“I applied to go to Mars on a one-way trip,” says the 28-year-old. “The chances of me going are pretty slim, but they improved this week.
“When they announced this project, 202,500 people applied and, last week, they cut it down to 1,058 potentials. There are three Irish people left in the running.”
The project is Mars One. It is the brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdrop, and Dutch scientist Arno Wielders. It will establish a human settlement on Mars. The first crew, of four astronauts, will land after a seven-month spin through space.
A new crew of four will be sent every two years thereafter. None will be coming back.
Roche will have to pass a physical before March of this year. That will be followed by a series of interviews to determine his mental strength and suitability. If he passes, he will appear on a reality television show to generate most of the funding for the project.
“I guess a lot of people think it’s foregoing a happy life on Earth,” says the astrophysicist. “But for someone who has given up 12 years of their life to study space and stars, the opportunity to live on another planet, it’s not that difficult a decision for me.
“If they asked me to go in the morning, I’d be gone in a heartbeat.”
Roche grew up on a farm near Dunlavin, on the Kildare side of the Kildare-Wicklow border. It was on his family’s small homestead that he developed his appreciation of the night sky and its twinkly delights.
“Because parts of the midlands are more radio-quiet than parts of the Sahara desert, Ireland is great for watching stars,” says Roche. “On a clear, cloudless night in Kildare you can see everything up there. It’s one of the reasons I still love going home.”
Were he to be successful in his application, Roche would have to rule out ever returning.
His parents, he says, support him.
“My family are very supportive. I’m lucky I’ve got a very close family that would support me in whatever I do. Of course, if I didn’t get through, and there’s a good chance that I won’t, they’d be happy, but if I do, they know it’s something that I’ve dreamt of all my life,” he says.
Roche attended the Christian Brothers School in Naas, where he had “great science teachers” who nurtured his love of science. He studied science at Trinity College in Dublin and, after a stint working with NASA in the United States, he returned to Trinity to complete his PhD in astrophysics.
Roche has stayed on in the college, where he works for the Science Gallery.
He says that because of his commitment to work, he is single. He plans to keep it that way for as long as he is a candidate for the mission. If Lynx advertisements are to be believed, his new status as a potential astronaut might make it a bit difficult to fight off potential ‘astronettes’.
Assuming he does manage to keep the ladies at bay, there might be a chance of some space-lovin’. After all, each crew will consist of two men and two women and there are only so many boxsets a person can watch.
It sets up the intriguing possibility of humans actually creating, well ... Martians.
“Actually, that’s a huge topic,” says Roche. “On their guidelines, there’s a question about getting pregnant on Mars and they’re answer is ‘please don’t’. The human body has evolved to live with gravity on Earth, but on Mars you’ve got 38% of the gravity you have here and we don’t know what that would do to a developing, unborn child.
“So they’re asking astronauts not to conceive and that’s raising other ethical issues. How far they can enforce that is up for discussion.”
Roche will find out within the next two years whether he is going to Mars. As a scientist, he is, of course, a realist, so he is not pinning everything on getting there.
“I always try to see possible results of situations that are out of my control as wins,” he says. “If I get to go, then that’s the stuff of dreams. If I don’t, then I get a chance at a happy life here on Earth and, maybe, convincing some poor woman that I’m husband material and maybe starting a family, or something. That’s not such a bad thing either.”