Stepping into the world

As winter approaches, graduation is starting to seem very real for students completing their final year. But is pessimism over the job market justified? The experience of recent graduates shows that opportunities are out there for those that look

Stepping into the world

The endless theories about the dire state of Millennials entering the job market are unavoidable. Columnists gleefully exclaim that we’re a lost generation, that we’re lazy and entitled. More gently, but not particularly hopefully, others state we were just dealt an unlucky hand and happen to be graduating at the “wrong time.”


“We all know of people who only had one career in mind, studied it with vigor, only to be burned once entering the field, realizing it wasn’t what they wanted. I planned to apply to graduate school immediately after I finished my undergraduate degree, but realized that all of the theory I learned would be meaningless if I wasn’t able to apply it in the real world.”


The fact is that Canada is currently experiencing an unemployment rate of some 14.7 per cent for youth age 15 to 24, close to double the 7.4 per cent figure for the nation as a whole according to Statistics Canada. The number could actually be a lot larger, as Canada’s unemployment statistics only account for those collecting unemployment insurance or welfare. As fourth- and fifth-year students face the looming specter of graduation only a few months away (or the more imminent deadline of grad school applications), these statistics can become a whole lot more frightening. It is clear that our expectations need to loosen and adapt to these changing conditions, as do those of our parents, many of whom still assume that a smooth school-to-work transition is guaranteed when you have a degree in hand. The truth is, the path to “adulthood” is a lot shakier.

It’s easy to judge yourself and others for not being able to land an ideal job right out of university. Panic mode often sets in during the last few months of one’s post-secondary career, and the more months that go by without school or work, the more you can start to feel like a deadbeat graduate with nothing going for you. This pressure can warp how you handle such a personal conflict. The search for worthwhile opportunities can quickly lead to confusion over whether to wait to start a profession, or work other jobs (i.e. the service industry) to make ends meet.

Edil, a 2010 U of T graduate with a double-major in Political Science and Anthropology, experienced these problems while bouncing between various short term positions after graduation. Once she finished her degree, Edil found a short-term job at as a Community Organizer with Toronto ACORN, a non-profit organization focused on tenant rights advancement.

“After a few months with ACORN, I was unemployed for about five to six months. But for all the headache and grief it caused me, I became much more introspective and thoughtful about the things that mattered most.”

After that, Edil took advantage of two more temporary opportunities ­— a research position at Canada Council for The Arts and a job as a youth worker leader with Tropicana Community Services’ Summer Jobs for Youth. Eventually, Edil received a more stable year long contract as a research coordinator with Educational Attainment West.

“Those posts took up my almost two years away from school. I am currently a graduate student. Although social science degrees are notorious for their unfocused career streaming, they do allow for graduates to try a variety of fields before they plan to commit to one,” she said. “We all know of people who only had one career in mind, studied it with vigor, only to be burned once entering the field, realizing it wasn’t what they wanted. I planned to apply to graduate school immediately after I finished my undergraduate degree, but realized that all of the theory I learned would be meaningless if I wasn’t able to apply it in the real world.”

Alternatively, many recent graduates choose to bypass the job hunt for more school. With ample working years still ahead of them, continuing studies can provide students with more time to think through their future career goals. Political science specialist, Anupa, went straight into a two year post-grad journalism program at Humber College when she graduated from U of T in 2006.

“I enjoyed the journalism program, but it was more about me not knowing what I wanted to do and turning to more school as a solution. It was kind of a kick in the ass. I was panicked; I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my degree or how to break into the industry. After I graduated from the program, I got a job doing digital marketing and a writing job on the side.”

Unable to find a 9–5 job in their preferred field of study, students either retreat into another degree or find a job that pays the bills but doesn’t necessarily utilize their skill set. Anupa worked in digital media during the day and devoted extra time outside the standard workweek to develop her writing portfolio. Though stressful, pressure like this can sometimes be beneficial, making time spent on writing or other fulfilling projects special, and motivating you to work harder on your goals.

Anupa recently started a new job as an associate producer with CBC Music, and she plans to stick with media as her line of work down the road. Anupa loved her time at U of T but isn’t so sure she would pursue a post-grad program if she could do it all over again.

