Dr Adriana Marais has been researching survival in harsh environments as a precursor to potential settlement on Mars. Here she is in a replica of the Soyuz Space Shuttle at the Cape Town Science Centre. Picture: Kate Shaw
Dr Adriana Marais has been researching survival in harsh environments as a precursor to potential settlement on Mars. Here she is in a replica of the Soyuz Space Shuttle at the Cape Town Science Centre. Picture: Kate Shaw

KZN’s ET still has eyes on Mars

By Tanya Waterworth Time of article published Sep 12, 2020

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Durban - Dr Adriana Marais describes herself as an aspiring extra-terrestrial.

The founder of Proudly Human and director at the Foundation for Space Development Africa, Marais has been researching survival in harsh environments as a precursor to potential settlement on Mars.

Having grown up in Pietermaritzburg, she is a theoretical physicist, with an MSc in quantum cryptography, a PhD in quantum biology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and is designing a blockchain-based resource management system towards her second PhD at UCT.

She is a member of the SA 4th Industrial Revolution Ministerial Task Team, and from 2017 to 2019 was head of innovation at German IT company SAP South Africa.

She is also a director at the Foundation for Space Development Africa.

Proudly Human is an organisation that runs the Off-World Project, focusing on a series of settlement experiments in the most extreme environments on the planet to “prepare for life on the Moon, Mars or beyond”. Its research also applies to resource-constrained communities on Earth.

Marais was one of the 100 astronaut candidates for the Mars One project which aimed to send humans to settle on Mars, but the project declared bankruptcy last year.

She has spent time in places like the Oman Desert and Antarctica for research on surviving harsh environments and, for the first three months of lockdown, Marais and animal behaviourist and survival expert, Kurdt Greenwood, built a cabin in the Tsitsikamma Forest.

“As humanity, we face the greatest challenges and opportunities, we have ever faced. Mars is within reach while on Earth, our life support system is under threat,” said Marais.

“Whether you are living under coronavirus quarantine, an informal settlement, an overcrowded city, or a base on Antarctica or Mars, basic human requirements are the same: safe shelter, reliable energy, clean water, nutritious food and, of course, communication capabilities. Setting up this kind of infrastructure in environments like Antarctica or Mars is challenging from a logistics and technology perspective.

“But technology is not the biggest hurdle to living in extreme environments, mindset is what ultimately determines success or failure. I took the opportunity during the lockdown to reflect. What do we need to be happy. Can we live with less?”

The cabin in the Tsitsikamma Forest that Dr Adriana Marais and animal behaviourist and survival expert, Kurt Greenwood, lived in.

Marais spent a lot of time travelling last year, “48 intercontinental flights and all continents to share with audiences around the world how we are ready to expand beyond Earth and how the voyage to Mars is a crucial part of becoming a more advanced and knowledgeable society.

“With all of the travel, hotels and event venues, I wanted to reconnect with nature. The Tsitsikamma forest region is a rich and ancient habitat, with evidence of early humans having lived here from as far back as 160 000 years ago.

“Kurt and I started building the cabin earlier this year. Our goal was to build a cheap, lightweight and liveable cabin in a short space of time in an inaccessible forest valley. Once the lockdown seemed imminent, we worked full time on the construction. It took us about 300 hours in total to build the cabin, including carrying around 2 tons of material down a 1km trail which descends 220m.

“Our materials included wooden poles and planks, cement and sheets of corrugated metal and plastic and cost us about R25 000. We finished as lockdown began on March 26,” she said.

“The sound of the river and rich forest smells became part of our psyche. Our daily challenges for power, water, food and communication, especially as winter set in, were time-consuming. But many people on Earth live in far more extreme and resource-constrained environments,” she said, adding they washed clothes in the river, composted their own toilet and had to climb a few trees to get better cellphone reception, as well as relying on car batteries to charge phones.

“In some sense, we have all been training for life in space during lockdown, experiencing the isolation, confinement and extremity of a new and challenging environment.”

Marais said the recent SpaceX-crewed launch to the International Space Station was “an important milestone to Mars”.

“SpaceX is a relative newcomer to the space industry, established in 2002 by South African-born Elon Musk, with the objective of getting humans to Mars. This is the first time a commercial spacecraft has launched humans into orbit, the first time the US has launched crew from home in nearly a decade. The evolving partnership with Nasa puts SpaceX in a good position to achieve their goal of making us a multiplanetary species by launching humans to Mars by 2030”.

The Proudly Human Off-World Project launched the Mars Habitat Installation at the Cape Town Science Centre.

Marais said this installation was the first step towards designing shelter and life support systems for the Off-World Project’s upcoming experiments in Antarctica, desert and under the ocean.

The Independent on Saturday

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