DIY: How to plan an expedition to Mars
Tucked away in a little Mexican village in Baja near the Sea of Cortez, two seasoned explorers are chasing their most ambitious and risky expedition yet.
“It’s just us and a bunch of fishermen,” says Swedish-born American Tom Sjogren. “And we don’t even speak Spanish.”
This isolation is just what he and his wife, Tina, want. How else can they focus on building their own rocket ship from scratch?
Tom and Tina are unexpected players in the race for one of the next great prizes in space exploration: a manned mission to Mars. After all, they’re not scientists, nor are they billionaires. Unlike the other Mars-obsessed titans – NASA, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin – the Sjogrens plan to go “light” and “cheap.” Roughly speaking, they say they’ll be “about a hundred times lighter and cheaper than other Mars proposals.” Once there, they want to explore on foot, not colonise.
Their strategy for the Pythom Project, which began in 2006, is to apply what they’ve learned from venturing into inhospitable places here on Earth in a bid to make it to Mars. They skied unsupported to the South and North Poles, summited Everest, and sailed all the great oceans. They also founded the exploration news website ExplorersWeb and developed pioneering expedition technology. Now, with both of them aged 57 years old, they’ve hunkered down to learn all they can to make the roughly 34-million-mile journey to the red planet.
“Don’t underestimate the power of the little guy,” says Tina, who was born the former Czechoslovakia and is the first woman to complete the Three Poles Challenge (skiing both poles and climbing Everest). “If you look back at some of the expeditions to the colder parts of the Earth, the biggest teams were the most unlucky ones.”
Still, we had to find out NASA’s take on this rogue space operation.
“Sure, they’re adventurous,” says Mike Paul Hughes, who’s the Deputy Project Manager at ASPIRE, and has worked in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “They probably don’t know the risks. But it’s not nutty. It’s a dream many share.”
We caught up with Tom and Tina at their beach outpost, where they’re busy programming and designing their lander and engine prototype.
THE RED BULLETIN: Which of your adventures on planet Earth have prepared you to go to Mars?
TINA: All of our adventures have contributed, but the one that would be most useful is actually our North Pole expedition, because keeping the weight of our gear light was so incredibly important for us.
It was basically considered impossible for girls to make it, unsupported, to the North Pole in 2002, because we were considered to be too small, too light, to pull the weight that you needed to get you to the North Pole. We had to bring down the weight as much as we could, really cutting corners.
This is exactly our approach for Mars, too. We’ll do it much differently from NASA and Elon Musk. The key that unlocks the possibility of us going is actually weight.
You say you’ve ticked off everything on your adventure bucket list. But still, why Mars?
TOM: We’re not specifically interested in Mars. It just happened to be the next logical step. It’s the next highest mountain for us.
You’re not scientists or engineers. How do you even know where to start to build a rocket?
TINA: There are wonderful opportunities to learn what we need to know on the internet, which wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago. We also use shared labs and 3D printers that weren’t previously available.
TOM: We’re doing it all ourselves. We’re doing all the drawings, all the calculations, all the work with the mechanics, all the mathematics and all the engineering.
What are some of the things you had to learn in order to build your own rocket?
TOM: Mathematics, physics, cad/cam, 3D printing, orbital mechanics, programming, electronics, algorithms, surviving independently in all kinds of extremes, and getting tech to work in those situations. We learn what we need to know for the project.
How are you physically training for this experience?
TINA: We keep hearing that if we spend too much time in space, our bones are going to get brittle. Or we’re going to be zapped by killer radiation out there and come back fried. All we can say to this is, “Let’s see what happens.”
The best thing you can do is really stay in top physical shape. In Baja, we run a lot on the beach. In a month, we’re going back to the Sierras and it’s going to be wonderful spring skiing. We’ll climb up the peaks and ski down them.
When you get to Mars, you want to walk around and even climb volcanoes. Why and how?
TOM: We’re not scientists, so this isn’t our occupation. What drives us, truly, is curiosity. Of course, we want to turn every stone and look around. Is there a hidden ocean? What’s in that hidden ocean?
Mars has a very spectacular geography and a very thin, very short, atmosphere. It has a lot of really steep walls and volcanoes. We’ll land deep down in a valley, like all of the rovers and all the other landers before us, but then we’ll basically strap on our backpacks and start exploring.
Do you think being married gives you an advantage in overcoming all the challenges?
TOM: Our marriage has been very special. We’ve done everything together. We’ve failed on expeditions and we’ve succeeded on expeditions. We’ve had our fights, and some big fights on expeditions, and we learned how to not fight when we’re on expeditions. We have many years of teaching ourselves, and practising, how to actually be a super-good team.
So planning for Mars has actually been a good thing for your marriage?
TINA: It’s been amazing. I joked with Tom today that we have a quantum gravity marriage right now.
Tom is doing a lot of coding right now, so he’s doing the quantum part, the information part, and I’m right here working a lot with the hardware, the surfaces, in my CAD design, so I’m kind of the gravity guy here, the Einstein. We compare notes on our lunch breaks. One of the best recipes for a happy marriage, for us, has been to keep it interesting.
If someone beats you to Mars, what will you do?
TOM: We don’t have a problem with that. It’s not about just Mars. Maybe we’ll go to Saturn instead. We’re completely fine if someone else wants to go and share resources – we’re very much open to that. Being first isn’t important to us and it never has been. It’s about doing amazing stuff.
TINA: The universe is so big. It has a first for everyone.
You must be tired of hearing, “Those two are crazy!” How do you deal with skeptics?
TOM: Our project is starting to become more and more believable for us, as we get down into the facts of everything. But it’s not a believable project for most people in the space industry. We can understand that.
TINA: That’s why we have to keep doing our thing, and then let destiny decide whether this is going to be feasible. For us, we’re already winners because we have a purpose in life.
Is this dream worth risking everything for?
TOM: The day we actually have humans going to a different planet – that’s a huge thing – I’d say it’s worth a hundred percent risk. If we’d looked at risk in the 1960s the way we do today, we’d never have gone to the moon.
TINA: If me and Tom had been risk averse, we wouldn’t have climbed Mount Everest. We wouldn’t have skied to the South Pole, to the North Pole, or sailed across the ocean. This dream that we have right now would never have been born.