Vita Brevis Films via Youtube.

Fascination with Mars One candidates as everyday people who are willing to leave earth forever has already begun. Initial media coverage, like the film above, paints the applicants as quirky misfits. But if this mission proceeds, we will see those misfits transform overnight into Millennial superstars. If the Mars One volunteers do establish a colony on Mars, they will face an unprecedented struggle to survive. And after that, they will have to rethink agriculture, science, engineering, society, politics, law, government, the economy - and entertainment.

Entering a Mars One habitat. Image Source: RealScience.

It is easy to criticize this initiative and dismiss the everyday people who have applied to Mars One. But frontier mentalities challenge everything we take for granted. Today, American politics fixates on the constitution as its founding principle of government. In fact, the shaping of American politics grew out of the frontier experience, of which the constitution is merely an echo. Consider Frederick Jackson Turner's classic Frontier Thesis (1893), which insisted that raw experience shaped the entire American political culture. From Wiki:
He ... stressed ... that American democracy was the primary result, along with egalitarianism, [of] a lack of interest in high culture, and violence. "American democracy was born of no theorist's dream; it was not carried in the Sarah Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier," said Turner. In the thesis, the American frontier established liberty by releasing Americans from European mindsets and eroding old, dysfunctional customs. The frontier had no need for standing armies, established churches, aristocrats or nobles, nor for landed gentry who controlled most of the land and charged heavy rents. Frontier land was free for the taking. ...
The first settlers who arrived on the east coast in the 17th century acted and thought like Europeans. They encountered environmental challenges that were different from those they had known in Europe. Most important was the presence of uncultivated arable land. They adapted to the new environment in certain ways — the cumulative effect of these adaptations was Americanization. According to Turner, the forging of the unique and rugged American identity had to occur precisely at the juncture between the civilization of settlement and the savagery of wilderness. The dynamic of these oppositional conditions engendered a process by which citizens were made, citizens with the power to tame the wild and upon whom the wild had conferred strength and individuality. ...
Successive generations moved further inland, shifting the lines of settlement and wilderness, but preserving the essential tension between the two. European characteristics fell by the wayside and the old country's institutions (e.g., established churches, established aristocracies, intrusive government, and class-based land distribution) were increasingly out of place. Every generation moved further west and became more American, more democratic, and as intolerant of hierarchy as they were removed from it. They became more violent, more individualistic, more distrustful of authority, less artistic, less scientific, and more dependent on ad-hoc organizations they formed themselves. In broad terms, the further west, the more American the community.
Turner's thesis has been considered in light of different frontier experiences in South Africa, Canada, Russia, Brazil, Argentina and Australia. Turner's ideas about "youth, aggressiveness, boldness, equalitarianism and rejection of limitations" have also been compared to the Electronic Frontier. It suggests that the frontier is built in ambiguity, because survival isn't always pretty. Sometimes those who must survive do so on terms alien to the societies from which they hail.

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