“Journalism school helped me, but would I have done it again knowing what I know? Sure. But you can break into journalism without doing post-grad. It was kind of a waste of money. That’s something to consider, and it’s important for me because I’m not loaded.”


Then there are graduates who decide to look for work outside their own country. If re-claiming your parents’ furnished basement is a big no-no, spending money on a plane ride to your dream destination is an investment to seriously consider. Sahar, a 2012 U of T graduate armed with a double-major in cinema studies and political science, travelled to Jordan in September to work on her film portfolio. Sahar, who in light of her situation abroad asked that her real name not be used, met like-minded students and had great success making a short film with the use of local resources and acting talent in Amman. What was intended as a short visit until October was extended to January after Sahar found work with a film production company, assisting a team of writers with the development of TV shows and web series. Sahar also got the opportunity to act as a production assistant on sets for several small films, commercials, and educational ads for local companies. The closest Sahar ever got to this kind of hands-on experience in Toronto was her part-time position as an audio visual technician trainee at Innis Town Hall’s projection booth.

Of course, moving to a new country involves learning to adapt to a new environment rather quickly. Travelling will do that, forcing you to take responsibility for yourself and face working relations and circumstances that aren’t the norm in North America. From time to time, Sahar has dealt with less-than-positive feedback while on the job, surrounded by all of her colleagues.

“Doing this job the first time around, I definitely made mistakes and people got frustrated. But you need to keep your cool and act professional in high stress situations. Put your fears to the side and be efficient instead of dwelling and getting upset, because there will be people who treat you like shit.”

Sahar’s next steps include higher learning, most likely pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing. Sahar is glad she chose to study both political science and film at U of T as it gave her a lot to work off of.

“Being Iranian and working in Jordan, I can work through controversial political issues in a creative capacity and reach out to a wide audience in a more diplomatic manner. When you cushion political issues with a creative outlet, your reach grows dramatically.”

For others, there’s no rush to jet off towards foreign sunsets fresh off of the U of T train. With hefty loans weighing on the minds of many graduates, travelling abroad is not only a daunting prospect, it’s also not the most practical use of their limited funds. Alumna Sonal felt the same way when she graduated from U of T in 2010 (due to the nature of her future plans, Sonal asked not be identified). She spent the summer job-hunting for pretty much anything. She got an interview with a PR firm, which went beautifully, and she worked there as an intern for three months before getting a full-time placement. She’s been working the grind as a social media analyst ever since.

“When I got there, everyone was a graduate from Humber. My friends were all either unemployed, starting their master’s, or doing a shitty job they didn’t like.”

Sonal’s plans for the near future involve moving to France next spring to teach English. She’s even enlisted a tutor to help spiff up her high school level French skills before the big move, a testament to the very real opportunities available to those hoping to upgrade and continue learning later in life. Graduates shouldn’t get bogged down with the idea that they’ll be locked into one career trajectory their entire lives.

“I had a lot of wanderlust in university but I couldn’t afford to take a vacation. I knew the only way I could do that was by becoming financially independent,” Sonal said. “My ability to travel was dependent on me paying for it. In order for me to do that, I needed to adopt a sort of traditional route. PR isn’t something I thought I would do but it’s comfortable.

It’s not my dream job but it lets me travel and leave Toronto, and being a “starving artist” working at a coffee shop wouldn’t allow me to do that. Now that I’ve been in this field for the past two years, I definitely know this isn’t what I want to do. But moving to France wouldn’t be a possibility if I didn’t pay my dues and work first.”

Such a bold transition between jobs is actually quite typical of Millennials. According to a recent survey by Future Workplace, the majority of young employees expect to stay in a job for less than three years, meaning you’ll probably have amassed a wealth of experience before settling down in a profession past young adulthood. You might not land your dream job right out of school, but remember that other jobs still yield experience, adventure, and opportunities for advancement. The graduates featured above suggest that there is more than one way of doing things, and many paths that can lead to your destination.

Navigating Nuit Blanche

Scotiabank Nuit Blanche is only in its second year in Toronto, but already it feels like a city tradition. This year’s “free all-night contemporary art thing” promises to be just as fun and just as cutting-edge as it was in its inaugural year.

