Mars One: Right target, wrong plan

Although settling humans on Mars is a good idea, the Mars One proposal is shortsighted.

Mars One concept art
Mars One plans on settling humans on Mars by 2023, with a few unmanned missions planned beforehand [Mars One]

When it comes to the exploration of space, I am a hard-line supporter of manned exploration with the ultimate goal of seeing humans walk on Mars. Sadly, science funding, government policies and wavering public support often don’t mirror my lofty hopes of seeing a manned presence on Mars within my lifetime. But still, I hope. And with the growing commercial space sector turning heads, there is hope.

So, when the non-profit company Mars One started hitting the headlines, I was more than a little enthusiastic for this “one-way mission” that would be ultimately supported by reality television rights. No, this isn’t “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” (or, indeed, “Cardassians“) in space, it would be an honest to goodness attempt at getting mankind onto Mars, boosted by advertising revenue and TV rights from the grandest reality television experience ever envisaged.

We’d watch the lives of a group of heroic individuals launch in the year 2022 and follow their progress through interplanetary space to Mars. It will often be hard to watch – the “warts and all” disclosures the astronauts would be required to give the world would be unlike we’ve ever seen. But, according to the Mars One executives, the show will inspire the planet, boost interest in colonising the solar system and invigorate new and transformative technologies we can’t even comprehend.

The project hopes to be the seed from which mankind’s future in space will blossom. Sadly, despite all the enthusiasm, at best Mars One is on very shaky ground. At worst, it’s a short-sighted plan that could undermine legitimate attempts for a future manned presence on Mars.

To the red planet

Mars One, the brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, kicked off its ten-year odyssey to get bootprints onto the red planet on Monday, hosting the “Mars One Launch” press announcement in New York. There, they discussed that their Mars astronaut selection process had opened and they were accepting applications. The panel included Lansdorp, Nobel prize laureate and Mars One ambassador Gerard ‘t Hooft, Mars One Chief Medical Officer Norbert Kraft, Paragon Space Development Corporation’s Grant Anderson and Mars One concept artist Bryan Versteeg.

The press conference – attended only by a handful of journalists – was fairly standard, but there were repeated references to the Apollo era of the 1960s, pointing out that an entire generation was inspired by seeing Neil Armstrong walk on the lunar surface (see Amy Shira Teitel’s Al Jazeera English article: “We should drop the Apollo model in space, but keep the inspiration“). The inspiring promo video made the point that the Apollo missions were fleeting and that Mars will be the next target and there will be a major difference: “from now on we won’t be visiting planets, we’ll be staying.”

But how does Mars One propose we do this?

Well, beginning in 2016 (three years from now), a demonstration mission will be launched. The unmanned test flight will go to Mars and land on the surface. Preliminary designs incorporate a SpaceX Dragon-esque capsule that will land using only retro-rockets – a landing system currently under development by Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company.

One-way ticket to Mars

At this juncture, it is important to point out, as Lansdorp has done repeatedly, that Mars One “is not an aerospace company” – the company will hire specific companies to carry out certain tasks, ultimately supporting a manned presence on Mars under the umbrella of Mars One. Like NASA used contractors to build the components for Apollo and the Shuttle, Mars One will use contractors to develop existing technology for life support, food cultivation, habitat design and space launch requirements.

In 2018, an unspecified “rover mission” will be sent to Mars. That will be followed in 2020 by another surface mission that will deliver components of a habitat and equipment that will be moved to where the embryonic colony will be established. So far, the operation will be driven entirely by robotics.

During Monday’s conference, Lansdorp referred to equipment that would extract oxygen from the tenuous Martian atmosphere, providing air for future colonists to breathe. The proposed site for the settlement will be located above latitude 40 degrees north, a location where water is known to reside under the Martian surface. So far, so good. The plan is pretty much in line with how space enthusiasts see a Mars colony being established – although it’s debatable whether the technology is mature enough for long-term manned operations on the Mars surface.

Bigger than the Olympics

By 2022, the manned component for a four-person crew will be launched to Mars, hopefully with the grandest reality TV contract attached to it. By the time Mars One puts humans on Mars on April 22, 2023, Lansdorp emphasised that four billion people on the planet will have an internet connection. Everyone will be watching the same screen at the same time. “It will be the biggest audience ever, especially around launch and around landing,” he declared.

