Mangal maya: Why some Indians want to go to Mars (and never come back)

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Mangal maya: Why some Indians want to go to Mars (and never come back)

Post  Nilesh Patel on Mon Sep 09, 2013 6:36 pm

Going to the moon, says Amulya Nidhi Rastogi, 20, was just showing off, and not much more — even if it was a fantastically expensive exercise. "But I couldn't understand why we just went and planted a flag. I asked my father, 'Shouldn't we have done more?' Maybe built a base there, set up a colony, a stepping stone to even more distant worlds?"

It's perhaps this desire that made the Gurgaon-based third-year student of mechanical engineering sign up for the Mars One Mission, which aims to establish a human colony of sorts on the red planet by the year 2023. But this is a one-way trip, with no plans of getting these spacefarers back to Earth, yet 8,000 Indians — the fourth largest bloc after the Americans, the Chinese and the Brazilians — have applied. Desi aspirants are mostly male and include lots of software engineers, a psychiatrist, a cardiologist, a chartered accountant and call centre executives. Vinod Kotiya is among this lot. The 32-year-old manager with NTPC is married with a one-year-old daughter. But that didn't stop him from applying to the mission on the very day the Mars One website began accepting applications. That early start had Kotiya climbing up to number three on the popularity charts — visitors to the website are asked to vote for the applicants — which also saw Vinod getting a very cold shoulder back home. When he first b ro ke t h e news to his wife, Priyanka, she threatened to lie down in front of the rocket and not let it take off. But Priyanka is somewhat more accepting of the move now. Vinod says that like a sensible Indian wife she has come to the conclusion that he will not make the cut and that, therefore, she has nothing to worry about.

None of this sounds very new, says Radhika Chopra, who teaches sociology at Delhi University . "Remember," she says, "when you look at the history of trans-national migration out of India, there has never been any certainty that those migrants will come back." Of course, says Chopra , most Indians who have left the motherland have also stayed connected — either by getting brides shipped over or by various other means. Something similar, like a 'Mars social network' , will happen here too.

Kotiya thinks so too. And while there are no current plans for a return journey — Mars One says that is because the technology to take off from Mars and return to earth does not exist as yet, and that coming back will mean a very large increase in travel costs — that could change in the nine years still left for that first rocket to take off. Kotiya hopes his young daughter Vaniya , who'd be about 10 by then, could look to join him later on Mars. "I have to go. The answers to the secrets of the universe will not be found here," he says.

Others offer more prosaic reasons for wanting to go to Mars. Mumbai-based Sameer Kumar Lowe, a former radar engineer with the Air Force who now works on metro and mono rail projects, says that his wife and son are dead set against him going, but that he's hoping for a salary and pension from the people putting together the Mars One Mission. (A bulk of the funds for the Mars One Mission will come from turning the selection process into a reality television show. The company's CEO estimates that the first mission will cost about $6 billion.)

Lowe says he has been frustrated by the fact that he hasn't been able to build a house as yet, and that a salary and a pension would make his wife and son — who's also an engineer, but is still looking for work — "financially secure" . Of course, he adds with a laugh, the fame that comes with being the first human on Mars will not hurt. The "fifty-something", as he describes himself, also stresses that he'll train to keep himself "pretty fit" for the mission.

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