Mark Walton on going to Mars, CAR+ November 2015

Published: 01 October 2015

► Pack six car journalists off to Mars
► Nasa's HI-SEAS programme
► They should send six car journalists 

In preparation for an eventual manned mission to Mars, NASA has just locked six volunteers in a dome on a barren lava field in Hawaii. They’ll stay in this 11-metre-wide pod for a whole year, eating powdered cheese and probably drinking their own urine, to conduct ‘isolation experiments’. In other words, finding out if a real mission to Mars would end like a scene from a Halloween slasher movie. 

This is the fourth stage in a project called HI-SEAS – Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (awful name). The first two experiments lasted for four months, the third for eight months and now the guinea pigs are stuffed in the tent for a year. ‘I think one of the lessons is that you really can’t prevent interpersonal conflicts,’ a NASA spokesperson said, as the team entered the dome and they threw away the key. ‘It’s going to happen over these long-duration missions, even with the very best people.’

Hilariously, the project website reported: ‘The morning the crew entered the HI-SEAS dome, Carmel Johnston browsed a local music shop on a personal mission of her own. “I’m trying to find a ukulele so I can learn a new skill set while I’m in the dome,” said Johnston. “I’m wanting to learn some of the Hawaiian culture and learn a new skill that I think would be really neat to know for later on in life too.”’

So, there’s an ‘interpersonal conflict’ staring them all in the face from day one. 

Anyway, despite the potential ‘Smashed-Banjo-In-The-Chemical-Toilet’ debacle, NASA tries to pick complementary personalities so they all get on in their long isolation. After lots of interviews and psychological tests, the international team for this latest experiment includes an astrobiologist, a physicist, a soil scientist, an aerospace engineer, an architect, and… a journalist. Yes, a journalist. 

I bet he’s not a car journalist. 

In fact, ‘he’ is a she – Sheyna Gifford, a medical writer who contributes to NASA’s educational websites, with degrees in neuroscience, biotechnology, science journalism and medicine. Wow, she sounds interesting, like being trapped in a lift with John Simpson and that Brian Cox bloke from the telly. Generally speaking, journalists and writers lead diverse lives, and they have a wealth of anecdotes and insights they can share over that late-night powdered-cheese supper – lots of behind-the-scenes secrets and high-profile contacts they can gossip about. One glass of fermented urine and John Simpson would probably give you the President of Iran’s mobile number.

Car journalists, however, are not interesting people. Not unless all the other scientists around the table – the biologist, the physicist, the aerospace engineer – all happen to be Nissan Skyline drivers, or members of the Renault 16 Owners Club. Just as the conversation turned to the genome of micro-organisms, the car journalist would steer it back to Nürburgring lap times or oversteering the Ferrari 488. If you were a fly on the wall at the average car launch, there’d be the same three conversations going on, every time: there’d be a table of photographers talking about how they used to have a Canon then they switched to Nikon but they’ve recently gone back to Canon; there’d be a group of senior journalists on a table with a development engineer, talking about suspension and NVH; and there’d be a table of young road testers getting drunk and laughing about doing donuts in an M3 till all four tyres explode. No politics, current affairs, the arts or microbe genomes. 

The behind-the-scenes gossip is pretty one-dimensional too. Let me think… I was once told that a senior car executive was a cocaine fiend… and years ago I had an embarrassing interview with Mark Webber, which lasted for 30 minutes but I ran out of things to say in ten. Well… fancy that… (long pause). I imagine the scientists listening to my anecdotes in silence before one of them asks: ‘Who’s Mark Webber?’

There’s only one way it would work: if NASA made sure all six volunteers were car journalists, they’d all get on fine. Pack them off to Mars for three years, no problem. Mission Control would probably turn the sound off after a while, but the journalists themselves would never bore of the conversation. And within a week they’d be racing Mars Rovers round an improvised Baja track. 

By Mark Walton

Contributing editor, humorist, incurable enthusiast