By Lansdorp’s reckoning, the audience will be larger than the audience for the Olympic Games. The funding is therefore a no-brainer; with a guaranteed audience of that size, the 2-week Games (which attract around $4 billion in TV rights) would be dwarfed by the huge volume of cash that will flood from the Mars One effort. Remember, we will be following the Mars One astronauts for years; it will generate an incalculable cash flow. And, according to Lansdorp, reality TV experts – including Big Brother co-creator Paul Römer – assume interest will remain high, ensuring the money keeps flowing. But when dealing with a permanent manned habitat on Mars, inhabited by astronauts who will likely never return home, this may be one assumption too far.

We’d be dealing with an unprecedented endeavour – how do we know it will generate long-term interest? Taking a cue from the Apollo Program, will public interest rapidly decline after the “One small step for (a) man/woman” episode, only for ratings to plummet when our TVs are filled with the realities of a small group of humans living to survive on an alien world? The point is, we don’t know – a factor that seems to be missing from Mars One’s risk assessment.

Even Mars One ambassador ‘t Hooft appears to be on the fence as to whether the mission is possible in such a tight timeframe: “To be frank, I’m still sceptical,” he said during the conference.

Budget confidential

But the biggest frustration that has confounded space experts is Mars One’s evasiveness when it comes to their budget. The apparently arbitrary number of $6 billion is being bandied around as being the amount of cash needed to get the first Mars One expedition to the Red Planet. But how did the executives arrive at that number? How will the money be distributed? Will it be invested primarily in life support development? Or will it be needed to pay for the interplanetary transit? Sadly, we don’t know.

In response to a question from space analyst Jeff Foust concerning details for the Mars One budget, Lansdorp said:

Actually, we don’t want to (give any details). I can tell you that we have discussed the budget per component with our potential suppliers, but for competition reasons it would be very stupid for us to give the prices that have been quoted to us per component, because that would make it very easy for competition to go under it, but not too much under it, so the exact prices that we are expecting to pay per component we will keep confidential.

It’s hard to see what “competition” he’s referring to and it’s sad that if there is a detailed plan of spending that makes sense – if it were made public, it might add some credibility to the plan. To many, $6 billion doesn’t seem like enough money for the endeavour.

Curiosity Rover shows Mars could have supported life

Other factors of the Q&A session left me thinking there was some naivety on the panel.

When queried about medical aspects of the mission – particularly the long periods of isolation and the fact that future Mars colonists may have a hard time being constantly enclosed in a habitat or space suit – chief medical officer Norbert Kraft replied that he had spent 10 days in an isolation chamber and, in regards to going outside, he said, “I didn’t miss it at all.” But, according to Kraft, it depends on the person – if they are an outdoors person, “Oh I need my mountains, I need to smell the flowers” then it’s not for them to apply to Mars One. “Not everyone misses that,” he said dismissively. So, presumably, if you enjoy living in a submarine, Mars One is the mission for you!

There are numerous scientific studies Kraft could have referred to – not exclusive to the recent Mars500 experiment in Russia and the grandest experiment of all, the International Space Station – but he chose to use anecdotal evidence, ignoring the complex psychological impact of living in isolation.

“They are in charge”

Also, in regards to the colony’s dependence on Earth, Lansdorp said that when the colony declares independence from Earth, it would be a proud day for mankind. Seeing a flaw in Lansdorp’s statement, ‘t Hooft interjected, saying “They can’t be totally independent.”

Lansdorp also, inadvertently, compounded concerns about the viability of having a reality TV show on Mars at all. “Mars One would not allow 24/7 coverage… the people of Mars wouldn’t allow it,” Lansdorp said. “If they don’t like a particular camera, they’d put a piece of duct tape over it and there’s nothing we can do about it. They are in charge.”

In principal, using the revenue stream from television rights is not a bad plan. Supplementing that money with intellectual rights over the technology that will inevitably spin off from the project is also sound reasoning. But basing this business plan on a project that’s due its first launch in three years’ time is risky. Basing this business plan around a mission where, by the Mars One founder’s own admission, the TV companies on Earth are not in control seems like a fool’s errand.

But above all, basing a very high profile Mars mission that intends to land humans on Mars in a decade based only on assumptions, before even the technology to support such a plan has been tested and matured, is doomed to failure.

While many may see this assessment as overly negative, it’s worth remembering that there are very real plans to get humans to Mars, but they are using incremental steps to build infrastructure first, maturing technologies and building a financial case for a manned mission. Mars One will face huge difficulties in the coming months, inevitably resulting in overruns and delays.

Regardless of their enthusiasm and obvious passion, Mars One will likely fall by the wayside well before any component makes it to the launch pad.

Ian O’Neill is Space Science Producer for Discovery News. He is also the founder and editor of space blog Astroengine.

Follow him on Twitter: @astroengine