Life on Mars

Watching Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s video cover of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, I start to understand why people want to explore other worlds. The images are beautiful, right down to the facial expressions of Hadfield himself as he gazes at the stars, the Earth and at us. Then I read that a Dutch company is planning a one-way mission to Mars within a decade, selecting astronauts from online video applicants. Just imagine.

Hadfield recorded his voice and guitar during five months as Commander of the International Space Station. He posted the video from space, after piano was added on Earth by Canadian musician Emm Gryner. Production, also on Earth, was done by Hadfield’s son Evan and others. In the clip, you watch Hadfield float around with the space station guitar – he took new strings for it when he left Earth – as the world goes by, literally. He is so present in that strange weightless environment; it’s more like you’re at an intimate concert than watching something beamed back. Bowie himself calls it poignant.

From the video and from his many posts back to Earth during his tenure in space, you get a sense of Hadfield as someone who hasn’t lost the capacity to wonder. As a nine year old growing up in Ontario, he watched that iconic small step for man in 1969 and decided to be an astronaut. Having trained his entire adult life, he’s been in space three times. Now, it would seem, many want to follow him. 

Mars One, the company offering the one-way tickets to Mars, has already received 80,000 online applications for its astronaut positions. The plan is this. Following unmanned missions to find a place to settle and drop off life support units, in 2023 the first group of four will complete the seven-month flight from Earth. Every two years after that, another group will join the settlement. The Mars One plan is simpler than any so far because, unlike Hadfield and his colleagues, none of the Mars One astronauts is coming home. They’ll “spend the rest of their lives on Mars” the promotional video says. 

I watched two dozen of the online applications. They leaned towards science and engineering, but there was also a police officer, an ex-fighter pilot and a philosopher. Some are young, some old, many are students, and they’re from all over the world. They mostly mentioned exploration, adventure, the new frontier. Few said they were applying to escape something on Earth. There were only 20 from Australia at time of writing, led by Josh Richards, 27, an engineer who studied applied physics and now works as a standup comic in Western Australia. Josh applied on the first day, he told me on the phone, and is now Mars One’s Australian ambassador. “Imagine people looking up from Earth and knowing we’re now an interplanetary species,” he said. I asked Josh how his family feels about him going to Mars. “My mum is genuinely horrified, and I think my dad might be in denial.”

In his final postings before leaving the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield, husband, father of three and the first human to do so many things, including make a music video from space, posted a picture of the moon rising over what looks like the top of the world. It’s soft and eerie and beautiful, and “a constant reminder to us all of what can be achieved,” he wrote. Then a shot of the sky with clouds, “a white bird on a Black Sea,” and, just before he boarded the capsule that brought him home, the sun cracking the cold horizon. “To some this may look like a sunset. But it’s a new dawn.” People are dreaming of going to Mars and an astronaut sings Bowie in space. I am in awe. 


First published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  on 1 June 2013. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!