Last year, despite rain, huge numbers of Torontonians came out to experience free contemporary art created by artists from Toronto and around the world. It was wonderful to see so many people of different ages out to experience fog in Philosopher’s Walk or floating lanterns at Victoria College’s Pearson Garden of Peace and Understanding. For this night, the city was alive all night long with people out to appreciate the latest art. Queen Street West looked like rush hour on a Friday night: bars and galleries were full of people enjoying art and the community that comes from viewing it with others. It was both an artistic and a civic experience, and it promises to bring even more art (and more people) this year.

Nuit Blanche in Toronto centers around three zones: A, B, and C, which host 195 destinations. Each Zone has a curatorial theme. Zone A, which includes U of T and Bloor-Yorkville, is curated by Rhonda Corvese entitled, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” All the exhibits in Zone A will attempt to alarm you or unsettle you by producing an effect that is unexpected. I have high hopes for “Departure” (Mircea Cantor 2005), playing at the Isabel Bader Theatre on Vic’s campus: a 2 minute, 43 second loop of a wolf and a deer in a room together. It promises to be an unnerving experience that forces the viewer to confront the possibility of watching a slaughter. Also in Zone A, don’t miss your chance to get inside of Lower Bay TTC station in “The Ghost Station” (Kristen Roos 2007) for low-frequency sounds. The concept sounds flighty, but take the opportunity to get into this hidden part of Toronto while it’s open to you. And in room 066 of the Faculty of Architecture there will be an exact replica of Toronto’s nuclear fall-out shelter, “Aurora Readiness Centre” (Annie MacDonell 2007)!

Zone B extends west from Spadina out to the Distillery District, and from College south to the waterfront. Michelle Jacques curates with a focus on the heterogeneity of the neighbourhoods, entitled “At the Corner of Time and Place.” Of particular interest will be “What Will You Do?” (Nina Czegledy et al. 2007), which invites participants to interact by sending an SMS text message saying what you will do to help stop climate change. Responses will be posted to the board in minutes. Be sure to check out “Where There Are Trees Standing in the Water” (Hannah Claus 2007), a light installation on the historic George Brown House.

Zone C is located in Queen West. Camilla Singh curates a dream world in our city entitled “Supernatural City.” There are plenty of wonderful exhibitions here, but be sure to stop in to the local galleries that will be open all night and see what Toronto artists have to offer. If the galleries aren’t your thing, check out “Locust” (Noboru Tsubaki 2005), a giant inflated locust in Lamport Stadium on King West.

The TTC has extended service for Nuit Blanche, so remember that a day pass is good for two adults on weekends. Don’t miss this chance to encounter contemporary art that may move you, unnerve you, or just piss you off. More important is that the rest of the city will be out with you. For more information visit: scotiabanknuitblanche.ca.

Commuters Kick Back

University College’s commuter students have a room of their own today, with the opening of the Leith Centre, a space dedicated to the needs of off-campus students. The centre, which includes lockers and a kitchen, with lots of space to study and hang out, has been in the works since 2004. Nona Robinson, UC’s Dean of Students, has been involved in the project since the beginning.

“I think all of us know that offcampus students don’t get the students, so this is something we’ve been thinking about for a long time,” she said.

The centre finally came together this year thanks to money from the university’s $20 million Student Experience Fund, with some funding by the college. Though it is shiny and new, the room itself isn’t one of a kind—Vic and New College both boast spaces and social programs for commuters. Still, the centre comes with a campus first: UC’s Commuter Don program, which will be housed there.

Deena Dadachanji, one of the two dons who will serve UC’s 3500-strong commuter population this year, discussed the new position.

“I wanted to be a don, but I didn’t really like living in residence. I really prefer living off campus, so I’m passionate about commuter issues,” she said.

The dons will be available to give advice to commuter students on academic or social issues, and they will also organize programming for the centre along with the UC Lit’s University College Off-Campus Commission and UC’s coordinator of student life, Renu Kanga. Ideas for the coming year range from a Thanksgiving social, to Bike Week activities, to career workshops.

