A Ticket to Mars

Egypt’s first potential astronaut, is one of 100 remaining candidates for 24 spaces on a one-way trip to Mars in 2026,

and the only Egyptian. The Dutch ‘Mars One’ project is the first attempt to start a permanent extra-terrestrial human colony. I sat down with him to discuss all things Mars, the latest NASA revelations, the movie ‘The Martian’, and the journey of a lifetime.


It is an exciting time to be talking about Mars? Even NASA wants to man a spaceship to the Red Planet soon. Why now?


Mohammed Sallam: NASA has always talked, but never acted on this matter. After the lunar landing it was determined that Mars would be the next step. They keep on delaying the endeavour for two reasons: firstly, it’s a governmental organization and there is no political incentive for that mission.

Secondly, the mission cannot guarantee for the astronauts to return to Earth safely. They have a project called ‘Mission to Mars’, which they definitely have the technology for since the 90s. However, NASA doesn’t function that way.


How is Mars One’s plan different from NASA’s?


They want to bring the astronauts back. At Mars One, we don’t. Also, to become a NASA astronaut, you need a couple of PhDs, which of course takes time to acquire. By the time a NASA astronaut would qualify for the mission, then train, they would be too old to go. Besides, I don’t see why we would come back. NASA wants to stay for about three years. After three years Mars has become home, so why would I want to go? There’s so much to discover.


How do you think the movie The Martian captured the experience?


The terrain is very accurate; it looks a lot like Mars. The movie starts when the crew is already on the planet so we learn little about the challenging journey. There is a time in the spacecraft where you lose sight of Earth but can’t see Mars yet which is a scenario we can’t predict. We could never simulate what that would feel like. But the film did a very good job at creating a picture of what life on Mars would be like.


Is Mars One’s spaceship going to look anything like it does in the movie?


No, that spaceship was gigantic like the Titanic. That is certainly not what our spaceship would look like.We don’t need that space. We do have a gym, though, because an astronaut will have to work out all the time if they want to ever return to the gravity of Earth. In space, you lose all your muscles. In the movie, the protagonist uses complicated procedures to make drinking water.


NASA recently confirmed they found water on Mars. Does that change a potential mission?


It didn’t change the mission at all. The water that has been found must have very high levels of salt to be flowing because Mars is too cold to have liquid drinking water. The easiest way to get water on Mars would be to “bake soil”; extracting oxygen to breathe for us and water to drink. That will take at least an hour of our time every day.


So the NASA discoveries don’t change the way you approach your mission?


NASA actually discovered water on Mars a long time ago, but in order to stay relevant they sometimes keep their discoveries away from the public to find the right time to reveal it. And now, for the first time, you have private companies which are trying to contend with NASA. The Curiosity Rover makes amazing discoveries every day, and we are fed the results in a timely fashion. But none of the discoveries can compare to what we can find out if we actually had people on Mars.


Could you as a crew, similar to the crew in the movie, make your own unilateral decision to stay in space and do your own thing if you wanted?


To be honest, once the spaceship takes off, all plans could easily be abandoned. The spaceship flies by itself, nobody steers it. The fuel is used to get out of Earth’s atmosphere and maybe some for course correction, but there is, in theory, nothing that is guaranteed. However, there is no such thing as steering a spaceship; it is a matter of complicated physics that make sure you move through space and into another atmosphere. But nobody would want to do that.


How much would an emergency or unplanned incident on a mars mission mean certain death for you and your crew?


That would be a big deal. There are natural disasters like the one in the movie, but that would probably not be a problem because they are not very strong. Losing connection to Earth or having a transmitter damaged, however, would be dangerous which is why we learn in training how to fix those things ourselves. It is really just like military training. In war, this could happen to a soldier in the desert which would be very dangerous as well. Contact to Earth is completely essential even if we have built a working habitat.


But why do you need Earth if you successfully live on Mars?


We are not going to Mars to simply colonize it; we want to learn more so we can find solutions for earthly problems. I love my planet; my planet is Earth, not Mars. If I go to Mars it is to find solutions on how to solve our problems on Earth. We are not going to learn about our solar system if we just look at one planet, and so we have to go to Mars to explore.


Sina Stieding a German-born, Egyptian-based journalist, and Assistant Editor of Maadi Messenger.

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