Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Dartmouth Engineering Alum Competes for One-Way Trip to Mars

By Anna Fiorentino
May 2014 • Thayer By Degrees: BE

Dartmouth Bachelor of Engineering (BE) graduate Max Fagin Th'11 is in the running with 1057 other candidates for a one-way trip to Mars, to live in and maintain the planet’s first permanent settlement.

Despite the fact that he would never return to Earth, the former Thayer School Machine Shop TA took this chance to become one of the first four to step foot on the red planet in 2025 through a Dutch non-profit organization called Mars One.

"Mars One is really just the most recent vehicle for my lifelong ambition of going to Mars," says Fagin, who is earning his Masters Degree in aerospace engineering at Purdue University after receiving his BE via Dartmouth’s Dual-Degree Program with Vassar College.

"Since leaving Thayer, I've had the chance to draw on what I learned as an electrical engineer, a thermal engineer, a fabrication engineer and several other fields. The type of person who will thrive on Mars isn't a world-class expert in one field, but a competent specialist in many fields," says Fagin. In his short career Fagin has already solved space problems involving mission design, reentry, life support, electrical systems, remote sensing and instrumentation through research and with multiple NASA student programs.

"The more I thought about it, the more I realized I still wanted to go, even if it meant never coming back."

"The more I thought about it, the more I realized I still wanted to go, even if it meant never coming back," he added.

The remaining applicants will be narrowed down to just 24 between now and 2015, before the anticipated 2024 launch. In the meantime, robotic launches are planned for 2018, 2020 and 2022.

"The actual final crew will consist of four people. However, six crews will train in parallel for backup and follow-up missions," says Fagin, whose lifelong dream has been to become an astronaut. He plans to apply to the NASA Astronaut Corps if he doesn’t make the Mars One cut.

Max Fagin

If Fagin does make the final 24, he will become a paid employee of Mars One and devote his entire career to training for the mission. He will also become a TV celebrity of sorts. Mars One plans to broadcast the preliminary selection of astronauts on national TV. Viewers will be able to vote on which astronaut they want to advance to the next round, with the final selection process in the hands of Mars One.

"This is part of the way that Mars One plans to generate revenue to support the mission—by giving viewers a vested interest in the process," says Fagin. "The organization’s business model is based on the idea that events like the Olympics are able to pull in several billion dollars in advertising and sponsorship."

While the organization is also seeking private donations, the challenges of being the first to land on Mars extend far beyond financing. Every astronaut that has ever died on a mission has done so either launching into space or returning to Earth, and according to Fagin, the Mars One mission showstoppers are no different. The organization is grappling with problems such as how to launch a spacecraft big enough to support the crew and how to land one where there is barley enough atmosphere to slow it down.

"The biggest dangers for an aircraft occur during takeoff and landing and it is the same way with a spacecraft," says Fagin. "Mars One has made an enormous step in simplifying the mission by cutting out the return trip and making the mission one of colonization rather than exploration."

The crew will likely use one of the newest, largest and cheapest launch vehicles ever developed: SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. When they arrive on Mars they will immediately assemble a habitat made of inflatables and capsules delivered beforehand in pieces to reduce the mass of the spaceship and therefore the danger of landing on Mars. On Mars the crew’s trifecta mission will involve first life support such as growing food, making air and harvesting water; then learning more about the science of Mars itself; and finally engineering. 

"The engineering will involve everything necessary to enable the other two activities," says Fagin. That includes building and maintaining the base, expanding it for future colonists, and mining resources on Mars to make things they can’t get from Earth.

To do it Fagin will draw on his experience at Dartmouth's Lynch Rocket Lab, where he conducted remote sensing and cosmology research on high-altitude balloon and sounding rockets, and from his experience on the crew rotation at the Mars Desert Research Station. His time as a TA and instructor in the machine shops at both Thayer and at Purdue will also come in handy.

"If I can die of old age on Mars with an established colony growing around me then I will consider my personal goals fulfilled."

"Working on literally hundreds of projects in the Thayer School Machine Shop while I was a TA there definitely helped me to understand that theory is a critical part of engineering but also that theory won't help me survive on Mars if I can't also build the things that I design with my own two hands," says Fagin.

"If I can die of old age on Mars with an established colony growing around me then I will consider my personal goals fulfilled," he added. 

Tags: alumni, leadership, machine shop, students

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