Dr Adriana Marais has a PhD in quantum biology from the University of Kwazulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. She is currently designing a blockchain-based economic system towards a second PhD. She is a director at the Foundation for Space Development Africa, an organisation aiming to send Africa’s first mission to the Moon. Dr Adriana is a South African government advisory task team member on the 4th Industrial Revolution, Faculty at the Singularity University and an astronaut candidate with the Mars One Project.
She had received numerous awards, including the 2015 L’Oreal-UNESCO International Rising Talent Award. In 2020, she was among the top five global finalists for Women in Tech’s Most Disruptive Woman in Tech Award.
In an interview with Space in Africa, Dr Adriana spoke exhaustively about her space exploration ambition and other projects.
As the Head of Innovation at SAP Africa and a former Mars One Astronaut candidate, can you please walk me through your background?
I am a researcher at heart. I have a PhD in quantum biology, and I am working towards another in economic systems for resource-constrained environments. I have research experience on topics from quantum physics and our understanding of reality, photosynthesis and bio-inspired technologies, the origins of life, the origins of the building blocks of life in space, asteroid resources and technologies to extract these, to team dynamics in extreme environments and blockchain technologies towards new economic systems.
I believe in positively impacting lives through technology. I was Head of Innovation at SAP Africa between 2017 – 2019. I am currently a Director at the Foundation for Space Development Africa. The Foundation is developing Africa’s first mission to the Moon, the Africa2Moon Project.
I have thought about exploring worlds beyond Earth since childhood. In 2015, I was selected as one of 100 astronaut candidates with the Mars One Project. When the startup declared bankruptcy in 2019, I founded Proudly Human. I have since visited some of the harshest and most remote locations on Earth, from deserts in North America, Africa and the Middle East, to Antarctica, on-location scouts for Proudly Human’s Off-World Project. The Project is a series of off-grid habitation experiments in the most extreme environments on the planet, in preparation for life on the Moon, Mars and beyond, as well as a sustainable future here on Earth.
I have given hundreds of talks to audiences on all seven continents of this planet, in settings from corporates to ashrams. I have been featured in media interviews, panel discussions and documentaries, including CNN Inside Africa’s recent ‘Africa’s Space Race’, talking about how the expedition to Mars will expand our understanding of reality and our place in it, enabling us to become better stewards of our home planet Earth and equipping us for the beginning of our journey to the stars.
The program has been projected to last for eight months in the most extreme and isolated environment on earth, The Antarctic; what steps have been taken to ensure a safe environment for the project’s duration?
Of our two neighbouring planets, Mars is the target for the first off-world communities of the near future. Elon Musk plans to launch crew there in SpaceX’s Starship before 2030. So what happens once we get there?
The conditions on Mars are extreme, with average temperatures of around -63 degrees Celsius, an atmosphere that’s not breathable, no surface water and the nearest human presence will be over 200 million kilometres away on Earth.
This is the reason for choosing Antarctica. Antarctica is the coldest and most isolated place on Earth. During winter in the Antarctic interior, the conditions provide a unique research opportunity to prepare for life on Mars: average temperatures of around -70 degrees Celsius and isolation more extreme than the International Space Station or the Moon, where there is no possible access for months at a time.
While Antarctica may provide the closest comparison on Earth to Mars, there we can still breathe the air, and water in ice form is abundant. So additionally, environments like underneath the ocean, and the driest deserts on Earth, provide opportunities to prepare for the extremity of life on Mars in terms of living in a pressurised habitat and extracting and managing water efficiently. The idea of preparing for life on Mars by setting up camp, collecting data and generating knowledge on how to live in the most extreme environments on Earth is the thinking behind Proudly Human’s Off-World Project.
Over the next few years, the project involves a series of habitation experiments, building communities and off-grid infrastructure in the most extreme environments on the planet, from the desert, to under the ocean, to Antarctica. Each experiment will last several months, generate exploration-driven innovation and research, and be filmed for a documentary series.
What stage of operation are you? What about your Challenges, success stories and important milestones?
I have always strongly believed that curiosity-driven space exploration is something to be proud of, a celebration of our humanity and the reality we find ourselves. Yet the challenges we face on Earth, including poverty and inequality, not to mention climate change and the associated increased risk of pandemics, mean that not everyone can participate. The challenge we face as a society is to balance ambitious goals that inspire us to dream, like the first human communities on the Moon and Mars, while simultaneously uplifting people living in harsh conditions here on Earth and encouraging a rapidly growing population of youth to get excited about exploring and learning. The good news is that we can do both.
