When American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon in 1969 and called it “one giant leap for mankind”, who knew we would talk about inhabiting Mars half a century later? South African Adriana Marais, a theoretical physicist and member of the Quantum Research Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, is one of 100 short-listed as part of the Mars One project, to set foot on Mars in 2025. She hopes to be a part of a permanent human settlement on the planet; man’s first step to becoming a multi-planetary species.
What comes to mind when you hear the words ‘outer space’?
I think of my ancestors, French Huguenots, who traveled for months by ship under perilous conditions to arrive as peasant farmers at the new Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope. I think of the first Europeans who settled in northern America. I think of the first African explorers who ventured north on foot and discovered Europe. This is what we have always done as humans, we observe, we dream, and we realize those dreams through our innate urge to explore and our ability to shape our environment to our purpose. Settling on Mars and extending our transportation systems to outer space will be unique only in that the distance is further than ever before. Quite a bit further.
If you were reborn, what would you choose to be?
As a child, I read a lot and dreamed of being an Egyptian queen, a Greek philosopher or a Viking warrior. However, I am now utterly convinced that we are witnessing a most unique era in the four billion years that life has been evolving on Earth. Unprecedented developments in science and technology have brought the expansion of our imaginations and our world further than ever before within reach… And I would not choose to be reborn as anyone or anything other than myself!
What is the most beautiful thing you have seen?
I feel grateful that my volunteering to establish the first human settlement on Mars has made me appreciate the beauty in everything I see around me, even more than before. The ‘busy-ness’ of Earth is unique and beautiful, the only planet we know of teeming with life, full of all the people we love who mean so much to us, all the animals we share our habitat with, all the plants with which we have been living side-by-side with for so many eras… the smell of the air through the changing seasons, the feeling of the wind, sea and sun on skin, the feeling of the ground beneath bare feet.
If women were allowed to run half the companies and countries in the world, what change would there be?
A range of studies show that team diversity is often correlated with better performance. The gravity and extent of the global challenges we face today will only be solved through the collaborative efforts of all human inhabitants of this planet.
What is your most valuable possession?
I place extreme value in a good night’s sleep! There will be strict weight limitations for early settlers on Mars. I am prepared to leave all of my material possessions behind. All I will take is information: the electronically-stored pixels, musical notes and words that constitute all of my books, music, photos, movies, writing, emails and letters; my bits of memories of Earth.
If you had 10 minutes to change the world, what would you do?
I think the days of our current economic model are numbered, but I don’t think hacking into and destroying all financial systems, even if it could be done in 10 minutes, would be the solution. I don’t believe any meaningful and productive change can be made in 10 minutes. You would be lucky to see some meaningful change in your lifetime.
I want the ideas I had to outlive the memory of me. If I can encourage people to be proudly human, to question and to dream, then my job here on Earth or beyond will be done.