With four times as many students living off-campus as in residence, University College is typical of U of T. A recent National Survey of Student Experience report highlighted the problems this majority faces in almost every area—commuter students are less likely to work with faculty outside the classroom, less likely to participate in co-curricular activities and more likely to “experience a sense of alienation” in first year. UC aims to close that gap, though the Leith Centre is open to everyone.

“We have no problem with non-UC students using it,” said Robinson. “There will be a lot of UC-specific events, but nobody is going to be asking for ID at the door or anything.”

Drop by and check out the Leith Centre (79 St. George Street, on the main floor of the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse) at an open house all day today.

Calculating Caribou

Be careful the next time you silently curse the person next to you in class for chatting too much or hogging the armrest— they might just turn out to be a rock star. This dream is slowly turning into reality for U of T alum Dan Snaith, who performs under the name Caribou and has just released his fourth album.

The new record, Andorra, is Snaith’s first release on Merge Records, recently tipped by Rolling Stone as a potential breakout—not bad for a guy who spent the late 90s hanging out at University College and making music on a computer in his dorm room.

“I made my first and part of my second albums while I was a student at U of T,” said Snaith. “This was the first album I’ve made while I wasn’t a student at the same time.”

He looks back fondly on the time he spent pursuing not only a career in music, but a Bachelor of Mathematics as well.

“I was always doing both, which I really liked, because being a student is a flexible lifestyle. For example, I was a TA at U of T and didn’t have to work apart from that, so the student life was good to be able to make music without having to worry about working.”

Snaith released his first two records under the name Manitoba, but hit a major snag in 2004 when he was hit with a lawsuit by Handsome Dick Manitoba, singer of The Dictators, a 70s punk band from New York.

Snaith explained, “We were doing a gig in L.A. and I got served with a court subpoena just before we went on stage by a private investigator that the guy had hired. I couldn’t even believe it.” Choosing not to ring up the $500,000 legal fees that it would cost to fight the suit, Snaith decided to change the band’s name.

Ironically, it was on a trip through the province of Manitoba that he settled on the name Caribou, and the band’s profile has been rising ever since.

While his first few records were electronica-based, featuring heavy percussion and sparse vocals, Andorra is Snaith’s first venture into the pop realm. The record combines the percussive elements of Snaith’s electronic beginnings with a quickly developing pop sensibility.

“I felt I had never written proper pop songs before, so the real focus for me was making melodies and harmonies that were really strong.” Andorra sees Snaith singing more than ever before, and he stressed the importance that he placed on vocals when crafting the album.

“The voice is a totally unique instrument for conveying emotion and connecting with people. I wanted to give the compositions I was writing as much emotional weight as possible.”

The result of this new direction is an album reminiscent of 60s psychedelia, with an element of the Beach Boys’ baroque- pop compositions.

Despite the fact that he explores new territory with each Caribou disc, Snaith is determined to continue writing, performing and recording every part of each album by himself. He claimed that working alone simply comes naturally to him, saying, “I’m so used to working this way. It would almost be strange for me to be with a band in a proper recording studio. I’ve never really recorded in that environment at all.”

Having completed his Ph.D. in Mathematics at Imperial College London, Snaith is now living in England, and it appears he has put academia aside, at least for now.

“It was really hectic when we were touring a lot more and the albums were getting a higher profile, taking up a lot more of my time. Being a student was getting to be a bit crazy at the end.”

Who’s watching whom?

Can privacy exist in an age where technology enables more and more information to be collected about us on an ongoing basis? Details like an individual’s genetic make-up can be extremely useful for medical practitioners to better treat patients, yet can also provide insurance companies and employers with information you may not want them to have.

“This information has to be protected like Fort Knox in certain circumstances, and must flow very readily in other circumstances,” said Dr. Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, at a Sept. 24 conference called The Privacy Prognosis in an Era of New Health Information Technology.

Hosted by Cavoukian at the MaRs Centre, the conference on the relationship between technology and privacy was attended by delegates from around the world.

U of T’s Trudo Lemmens, associate professor at the Faculty of Law, discussed the need for new regulatory and legal tools to protect individuals, families, and communities from the information that genetic mapping might reveal.

