Singaporean still in running for project to colonise Mars in 2024

Mr Robinson Law has his sights set on Mars: "I can leave everything behind. I love my children very much, but I think they will support me as I take on this risky job."
Mr Robinson Law has his sights set on Mars: "I can leave everything behind. I love my children very much, but I think they will support me as I take on this risky job."ST PHOTO: DESMOND LUI

Electrical engineer Robinson Law, who currently resides in Sembawang, is hoping to move to a new address - Mars.

The 54-year-old is the only Singaporean left in the running for, as unlikely as it sounds, a multibillion-dollar project to colonise the red planet.

He is among 1,058 people, whittled down from more than 200,000 volunteers by Dutch non-profit foundation Mars One, to remain in the hunt for a seat on a one-way space voyage scheduled for 2024.

The unusual venture, led by a pair of Dutchmen - wind energy entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp and European Space Agency researcher Arno Wielders - aims to be the first to not just land humans on the fourth planet from the Sun, but to set up a permanent colony there.

The project's technical and financial viability has drawn scepticism and criticism from the scientific fraternity. After all, dozens of unmanned spacecraft have been sent to study Mars since the 1960s, but no country has ever attempted sending humans.

Mr Law's identity itself was the subject of online speculation when he applied for the Mars One project last April using just his first name. Two others from Singapore who applied fell short of Mars One's criteria, which vaguely include the need to have traits such as "curiosity" and "resiliency".

Mr Law is a father of three with a penchant for extreme sports. He was born in Penang, moved to Singapore in 1987 when offered a job with a small Japanese engineering firm, got married the year after and has been working for American firm Agilent Technologies and then its local start-up, Avago Technologies, for 13 years.

Like many, he was initially sceptical about the Mars project. But his doubts were dispelled when Mars One hired aerospace giant Lockheed Martin last December to build its Mars lander. The American firm was also involved in building Nasa's Phoenix lander that explored part of Mars in 2008.

Mr Law said he will be 64 and home alone by the launch date, and sees little to keep him on Earth. His wife died in 2011, and he expects that his sons, now aged 24 and 21, and his 16-year-old daughter will have moved out of the family's Housing Board flat by then.

"I can leave everything behind. I love my children very much, but I think they will support me as I take on this risky job," he said.

This streak of insatiable exploring runs deep in the otherwise unassuming and jovial man. He skis, bungee jumps, dives, unicycles, runs marathons and travels widely, including to the Mojave Desert and Death Valley in the United States.

He said he expects his good health to give him longevity, and sees the chance to live out his golden years by "contributing to humankind" as an engineer on Mars as ideal.

"I can still contribute 20 years of my life (on Mars). Different people have different aspirations - this is meaningful to me," he said.

As a nine-year-old in 1969, he saw the Apollo 11 moon landings live on television. Ever since then, he has harboured a dream to travel in space.

Mr Law's next step is to submit a doctor's report by March 8 proving he is healthy, which may determine whether he progresses to the next round.

Mars One did not respond directly to media queries, instead referring The Sunday Times to its press releases and website.

Mr Law admits his friends do not think he is serious. "They told me: 'Don't forget us when you get up there. We'll send you a hamper by rocket!'"

But eldest son Yi Zhuan, a National University of Singapore undergraduate, does not think his dad is being foolish. Instead, he supports his "fearless" father's space pursuit, which may be a way to fill the void left by his late wife, Shereen Tan.

"We will all die one day, so it's important for us to pursue our dreams even if it might cost us our lives."

davidee@sph.com.sg


THE $38B MARS DREAM

Dutch non-profit foundation Mars One wants to establish a human settlement on Mars as "a stepping stone of the human race on its voyage into the universe".

It is pressing ahead with plans announced last April despite its naysayers. In January, former German engineer and astronaut Ulrich Walter, who has spent nearly 10 days in space, said the odds of reaching Mars alive were just 30 per cent, making the attempt unethical.

Mars One estimates on its website that it would cost US$30 billion (S$38 billion) to set up and train a colony of 24 settlers. It aims to raise the sum partly by selling television rights to broadcast the entire mission.

The colonists are to be selected by a global audience, with groups of four departing for Mars every two years.

The 1,058 shortlisted candidates, who must be 18 or older and be "intelligent, creative, psychologically stable and physically healthy", include 297 Americans, 22 Chinese, five Japanese, one Singaporean and one Malaysian.

They have each been asked to submit a doctor's report by March 8 certifying their health. Mars One says each applicant will then be interviewed by a selection panel.

A number of crew will be given extensive full-time training from next year to 2024 in remote outposts on Earth to learn to withstand solitude, cultivate food, repair habitats and learn critical medical procedures. At least one astronaut will be trained in the geology of Mars, a barren planet prone to dust storms with an atmosphere of poisonous carbon dioxide and temperatures rarely above zero.

Because of their different orbits around the Sun, Mars' average distance from Earth is 225 million km, with the closest being 56 million km. It would take a spacecraft seven months to fly there, according to Mars One.

It plans to equip the colony with solar panels, devices to produce oxygen and water, and greenhouses for crops. Settlers would undertake research and have books and television for entertainment.

David Ee