Is Mars One at Odds With Reality?

Mars One


An eye-opening exposé just went up on Mars One, the private company that wants to send you to Mars: All Dressed Up for Mars and Nowhere to Go. Journalist Elmo Keep spent the better part of a year on this story, and it shows in her breezy prose, slick artwork and diverse cast of contributing voices. Solicited for comment were the Mars One founders, SpaceX, cosmonaut Chris Hadfield, and a wide-eyed hopeful from Australia named Josh. It’s a lengthy but enlightening article, and the illustration is top-notch.

Mars One is a not-for-profit headquartered in the Netherlands. The current timeline, which founder Bas Lansdorp says is “highly flexible”, has a manned Mars-bound craft lifting off in the year 2024. There are just a few details to square away before then, and one of them is funding. The company believes the project will cost no more than $6 billion. Total donations so far have barely reached $600,000, or 0.01% of their target.

Spokesmen for Mars One remain optimistic, citing dozens of sponsors and a number of contracts in the works, though they are tight-lipped as to the substance of these contracts and the dollar-values of the sponsorships. SpaceX is listed on its website as one of its suppliers, but when Keep reached out to SpaceX, she discovered that they have no current contracts with Mars One.

Ultimately Lansdorp and his few associates hope to fund the initial mission with a reality TV series, which will involve filming the final candidates night and day during their ten years of training here on earth. Whether the revenue flows from this “Big Brother In Space” will translate into the capital they need for the most daunting mission in human history remains to be seen.

Apart from bringing to light the true status of Mars One’s ambitious programs, Keep is also interested in the reasons an earthling might wish to volunteer for a permanent relocation to a hellish landscape, or what she calls “being sentenced to death row”. To leave everything you’ve ever known and loved to sign up for an uncertain, but certainly hazardous, future seems to leak sanity.

Mars’ non-breathable atmosphere ensures any future visitors will be confined to self-contained, subterranean structures, which affords greater protection from harmful radiation swirling around the surface. David Willson of NASA puts it bluntly: “They’re going to be living like moles. I don’t think that the people who volunteered really appreciate that they’re going to spend the rest of their lives living in a submarine.”

Moreover, even with high-bandwidth transponders, latency problems promise against ever having real-time communication with life back home. For all intents and purposes, those applying to Mars One’s space opera are signing off from everything they once knew. In some ways, the dangers of planetary travel and existence on Mars seem overshadowed by the twinship of loneliness and loss. And the centerpiece of Keep’s story, the passionate aspirant from Australia, appears to have made peace with all of it.

The challenges involved with a manned flight to Mars are many and varied. Among them is a reliable way of regulating the atmosphere in the life support habitat. Colonizers would depend on plants for food by growing them in a pressurized, nitrogen-rich environment. Plants release oxygen, and eventually the O2 levels would build up and need to be filtered out. But no existing technology can selectively vent molecular nitrogen and oxygen. Too little nitrogen, and the pressurized environment is lost; the crew will asphyxiate. Too much of both poses serious fire hazards and risk of hyperoxia.

In fact, a team of graduate students at MIT assessed this very threat and presented their findings at this year’s International Astronautical Congress in Toronto. According to their report, it would only take 68 days for this risk to become fatal to the crew. There are ways around this, such as siloing the food production and crew quarters, but mainly at the expense of significant mission creep.

There are also several scientific questions that still need to be answered before we should even consider green-lighting a one-way trip with human cargo: whether a “Base First” approach (where the underground base is built before the crew arrives) is preferable or even feasible, how to grow food in perpetuity, how to cleanly recycle water and a breathable atmosphere, how to repair faulty equipment with limited materials, how to balance the psychological profiles of a crew, how to resolve interpersonal hiccups on a barren rock hundreds of millions of miles away. All of these are absolutely critical to mission success and must be worked out before Mars One is ready for primetime.

But does any of this matter if the endeavor is destined to abort before it gets off the ground? To date there are no specifications for the craft, the space suits or the base that will need to be established promptly after the crew’s arrival. Any existential yearnings to sate human curiosity should be balanced by realistic expectations. While Mars One may not be blatantly phoning it in (Keep stops short of calling it an outright scam), it’s clear that its three-employee contingent is grossly underqualified and underprepared for the most harrowing off-world mission in the history of spaceflight. The oft-reported 200,000 applicants is likely exaggerated, as is their preparedness, both technologically and financially. Theoretical futures are fine, but a line is crossed when utter fantasies are repackaged as something more.


External Link:  All Dressed Up for Mars and Nowhere to Go

Feature image courtesy of Mars One