Lemmens explained the concerns of many individuals that their genetic data could be used against them.

“[Some worry that] the rise of genetic discrimination and the detailed level of information that would become available as a result of the human genome project would be used by employers, insurance companies, immigrations officers, and perhaps even by banks when you apply for a loan,” Lemmens said.

The consensus among attendees was that our understanding of the human genome opened possibilities for remarkable medical breakthroughs.

Knowing one’s genetic make-up can help predict certain health problems. Those who learn they are particularly susceptible to heart disease, for example, can alter their lifestyle to minimize the risk of heart problems down the road.

Lemmens cautioned, however, that this same information can have unfortunate consequences if it falls into the wrong hands.

The government of Ontario established the Provincial Health Information Privacy Law three years ago to control the spread of sensitive health data. The law is based on the concepts of implied consent and explicit consent, Cavoukian explained.

“When you go to see your physician, that physician should not have to spend any time with you getting your consent for the collection of the information you’re about to disclose. It’s clear you’re there because you want help,” she said.

But, added Cavoukian, as soon as that information leaves that health care sector, “everything changes.”

Such applications require the explicit consent of the individual whose data is being used.

The conference’s second focus was technological, because, organizers contended, privacy laws are only useful if the equipment used to gather and transmit sensitive data is secure.

U of T’s newly established Identity, Privacy and Security Initiative graduate program considers these issues. The IPSI, directed by Professor Dimitrios Hatzinakos, concentrates students and faculty from disciplines such as engineering, public policy, and business to analyze matters of public information security.

Hatzinakos hopes to build privacy directly into new technologies, a concept Cavoukian calls “privacy by design.”

“We have to think how we can build privacy into the technology so that it can be that much more effective” said Hatzinakos. He added that these technologies could be readily applied to other sectors, such as commerce and the legal system.

Solo Scenester

Since it seems like every member of everyone’s favourite sprawling local indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene is busy with their own various musical pursuits, it makes sense that their charming slacker frontman, Kevin Drew, would finally put his name on an album of his own. But look a little closer at his recently released record, and you’ll notice that even though Spirit If… is a solo effort, it’s still being billed as “Broken Social Scene Presents” (the band is also hoping to put out solo releases by bassist Brendan Canning and drummer Justin Peroff down the road). Not that Drew would have it any other way—in fact, most of the extended BSS family lends a hand on Spirit If…, and much of the old crew will come together again to act as the backing band for his live shows in support of the record, including a sold-out hometown gig at Lee’s Palace this week. The Varsity chatted with the affable indie icon last week over pints on a local patio as he chain-smoked, text-messaged, and chided idling drivers. —

Tabassum Siddiqui: Once you decided Spirit If… (which was initially born out of BSS recording sessions with pals/producers Charles Spearin and Ohad Benchetrit of Do Make Say Think) was going to be a solo album, did that change your approach to things?

Kevin Drew: It changed the idea of how things were going to sound for me. It made me do things where I didn’t care so much. Anything that was embarrassing intrigued me even more. When it’s yours, you have a free speech where no powers that be are going to tell you what to do; you don’t have any allegiance to making sure that other people are getting heard and stuff like that. So having a different outlook on things, different opinions, was wonderful.

The ‘Broken Social Scene Presents’ series kind of came up as a way of keeping our name within us, and we also start up a new way of filtering out more music that doesn’t have to go under what BSS has now become— this big band with all the people and the guests and the strings and the urgency and all that shit.

TS: You’ve mentioned that you prefer the writing and recording process over touring.

KD: My dream for me is to find peace with being on the road all the time— to find peace with being away from my love, find peace with not having a house half the time and always running around… I fought it for the past year and half, and I lost. So now I have to accept my defeat and realize that if I want to continue to do stuff like this, I have to find some peace with it.

TS: And now that you’re about to head out on the road again in support of this album, how are you going to deal?

KD: The drinking has to stop, because that just gets introduced to you in a way where you’re like, ‘Wow, I just made a couple hundred bucks tonight and now I’m going to drink!’ I have a lot of friends who drink a lot because it’s just constantly there for you all the time, every show. So that’s the main element that I have to tackle, because I can’t sing every night and get drunk every night—it’s just not good for the body, mind, and soul.


