Hongkonger Birdy Cheng Yu-pang lands a place on Mars mission

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 3:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 4:25pm

Birdy Cheng Yu-pang believes planet earth is polluted and hopeless - so much so that he is determined to start a new life on Mars.

Despite average temperatures of minus 55 degrees Celsius and shortage of oxygen so great that settlers will need breathing equipment, the 25-year-old says he is overjoyed to be the only Hongkonger among 1,058 candidates for a one-way space migration to the desert-like planet.

Dutch foundation Mars One plans to establish outposts on the planet's surface in four years. If it succeeds, several teams of astronauts will begin their high-risk journey to the red planet in 2024 to settle permanently.

"I am ready to start a new life on a new planet," the physics graduate from Hong Kong University of Science & Technology told the South China Morning Post. "Since I have joined the programme, I picture my new life on Mars every now and then."

Watch: Birdy Cheng on why he wants to live on Mars

Unlike most young men his age Cheng, a property manager, said he was not interested in looking for a girlfriend - at least not on earth - and believed Mars One would arrange a partner for him on the new planet when necessary.

"I know it is a one-way trip, and there is risk that I may die. But someone has to make the move," he said. "There is really nothing I cannot leave behind on earth."

An environmental activist since secondary school, Cheng shocked his university hall mate in their first meeting by telling him he would not use air-conditioning, even in summer.

He spends his free time collecting newspapers and plastic bottles for recycling. Two years ago, he turned vegetarian.

"Earth is too polluted, and there is always the likelihood that a war could end the whole world," he said, explaining his desire to join the perilous migration. "It is very dangerous that we have only one place we call home in the whole universe. It makes sense that we should start exploring human settlement on other planets."

Mars One's hunt for "would-be Mars settlers" began in April and drew more that 200,000 applications from across the globe.

Out of these 1,058 - most of them from the United States and Canada - were picked to enter two more rounds of selection. The mainland has 40 candidates and Taiwan five.

Six to 10 teams of four individuals will be chosen to undergo seven years' full-time astronaut training. Cheng says he has the support of his brother, but reckons his mother will never understand his ambition to explore the solar system.

"She is a very traditional Chinese woman. She would not understand about the anything about Mars or the space. Maybe I will simply tell her I am making a very long trip abroad," he said. His father died several years ago.

A local scientist has cast doubt on the ambitious project , but Cheng says he believes in it.

"Many friends have warned me about it," he said, having paid an application fee of about HK$200.

"Even if it is a fraud, it is still worth believing in. It has given me a dream."

Among those who doubt the project are Hong Kong University of Science and Technology mathematics professor and astrophysicist Chan Kwing-lam, a former researcher for the US space agency Nasa. Chan said the necessary technology would not be available in a decade.

"How can humans settle on Mars when we cannot even sustain the technology to build a human observing station on the moon?" he asked.

But Mars One's co-founder and chief executive Bas Lansdorp told the Post that existing technology was sufficient to allow humans to land safely on Mars and sustain life. He said the first mission would be risky, but the organisation would make it as safe as possible.

"Scientists often forget how much less complex a mission of permanent settlement is compared to a return mission," he wrote in an e-mail.

The not-for-profit foundation developed its Mars migration plan two years ago.

Among its experts are Gerardus 't Hooft, joint Nobel Prize winner for physics in 1999, and Dr Gerard Blaauw, chairman of the Netherlands Space Society.