To Mars! (but one-way only)

Why Wim Dijkshoorn wants to join the 2024 mission

by Frank Provoost

Anthropology student Wim Dijks­hoorn is among the final 1,058 candidates for the Mars One expedition. If he goes, he’ll be gone for good.

Look at it this way: his life can proceed along one of two paths. On one path, Wim Dijkshoorn (20) is an anthropology student in Nijmegen who loves South Asia and is completely enthralled by his course. Now in his third year, he has just finished a semester of electives at Leiden University and still gets up at six every Friday to travel from his student digs on the outskirts of Nijmegen to Leiden in time for his last lectures on Hindi.

He has pasted the alphabet to walls of his tiny room; each letter fills an A4 sheet. He is already quite fluent, speaking in long sentences – but he needs to be: in two months, he will be in India doing fieldwork. After all, if he wants a job as an anthropologist, he should study the subject matter thoroughly.

Then there’s the other path.

On that path, Wim Dijkshoorn is an astronaut – one who wants to travel to Mars. And just to be clear: it’s a one-way trip. If he goes, he’ll be gone for good.

It all started years ago when, perched on the couch next to his mother, reading one of his father’s many technical journals, he read an article on Mars One. This foundation was set up by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp who wants to organise an expedition to the Red Planet. Wim even remembers telling his mother that he would send him an email, and that she replied that he certainly wouldn’t and that he was mad.

He was not the only person to respond: more than two hundred thousand candidates applied for one of the 24 to 40 places. The first capsule with four people is scheduled to leave in 2024 and will be followed by another four every two years.

Just like the rest of the applicants, he submitted a one-minute film about himself, filled in a long questionnaire and sent a motivation letter. They wanted to know how well he copes with stress, for example. Hmm, what could he – at twenty – say about that?

Before he went to university, he worked on development projects in India and Sierra Leone. If you have never travelled beyond Europe, it can be a culture shock.

What about the time when they suddenly asked him to be the president of his fraternity, although he was only a freshman? On an educational trip to Istanbul, two of the forty students had to be hospitalised immediately: one of them had a nervous breakdown and just collapsed in the street. Well, you have to keep calm and carry on.

But that’s nothing compared to what he has read about psychological tests for astronauts. They put you in a completely darkened sphere without telling you when you can come out. And he has no idea whether he could cope with such hardships.

But they’re getting nearer. Last month, he heard the good news: he and one other Dutchman were among the final selection of 1,058. And he’s just completed the last stage by posting a report of his medical examination. He should hear whether he will be invited to an interview in April.

People have responded quite strongly to his decision and he’s grown accustomed to defending it. He doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but it can be difficult at times. People find it very disturbing that he can leave everything behind and responses, particularly on the Internet, can be savage – he’s naive, and that’s one of the polite ones. A friend called him in a state of shock, an aunt is inconsolable. His friends tease him and call him ‘The Martian” but even so, they say: “We think of you as a friend, isn’t it mutual?” and that’s hard to take.

His parents have a critical attitude towards the project but he has their support, although they only partly understand his decision. To other people, they say “It’s still ten years away”. Wanting to go to Mars doesn’t mean he doesn’t love them. In his view, life is all about discovery. And however selfish it might sound: if a challenge like this comes along, where you can learn so much, you have to put yourself first. That’s why he’s prepared to leave life on Earth. When he was younger, he never wanted to join groups – not that he was bullied, he just went his own way. He chooses his own path, taking one step at a time.

He often ponders about it. What will the quality of life be out there? The journey will take at least seven months and they would have to live in small capsules on Mars. The temperature can drop to 73 below and they would need to wear suits to protect them from harmful radiation, so they wouldn’t be able to move freely. The construction of domes across some of the larger craters to create habitats can only be attempted once several groups have arrived.

Once at least forty people have arrived, they will consider reproduction to maintain the Martian population. But nobody knows what sex in space is like. Nonetheless, the stringent selection process means that perfect teams will be formed, almost like families. The participants have been selected for their passion for the project and their capacity to work with others, so it might be easy to love one another. But he will have to wait and see whether the love of his life among them.

Moreover, the effect of gravity (on Mars, its force is a third of that on earth) on the growth of unborn children is still uncertain. For that matter, they still need to find out how bad radiation on the outward journey will be, and whether the astronauts can be protected against it. Otherwise, they’ll have cancer before they arrive.

Some participants – they meet online in a private community on Facebook – tend to blow the mission up to mythical proportions. They really believe they are the saviours of mankind: when Earth is destroyed, Mars will be our only solution. They will build Utopia. It is a very wrong and very dangerous way of thinking. He wants to shout: Utopia does not exist. He is not a Messiah. The question of whether they can build a colony is reason enough to try.

But it will be very, very, slow going. They will have to live like monks, exploring the area, keeping everything in working order.

There will be long periods of boredom in which it will be difficult to remember their goal – to create a community. To build a close-knit team, they will need people from completely different backgrounds, which is why he insists that social scientists take part. Of course, the mission will produce fascinating technological discoveries, but for him, the sociological and societal discoveries are just as important. What will it mean for humans?

He is very down-to-earth. Only yesterday, he went out for a few beers with his friends, watched the footy, played FiFa on the Xbox. Then he had to work at a party till six in the morning; in short, he’s just an average lad.

Nonetheless, since he applied for a place, he’s noticed that he sometimes enjoys the simplest of things: a walk in the fresh air. There won’t be any fresh air on Mars and that’s something he will definitely miss.

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