In 2019 when the Mars One Project declared bankruptcy, I left my position as Head of Innovation at SAP Africa to establish Proudly Human, to take up the challenge of developing solutions to live off-world while applying this knowledge to improving standards of living for people already living in harsh conditions here on Earth. Since then, I have been on location scouts for the organisation’s Off-World Project to regions including the Antarctic Interior and the Oman desert.
We have decided that the time is now to launch the Off-World Project. In the midst of the turmoil, we aim to demonstrate human resilience, sustainable technology and community spirit in even the most extreme environments through grit, imagination, research and innovation, at a time when inspiration is needed most.
On February 1 2021, we opened applications for the Off-World Project Community, from where we will select team members for each experiment. We are looking for resilient, interesting people with diverse expertise, a passion for adventure, and a story to tell. Off-World Community members need to have the skills to contribute to life-support, including safety, shelter, power, water, food and communication systems, and community spirit, which is any activity that contributes to a sense of well-being within the team.
What source of funding is available for the project? Can you also talk briefly about your partners?
Thinking about living beyond Earth provides an opportunity to reimagine everything about our society. We imagine a world beyond money, and as such, all participation in our project is voluntary. The Proudly Human team comprises people from around the world taking part in the leaps of imagination, science and technology required to realise the off-world settlements of the near future and sustainability on Earth.
Together with our technology partners, we design and build the shelter, power, water, food, waste management and communications systems to support our community members in each location. Together with our production partners, we are in the pitch phase towards securing a major broadcaster for the documentation of each experiment. We aim to launch the Off-World Project later this year in the desert. We have not yet publicly revealed the location but what I can share now is that it will be somewhere in Africa.
Can you share your past and current projects with me? What future projects are you planning?
Studies show how the inspirational power of the Apollo era led to the commercialisation of the personal computer, the mobile phone and the internet late last century, particularly in the United States. On a practical level, two decades of human habitation of the International Space Station have led to impressive developments in solar technology, water filtration systems and LED lighting to grow food, to name but a few. The ground-based and remote exploration of space has also led to massive progress in robotics, nanotechnology, automation, artificial intelligence, computing and big data. Space exploration, including crewed missions to the Moon and Mars in the coming decades, promises to further revolutionise our capabilities.
It is time for Africa to expand its role in space exploration. Innovating in resource-constrained environments is what we do best!
In my capacity as a director at the Foundation for Space Development Africa, together with founding director Carla Sharpe, we are driving her brainchild, the Africa2Moon mission. The project is a series of public participation and scientific missions over a multi-year period, culminating in a final technology mission to the Moon. Africa2Moon aims to inspire Africa to “Reach for the Moon” by reaching for the moon! The project is a voluntary participation project that aims to place three microsatellites into lunar orbit and place a low-frequency radio telescope array on the moon’s far side.
The satellite constellation will beam the radio astronomy data to Earth, providing scientific insight into new science and the potential of low-frequency radio astronomy. Data sets will be relayed to classrooms across developing countries, particularly in Africa, inspiring our youth to believe that the sky is not the limit.
Participation in science, technology, engineering and innovation is often viewed as the best approach to growth within developing societies and changing the socio-economic trajectory of the African continent as a whole within the globalised world.
Tell me about your current staff strength.
The Off-World Project constitutes a diverse and wide range of collaborators, from technology partners to advisors to team members selected for the Off-World communities.
How do you plan to bring other stakeholders together from other African nations to increase the reach, bridge the knowledge gap?
Proudly Human is a collaborative organisation working towards a future we can be proud of, whatever planet we are on. We aim to apply knowledge of how we will live off-world to improve living standards for people on Earth. Towards community spirit in the extreme conditions on the Moon, Mars and beyond, and living in harmony with each other and the environment on Earth, we will demonstrate successful community living in some of the harshest environments on our planet.
Proudly Human’s Off-World Project will promote companies developing technology for sustainability, facilitate skills development, boost research, innovation and technology towards off-grid functionality, as well as provide a vision for young people of achieving successful communities in extreme and resource-constrained environments through grit, imagination, science and technology towards a ProudlyHuman future, whatever planet we are on.