Milestones to Mars – Dr. Adriana Marais

As a child, I read a lot and longed to have been born in another era, when less was done and more was at stake. I imagined myself as a Khoisan hunter, an Egyptian queen, a Greek philosopher, a Viking warrior… However, I am now utterly convinced that this time in which we are now living is the most fascinating and important of all.

adriana marais

T-3: The vision

I first read the call for volunteers for a one-way mission to Mars in a newspaper in Durban 2012. Every cell in my body cried this is it! Suddenly a strange early childhood memory, I must have been five, rushed back to me in all its clarity:

I’m looking out of a small round window. Some distant stars are visible now and then. It is dark and I am alone. I hope for the sight of land, that welcome arc of a planetary horizon, but know that I may not live long enough to get there.  I am in a one-way rocket to search for new worlds.

When the founders of the Mars One Project first announced plans to send crews to Mars to establish a permanent human settlement, they were ridiculed, as true pioneers often are, as hopeless propagators of a hoax, a scam and an idea that could never work.

T-2: The design

It felt like queuing for a rock concert or soccer game, except that people were drinking coffee and it was before noon. When the doors opened people started running to get seats. And then finally Elon Musk walked on stage and a room jam-packed with thousands of space fanatics at the International Astronautical Congress of 2016 in Mexico erupted in applause. My hands were shaking too much to get any decent high-resolution shots. I breathed in the moment.

I thought of Ragnar Lothbrok or Christopher Columbus presenting plans to sail west in search of new territory to the king. In contrast, here was a man with the ability to implement his own plan. An engineer, innovator and billionaire entrepreneur with a business model and technical designs to build the hardware for the most ambitious project ever proposed in the four-billion-year history of life on Earth: making humanity a multi-planetary species.

T-1: Team humanity

Today, Mars One is listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange at just over $400-million and in the wake of the visionary Mars One proposal, other companies including SpaceX, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, have also announced plans to send crewed missions to Mars in the next decade or so. And unlike the political muscle-flexing activity that was the space race of the 1960s, cooperation is the name of the game. SpaceX plans to land the first private cargo mission on Mars in partnership with NASA, and Mars One plans to outsource its technology to global leaders in the aerospace industry such as SpaceX and Lockheed Martin.

Retired chief technologist at NASA, Jim Adams, kicked off a panel discussion I participated in a few weeks ago in Johannesburg by stating his career highlight with NASA as having played a key role in landing the Curiosity Rover on Mars. This is a sophisticated laboratory roaming on the surface of a planet more than 200 million kilometres away, sending images and detailed information on what this world is like. In awe, I hoped to regain my speech in time to contribute to the discussion.  He believes that the competitive era of the space race is over. Whoever gets to Mars first, this will be a celebration of humanity in which each and every one of us will share.

Expanding our world off of Earth is the most ambitious project proposed in the 4 billion years of the evolution of life on Earth. It is only now that humanity has developed the technological capability to travel to and survive on Mars, and only through cooperation and collaboration that we can achieve this vision.

My ancestors were refugees who made the hazardous five-month trip from Europe to the southern tip of Africa in 1688 without any intention or means of return. Generations from now, I believe that there will be human Martians telling tales of the perilous one-way journey their ancestors made in the early 21st century from Earth. That’s what we do as humans, we shape tomorrow by what we’ve learned and by believing in our dreams.


Written by: Dr. Adriana Marais, Theoretical Physicist, Head of Innovation at SAP Africa and Aspiring Extraterrestrial

(originally published on 26 March 2017)