It’s been a rollercoaster few years for Mohammed Sallam. As the only Arab still in the race for the much talked-about Mars One Project, Sallam finds himself on the verge of a once in a lifetime opportunity to be one of twenty-four people to take the one-way trip.
Cairo Gossip’s Mahmoud Hussein caught up with him in St. Catherine, Sinai to talk about the latest development’s in Mars One, the possibility of not being chosen, criticism of the project and more…
1. Let’s dive in – you don’t exactly have the background of a typical astronaut…
No, I don’t. I worked in sports marketing for 7 years, but after the revolution I made a career shift because the business was going downhill. I went on to work in IT, then insurance – which was around the time I applied for the Mars One Project. But I was keeping it on the down-low.
2. There’s been a lot of confusion about the trip to Mars – what exactly is Mars One?
Mars One is a Dutch nonprofit – it’s not actually an aerospace company, so they’re not building a rocket or anything; they’re more the organisers and will be training the astronauts. The idea for a permanent settlement on Mars came from an entrepreneur. NASA has been working to send people to Mars for the last forty years and the only thing that’s stopping them is that they don’t have the technology to bring them back. It was only a matter of time before someone took the leap – and it’s an important leap. It’s not simply about going to Mars – it’s about understanding the planet, which will move us closer to better understanding Earth.
3. With your background in marketing, IT and insurance, how did you come to apply?
I randomly found information about the project online in 2013. I applied, but didn’t tell anyone – not a single soul. More than 200,000 people applied, from over 140 countries, of which 1,058 were initially chosen. I sent the application in August that year and then just kind-of forgot about it and carried on as usual.
It wasn’t till New Year’s Eve that I received an email informing me that I’d been picked for the first stage, before we were cut down to 700 people and given material to study. Eight months later, I was invited for an interview and psychological evaluation, which lasted exactly 8 minutes.
Last February, I was picked to be one of the 100 finalists. I’m the only one from the whole Middle East region, which is a huge honour.
4. There has been a lot of criticism aimed at the Mars One project, with some labelling it a publicity stunt, especially with the talk of a reality show – is it a publicity stunt?
People are saying that because it’s a start-up. Imagine, for example, social media existed in the same way it does today back in the 60s – people would be attacking NASA, too. It’s not a publicity stunt; this is a brilliant and ambitious project that’s long overdue. We’ve sent things to Mars more than forty times. It’s time for us to send humans.
The distance covered in 24 hours by the various robots and rovers on Mars can be covered by a human in 10 minutes. Just imagine the amount of work that can be done. There have been huge advances in our knowledge of Mars in the last century, but this would be a huge step.
5. What kind of reaction did you receive when you broke the news that you’d passed the first hurdle?
There was a long wait before I received my initial acceptance and so I didn’t think that I would be chosen. But when I was accepted, it certainly gave me a confidence boost, even though I was in pretty esteemed company – people with PhDs. But every day I would look at myself and the mirror and tell myself, “They might have more qualifications than you, but they don’t have more passion.”
After I was picked for round two, I was sitting in a café with a couple of friends of mine. When I broke the news, they took a couple of seconds to digest what I just said, then burst out laughing for the next hour. They couldn’t believe it and neither could I.
6. How has this all changed your life?
Things went from 0 to 100 immediately. Before the applicants were cut-down to 700, I had approached various media outlets about the project; there were nine Egyptians that had applied, but there was no talk of us in Egypt, unlike in other countries. It’s kind-of sad; Ancient Egyptians were pioneers in astronomy, but now we have absolutely no interest in it.
I was disappointed, but I didn’t expect there to be any change when the 700 were announced – I was wrong. I received a phone call from an unknown number, which turned out to be the BBC. As soon as I hung up, I received a phone call from Sky News. When I checked my Facebook, I had over 30 messages from different news and media outlets asking for interviews. I just sat staring at the screen for a while, thinking about how my life had changed in no more than 5 minutes – and how it might change moving forward.
CG’s Mahmoud Hussein with Sallam in Sinai
Now, people seem to come to me as a source of information, which motivates me to learn more; if ever I find a gap in my knowledge concerning the trip, the first thing I do is research it – and that alone has been opening up new horizons for me.
7. You speak very confidently and enthusiastically about the trip – have you entertained the idea that you might not be one of the final chosen?
I don’t think about it like that; I don’t think about the possibility of not being chosen. It’s not an option. As of right now, I have a 76% chance of not making it and so I’m putting my all into it and thinking positively.
8. You’ve spoken before about your difficult childhood; does this feed into your aeronautical ambitions?
Yeah, my parents passed away when I was very young; one day you’re a teenager, doing teenage things, then the next day you have to step up and be an adult for the sake of my younger brother. I had to take on a lot of responsibilities and I feel like I did miss out on a lot of things. At the same time, it really did make me the man I am today and I genuinely believe it has helped me with the challenges of the Mars One Project.
9. So, if picked to go to mars (fingers crossed) what’s the schedule for the mission?
Let me break it down for you; the last stage will include just 24 people and we’ll be split into teams of four, with each team member being from a different continent. We’re going to be studying every relevant field, including things like botany and geology, and there’s an annual physical evaluation. There will also be a three-month exercise each year that will isolate each team in a simulation that will be scored on and lower scoring teams will be eliminated. Teamwork is going to be key and we’ll have to show that we can work in harmony.
With the mission itself, there are several stages. In 2022, there will be an unmanned lander mission that will help nail down the landing site and the colony site, as well as a communication satellite launch. In 2024, six cargo missions will carry two living units, two life-support machines and two supply units. The Mars One launch itself is scheduled for 2026 and will take 7 months.
It’s not like it is in the movies; the capsule taking all four people is tiny – and there will even be a point during the trip, four months in, where neither Earth nor Mars will be visible to us. We’re just going to be floating along in what astronomers call a void for anything between one week and a month.
A lot of the initial work will be done by rovers, so when the astronauts arrive, it’ll be a matter of piecing everything together. We won’t be able to operate outside of the settlement for longer than two hours a day, though, because of the radiation. We’ll be planting our own food like in The Martian – cockroaches are high in protein, so we’ll have that to look forward to, too!
10. You’ve also recently joined Omar Samra’s Wild Guanabana as an ambassador – what are you hoping to do with the role?
Omar Samra is one the most inspirational figures I’ve ever met. He’s accomplished so much in his life and he’s still only in his thirties. He had a dream, he worked towards it and he achieved it.
I’ll be leading trips and I’m really excited about being involved in the Wild Guanabana ambassadorship program, because education is our only way out. Initiatives like this are really important. I wished I had someone to guide me with what I wanted to do in life, or to help me explore potential passions.
By Mahmoud Hussein
(Main image courtesy of Al Msr Al Youm/Wild Guanabana)