Broken Social Scene plays Kevin Drew’s Spirit If… at Lee’s Palace Friday, Sept. 27. Sold out.

Collection plate could be cut off

Home to three Catholic student clubs, one Catholic college and a number of faculty connected to this issue, the University of Toronto is no stranger to the questions posed by religious education. With public funding of denominational schools becoming a wedge issue in the provincial election campaign, debate on the matter has started to swirl on campus.

This past Friday, campus secular club the U of T Secular Alliance co-sponsored a public lecture with the Freethought Association of Canada and the Centre For Inquiry entitled “Catholic Public Schools: Constitutional Right or Archaic Privilege?” at St. George campus’s Medical Sciences Building.

The event focused on merging the current public school system with the separate Catholic school system to form a single school network, a cause championed by the One School System Network, which helped advertise the lecture.

Jan Johnstone, a public school trustee with the Bluewater District School Board, touted the benefits of a single school system while tallying, at length, the drawbacks of the current education system in Ontario as she saw it. Johnstone objected to the overlapping finances of the current system, which she called wasteful.

Currently, Ontario’s separate school system represents 46 Catholic school boards and one Protestant school board.

A staunch opponent of the Christian school boards, Johnstone said the idea of creating of even more publicly funded school boards for other religions was “crazy.”.

Many students and faculty at the lecture were concerned about the controversy over faith-based schools currently taking place in Ontario’s public forums, including last Thursday’s televised debate between Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty and challengers John Tory (PC) and Howard Hampton (NDP), where this issue was debated.

Also speaking at the event was Justin Trottier, president of the Freethought Association of Canada and director of Ontario’s Centre for Inquiry, both foundations devoted to advocating for a secular public sector.

Much of the current wave of dispute over this issue was raised by the Progressive Conservative party’s plan to publicly fund religious schools, with the aim of including all religious groups in the separate school system, not just Catholics and a small group of Protestants.

Trottier, a member of the Green party, was among the opponents of the PC plan at Friday’s lecture. The UTSA, FAC and CFI have stated that the public school system in Ontario is inclusive of all students, regardless of religion. They argued that public funding of religious schools would drain money from the education system, leaving the provincial government with the moral dilemma of deciding which religious denominations qualify for funding and which do not.

Johnstone noted that Quebec, Newfoundland and Manitoba have all recently switched from denomination school systems to a “one school system” model.

A man, a plan, a planet: Mars Direct

Dr. Robert Zubrin is an ambitious man with an equally ambitious idea: he not only wants to see humans on Mars in seven years, he also has a workable plan to make it a reality.

After flexing its technological muscles with the 1969 moon landing, it seemed only logical that NASA would next aim for Mars. Once our lifeless moon was scoured and analysed from every angle, the possibility of sending astronauts to the potentially life-filled surface of the red planet seemed within grasp. With its apparently dry riverbeds and ice-capped poles, Mars has remained a tantalizing target for space programs and the governments that fund them. What happened? Why aren’t we there yet?

As far as Zubrin is concerned, we should be able to get there soon. He expressed the nature of the problem using a simple analogy:

“In principle, it can take any amount of rope to connect two posts separated by 10 metres. The issue is whether you want to connect the posts or sell rope.”

In other words, a bare-bones mission designed to keep costs low while still sending people to Mars is feasible but unappealing to the numerous corporations contracted by NASA to design and manufacture the necessary equipment.

Politicians also complicate the issue. Bush has declared that before America goes to Mars, there must first be a launch pad on the moon. A notso- subtle land grab, the lunar base also carries a huge price tag of U.S. $450 billion. But there’s another problem with Bush’s plan: it just doesn’t make sense.

“Flying to the moon before going to Mars is like flying to Saskatoon on your way to Chicago,” said Zubrin.

Zubrin’s plan is much more elegant and direct. Rather than building Deathstar-sized space ships or lunar Cape Canaverals, his proposed five-year mission plan would involve launching unmanned ships to prepare for a manned vehicle. The beauty of the idea is that it can be accomplished using current technology and allows for four different backup plans should something go wrong, which is all too often the case in space exploration.

