UK United Kingdom

Pensioners to go to Mars – why the old ones are the best

Tourist “astronaut” millionaire Dennis Tito wants to send an “older couple” to Mars. Would this be a stunt by an enthusiast or a meaningful breakthrough in space exploration? Being elderly myself, I have…

Is sending “oldies” to Mars an acceptable sacrifice – or a case of “voluntary euthanasia”?

Tourist “astronaut” millionaire Dennis Tito wants to send an “older couple” to Mars. Would this be a stunt by an enthusiast or a meaningful breakthrough in space exploration?

Being elderly myself, I have an informed view. Older for Tito apparently means infertile, or at least beyond wishing to have children. Of course most men remain fertile until they die, as Charlie Chaplin proved. So, conceivably (no pun intended) we are thinking about men and women beyond “a certain age” – let’s say 50.

Dennis Tito. Wikimedia Commons

Apart from the psychological issues it is difficult to shield astronauts from damaging cosmic radiation on the long trip, but oldies can be sacrificed because we have little to lose. Think of it as voluntary euthanasia – if the worst happened it would be a spectacular way to go.

Implicit in the proposal is that the couple be heterosexual, perhaps so they would be representative of most of humankind.

The idea is to find two people who could tolerate each other for 501 days inside a sardine can. If they survived, maybe we could conclude that younger explorers would have an even better chance. On the other hand, youngsters tend to be more argumentative.

They would have to occupy themselves somehow. How about some very fine needlework while listening to audio versions of those books they always wanted to read? Picture your grandparents. Blogging with the kids might be popular.


Serious astronaut John Glenn flew to the International Space Station when he was 77. So it can be done. But what’s the point?

The point is that it would be inspirational, much like Columbus “discovering” America, or Cook’s great voyages. It could be the demonstration needed to break the pragmatic roadblock to sending astronauts to Mars.

Not that this old couple would land on Mars. According to the Tito concept they would fly there, take a spin around the planet and fly home. The round trip would take only 501 days if the launch were in the favourable window in 2018 when the planets are suitably aligned.

All great fun - but the serious issue is, why send astronauts to Mars at all? Here we are on firmer ground. We know that robotic missions can be spectacularly successful, witness Spirit and Opportunity, and now Curiosity, but who can forget the moon landings.

NASA going to the moon might really have been about the Cold War, not exploration and science, but it was inspirational. The images are unforgettable. Think about the Earth-rise over the moon, and ultimately the recognition of the fragility of our planet.

Earth as viewed from Lunar orbit during the Apollo 8 mission, Christmas Eve, 1968. NASA

Also, remember that the former Soviet Union got to the moon first, with a robotic mission, but that largely has been forgotten. It lacked the magic of “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”.

However, there is a huge cost. To escape the gravity “well” of Earth costs tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram.

Mars is a great laboratory that is teaching us about the early history of the solar system, still preserved there because of the geologically inert nature of that planet. And it may harbour a second sample of life.

There can be no greater quest than searching for a second origin of life: should we find it on Mars we will know that the universe is pregnant with life.

Some propose another motive, but it is nonsense. These people think of Mars as a refuge to which we will escape after we have destroyed the environment of Earth. What a nonsensical idea. We would just proceed to destroy the environment of Mars.

Exploration is a human imperative. No matter what pragmatists insist, the dreamers will win. Dennis Tito’s mission, should it happen, could prove to be a catalyst.

In any event, there will be people on Mars before the end of this century. It will not happen soon, but it will happen.

I acknowledge discussions with my colleagues, students, and friends.

Join the conversation

14 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a


    So a Mars bar for the young ones.

    Frankly my dear, who gives a toss.

    So we learn a thing or two about the universe. Its never going to answer the ultimate questions, god knows.

    So we tinker, albeit with great, great minds (for humans), pondering the the milky way.
    Its no picnic I can tell you.

    I mean the whole thing started with a big bang...................before that zilch. hmmm!
    Something from nothing, makes a change from today's credo for the modern world - something for nothing.

    I may be a flake, but there's something we don't know and probably never will.

  2. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    Perhaps the proposed space vehicle should have a kind of annex attached that could approximate a 'shed' for the man to retreat to. This would assist in keeping the relationship stable over that period of time.

    1. Mark Amey

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Perhaps a broken mower or whipper snipper to work on?

  3. Gus Scheerbaum

    logged in via Facebook

    Some people who propose going to Mars and to one day settle Mars do *not* propose doing so as a refuge for after people have destroyed earth's environment. The alternative motive is that many people believe having insurance is a good idea. If we believe having car, health, home-owners, and other insurances are beneficial, why would we not also believe having something like "civilization insurance" is also a good idea - especially in light of the fact that there was a very close call with a meteor…

    Read more
    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Gus Scheerbaum

      Hi Gus

      or to put it another way - another planet to ultimately destroy.

      If there is life on Mars, let's hope they are ready for the "boat people".

  4. ernest malley


    I'd happily take a one-way ticket - the resources that would be needed to return could be used to set up a habitat on the surface which could be added to by replacement oldies.

  5. Dale Bloom


    The inability of the young heterosexual or homosexual couples to get along, could be the result of nightly watching TV dramas such as Summer Bay, where it is mandatory to throw hissy fits at every opportunity.

    But there is a fundamental problem with the colonisation of other planets, which is the necessity to carry enough fuel to get to the planet, land on the planet, and then be able to take off again and get back to Earth.

    From what I have read (and I may be wrong) there will not be enough fuel to get to Mars, land on Mars, and then be able to take off again and get back to Earth.

  6. Ron Chinchen
    Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    Could you send me my ticket. A one way trip to Mars. I could live and die with that.

    Lighter gravity, no crowded supermarkets. Drive on an open road without a chance of a bingle with another vehicle, Biggest beach location in the Solar System. Yep send me quick before I get too old to see it.

  7. Marion Wilson


    Old Age Pensioners should be sent to Mars rather than young people. They are easier to catch and wont be able to remember the way back. Aging population solved!

    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Marion Wilson

      Hi marion

      LOL.........24 hour bingo and an all you can eat buffet..................and Mars could be heaven on Mars.

  8. Peter Yard

    Software Developer / Technnical Writer

    Oldest to Mars? Yes, of course. They have the least to lose. I regard this mission as close to a suicide mission, even if it is successful. There will be lots of radiation, potential critical hardware failures, and no rescue. People who have the least number of replicating cells will be best dealing with the rads. Also this is a situation where being a bit set in your ways will be an advantage, the travel time will be very boring. Also remember this flight is only a flyby ... all the way there only to watch Mars go past outside the window.

  9. bill parker


    Well I belong to the Old's Cool department and I cannot think of anything more daft to waste money on. I never heard of Dennis Tito before, but I do hope he considers doing something more useful with his money.

  10. Roma Guerin


    What a shame Douglas Adams is not here, he could have written a follow up to So Long & Thanks For All The Fish.