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She’s a Star | Dr Adriana Marais

Since she was four years old, Dr Adriana Marais dreamt of being an astronaut “getting into a rocket and searching for far away planets”, and at age 14 she designed a city for Mars for a school project. So, it’s little wonder that the renowned South African physicist made the final 100 candidates to make the one-way mission with the Mars One Project to establish the first human settlement on Mars, to be partly funded by its future broadcasting as a reality TV show.


However, just days before our chat, news broke of Mars One’s bankruptcy, and Adriana’s reaction is surprisingly philosophical—just the kind of level-headed attitude that saw her make the final cut, no doubt.


“I don’t think that anyone can be too shocked at a bankrupt start-up, especially one as ambitious as this one. For those of us who have been involved since 2013, it’s a journey that has rarely been without controversy. But that’s to be expected for a private company not affiliated with governments or billionaires attempting space exploration.”


Mars One does say that on 6 March, there will be an announcement from a new investor, which, fingers crossed, means that the mission may not be grounded for good just yet. In the meantime, Adriana, who is also head of innovation at software giant SAP Africa, and director at the Foundation for Space Development South Africa, will lead an off-world settlement simulation experiment. For six months, straddling the winter of 2020, the Antarctic Research Community (ARC) will replicate ‘conditions of extreme isolation and in the harshest imaginable environments’ similar to those of Mars or the Moon.


“Not a lot of work has been done toward living off-world in terms of research, engineering or even the community aspect of it,” says Adriana. “Are there correlations between professional training, certain personality types and the kind of crew that can work well together in isolated, extreme conditions?”


Do you believe leaving Earth will become a necessity?

“Well, my real worry is that we get to the point where we have to leave. A much more desirable way would be to do it in the spirit of curiosity and exploration.”


Adriana says that while preparation should be intense and detailed, it’s important to remember the explorers of yesteryear headed for horizons unknown with very little, if any training. “Look at the Shackleton Expedition [to cross the Antarctic continent], not a single crew member died. That was a prime example of human endurance in the face of the most inhospitable of environments. Sometimes it is sheer determination that gets you there. That is exactly the kind of spirit we will take to Mars.”


Do you feel a pioneer for womankind, as well as humankind, and does the scientific community need to deal with issues around the recent women’s right movements?

“The Mars One project quite rightly put a 50/50 male-female ration in place. For our Antarctic expedition it will be the same. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I think that once you have such highly qualified people in place, in such environments, then I really can’t see there being any gender issues. On Mars, for instance, certainly in my lifetime, there won’t be any rearing of children, no Martians born, so I can’t see a problem. When you have to take time off work to look after a young baby, then it gets more complicated!”


Did you have any reservations about your voyage to Mars being a one-way trip?

“No. My first PhD took four years and I’m doing another one part-time, so it will likely take five years, so I’m no stranger to long-term investments. I think that it would be crazy to go and live on Mars for a couple of years and then come back. It wouldn’t be anywhere near enough time to invest in a future community. Even if the return trip was functional, I’m not sure I’d want to come back, Earth would seem like a very foreign place.”

Friends and family aside, Adriana admits should miss the busyness of her home planet: “But not the business! Money and a profit-driven society is something I won’t miss, and the lack of respect with which we treat life.” She hopes that when people witness just how difficult it is to establish and tend to life on Mars they will acquire a new-found appreciation for planet Earth “and all the life that it hosts”.


What do your friends and family think about the project?

“My parents were not at all surprised and have been extremely supportive. My father even wrote a book with a character based on me, and my mother has done some interviews saying that she would never stand in the way of her child’s dream. My friends all believe in me, and one of them is co-organising the Antarctic experiment.”


How do you feel about the reality TV aspect?

“To refer back to the Shackleton Expedition, that was partially funded by a National Geographic cameraman, so documentation and exploration have always gone hand in hand. With Mars One, I prefer to call it a documentary series. It’s a crucial part of achieving the goal, sharing our engineering feats, our research ideas and general life on Mars. The mission wouldn’t make a lot of sense without sending all that information back to Earth. The Antarctic project is funded by a production company, too.”


Among Dr Adriana Marais’s other Earthly achievements are a L’Oreal-UNESCO International Rising Talent Award (2015) and the Royal Society of South Africa Meiring Naude Medal (2016). Gongs and qualifications aside, I ask what attributes she considers most important to survive in otherworldly climes.


“People can say all sorts of things about how they imagine they will respond to certain scenarios, but it needs to be tested,” says the scientist. “People must be happy in a team of course, to share and delegate—or be delegated to—but they must also be comfortable being alone. There will be much time spent performing menial tasks in front of a computer, so having a research background is useful. There will be long hours of isolated work. Other things come down to personality, like being a good mediator, having a sense of enthusiasm, and a sense of humour.”


And as for Adriana’s extra-curricular skillset, she reveals being a bit of a karaoke queen and having trained as a cocktail bar tender while at university. “So,” she says, “perhaps I could set up a Mars bar!”


Photography Credit: Kat Grudko
Featured Image Credit: Kate Shaw