Contrary to common perception, the biggest hurdle that we face in the race to Mars is not the distance. With today’s spacecraft, the voyage to the planet would last only 200 days. Instead, the challenge has to do with weight: specifically, how to get our astronauts off the launch pad with enough supplies to make it there and back. Zubrin’s plan sidesteps those constraints. Rather than launching one huge ship, Mars Direct is broken down into several smaller launches. First off the ground would be an unmanned vessel containing an Earth-return vehicle and a nuclear-powered surface vehicle designed to run atmosphereprocessing machinery. Martian atmosphere is 95 per cent carbon dioxide, a chemical that can catalyze a series of chemical reactions to produce methane, the fuel that would get astronauts home. This ability to make propellant on Mars would allow the Earth-return vehicle to be launched from Earth with empty gas tanks. This key step, which has already been successfully tested at full scale, is critical to the potential success of the mission.

Says Zubrin, “You have to ask yourself: why is the Mars mission so heavy in the first place? 75 per cent of what they are shipping to Mars is the propellant to come home. That’s what makes the [Mars Direct] mission sing: 95 per cent of your return propellant comes from Mars.”

The window of time suitable for launching a mission to Mars opens up once every two years. This means that by second ship’s launch time, NASA would already know if there would be enough propellant to bring the astronauts home safely. This second part of the mission would launch four brave souls towards the red planet, a voyage lasting six months. After landing on Mars, the crew would spend 18 months conducting research and thoroughly exploring the planet. The astronauts would then use the fully fuelled return vehicle to travel back to Earth. As a backup, a second Earthreturn vehicle would be launched during the astronauts’ time on Mars, in case the original did not work. If this Earth-return vehicle is not needed, it could be used by future missions.

Another safeguard built into the mission design is a methane-powered rover, complete with habitat module. With a range of 1,000 kilometres, the rover would allow the team to reach the additional Earth-return vehicle if it happened to miss its designated landing spot.

These safeguards—critical for a mission so far from home—are a big step forward from the original Apollo missions. The abort protocol for those missions was simple: “If anything goes wrong, you quit and go home,” said Zubrin.

Venturing farther into the reaches of space presents a unique set of challenges. The most hazardous parameter to consider is not one that would immediately spring to mind for most people: radiation. Solar flares are a large source of radiation and can deliver fatal doses in a matter of hours. Frustratingly, they occur about once a year on an irregular basis. The Mars Direct plan has a convenient way of dealing with this problem. By storing their food and water around a small room in the centre of the living quarters, the astronauts can hide out during solar flares, with the solid matter blocking deadly radiation. “Our pantry becomes our storm shelter,” says Zubrin. With advanced warning from Earth-based monitoring systems, the astronauts would be given plenty of time to reach their safe haven. Another type of radiation, the mysterious “cosmic radiation,” is less serious in nature. The exposure levels that the astronauts are expected to endure would increase their likelihood of getting cancer by only one per cent.

If the price tag for the Mars Direct mission seems astronomical—a cool $20 billion to $30 billion— it seems less so when compared to the inflation- adjusted $135 billion cost of the Apollo program. Considering NASA’s 2007 operating budget is over $16 billion, Mars Direct seems affordable, even if sizeable cost overruns were to occur.

With improving technology and a quickly-filling planet, the case for sending people to Mars grows stronger. More than just a scientific curiosity, Mars could potentially prove profitable in the long run. With rich mineral deposits, including large amounts of deuterium (a valuable nuclear fuel), mining and resource exploitation will be an important aspect of humanity’s future endeavours on the red planet. Even more pressing is the imminent overcrowding of Earth and the eventual food shortfall. A terraformed Mars capable of growing crops could support and provide space for the human race.

All of this hinges on actually reaching Mars, of course. If Zubrin had funding for the project today, he is convinced that we could set foot on the planet by 2014. It may well be wishful thinking, but the point that Zubrin wanted to get across was clear.

“If used correctly, the same resources that make Mars interesting can make it attainable.” For more information about future Astronomy and Space Exploration Society events, visit

asx.sa.utoronto.ca