The curious case of Dr Joseph Roche: an Irishman’s mission to Mars

23 Jul 2014

Dr Joseph Roche, research projects co-ordinator and education learning manager at the Science Gallery in Dublin

One of the speakers at this year’s Festival of Curiosity in Dublin, Dr Joseph Roche, is aiming to be one of the first humans to set foot on Mars in 10 years’ time.

Having first announced its plans in 2003, a Dutch non-profit group known as Mars One is attempting to achieve what the leading government space agencies of the world have failed to do, that is, making it actually possible to become an interplanetary species within the first half of the 21st century.

The obvious difference is that those making the trip a decade from now will not have originally been former fighter pilots but rather members of the public who would have trained from scratch and eventually become the stars of a scientific experiment and reality TV show based on what would be the greatest event ever to bestow mankind.

Roche, research projects co-ordinator and education learning manager at the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin (TCD), made a name for himself in Ireland as one of the final 705 candidates remaining from more than 200,000 across the world who could find themselves a part of the first four-person crew to take part in the Mars-bound programme and go down in history.

Having studied astrophysics for his bachelor’s degree and having been interested in the imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope as a child, the chance to work at US space agency NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in the US could be seen as the achievement of someone’s life dream, but it now seems this could potentially be broken if Roche is to make it through the tough selection process.

Concept image of the Mars One landing vehicle

There is one slight downside,however, that is, if he is selected, he will have to be prepared for the fact that he will never see the Earth again, as existing technology is only capable of getting spacecraft to the red planet. There is yet to be a way of getting a spacecraft to take off from Mars.

So is it really that simple to accept the notion that it will be a one-way trip? “I’ve thought a lot about it in the intervening period and my opinion on it hasn’t changed at all,” says Roche.

“It’s impossible to even comprehend all the things you’d miss back on Earth as no one has ever had to do it before but I think it becomes a bit more understandable if they think it’s something someone is passionate about.

“I know it sounds like a lot to give up but what you’ll be gaining as one of the first inter-planetary scientists is immense. Even if they called me right now and said there’s a taxi waiting outside, you need to go, I’d go in a heartbeat.”

Reality TV vs ‘reality’ TV

In June this year, Endemol, producers of the reality-TV show Big Brother signed a deal with the Mars One project to provide coverage of almost the entire process, from the training of astronauts to the actual mission itself.

While it provides much-needed funds for a multi-billion-dollar project, there does remain the fear that genuine science and discovery will be used as a vehicle for rather mundane or drama-based scenarios.

As a person fully immersed in the field of science and far removed from the entertainment business, Roche is obviously aware of people’s concerns but believes the plans in place are far removed from peoples’ worst fears.

“The reality aspect to it makes people think that it’s going to be like Big Brother on Mars but I think they’re looking at it in a different form of reality TV.

“Taking one example, the Olympic Games is an event that the world tunes in to watch and the recent 2012 Olympics raised between US$6bn-US$8bn in TV and sponsorship deals, which is exactly what the Mars mission would need … The training will be televised and that will be rigorous so they don’t need to add any elements for the public but they what they might give the public a say in is which team would go first, but not which astronauts would go, for as that’s too much of a risk.”

A concept image of what the the living quarters for the Mars One project would look like

Sustaining life on Mars

So how feasible is it for the first human beings to live on Mars? With almost zero atmosphere, any human on the planet’s surface, whether they are in a spacesuit or not, are being bombarded with potentially lethal doses of the sun’s radiation if they stay for more than four or five hours at any one time.

This means the habitat that houses the first crew will need to be protected by the construction of a bunker built underneath a thick layer of Martian soil.

According to Roche, for whomever is selected, the facility will have a considerable degree of self-sustenance, with hydroponic plants being grown in safe greenhouses and even potentially breeding insects to give the astronauts a regular source of protein.

However, this will only take them so far and the team will be left waiting for new teams to arrive from Earth every two to three years, which could prove worrying if, as a commercial venture, interest in the TV show wains over the years and finances begin to dry up.

This hasn’t made Roche change his mind set on the chance to go to Mars, either, but he does believe that while the future does appear to be heading more towards commercial enterprises, the work of government organisations, including NASA and the European Space Agency, is important.

“It’s why we’re in this position in the first place with Mars One doing things that the traditional space programmes wouldn’t be able to do. Sending a one-way human mission is so at odds with how they do things but the good thing about the (government) space programmes these days are the number of international collaborations.”

Curiosity isn’t just accepted but expected’

For now, Roche carries on with his busy life, trying to encourage the expansion of scientific knowledge for everyone. With the upcoming Festival of Curiosity, he sees the event as the best of its kind in Ireland.

“Throughout my scientific career I’ve been fascinated by the idea that science can inspire people and awaken that curiosity in people.

“That’s why I work at the Science Gallery and the Festival of Curiosity fits in so well with that field as we try to get everyone involved with science but also be OK with asking these questions and providing these events so that your curiosity isn’t just accepted, but expected, and the (public) should have these questions.”

Dr Joseph Roche will be speaking on 24 July with Dara Ó’Briain as part of Curious Science in the Mansion House, Dublin. Roche’s own talk about what he would expect to come across if he is selected to go to Mars is on 26 July at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. Both events are part of the Festival of Curiosity and tickets for both events have sold out.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic