The other day I read an article talking about To boldly Go: A One-Way Human Mission to Mars, a paper recently published in the Journal of Cosmology. As its title suggests, it's about sending one-way missions to Mars. The idea of the one-way mission is in direct opposition to the implicit assumption by NASA that anyone sent out comes back.
Think about it. What if, this paper proposes, people who went to Mars expected to stay there? What if we thought of colonizing Mars like our ancestors thought about colonizing the New World (aka North America), where the colonists went to the new frontier and stayed there?
This idea makes perfect sense to me. There would be substantial cost savings in not carrying return fuel and having to rehabilitate the colonists upon their return to our planet if they didn't come back. Having the colonists stay on Mars would also mean that they could establish a permanent base of operations for future space exploration.
Of course I've always thought of space exploration as a one-way trip because of the distances involved. I know that not everyone thinks that way and so such a project would require a substantial shift in thinking. The authors of the paper do list some criteria for choosing colonists: they should be past their reproductive years and with a life expectancy of 20 years or less.
However, even with these selection criteria, I think it's unlikely that the US government or NASA would construct a one-way mission to Mars. It costs money to mount any kind of mission to Mars and with NASA's funding in doubt, I doubt that they're going to jump at the possibility to go there. The US has rested on its laurels of going to the moon and the space station without seriously considering anything new, space-wise. It seems that they've lost their drive to go into space.
At this point, space exploration is firmly in the hands of private, very wealthy individuals and other countries like China and India. These countries and people have the money and the desire to explore this "final frontier", especially if the missions are one-way. In fact, one-way missions make the possibility of colonizing Mars feasible. The hardest part would be finding volunteers for such a mission, but I can imagine that there are many, many people who would volunteer to go. I would. I ache to be able to go but even if I didn't have cancer, I don't have any of the skills that permanent colonists would need.
Going to Mars feels like a tantalizingly close possibility. I hope it happens in my lifetime.