Last week, the 202,586 applicants for the Mars One mission was whittled down to 100 hopefuls who will vie for the four spots on the first manned mission to Mars. It’s a step. A step closer to what? Probably not Mars.
Mars One is a Dutch not-for-profit organization planning to broadcast training, selection, and ultimately flight to and establishment of the first human colony on Mars. It’s a one-way mission, and the whole thing will be broadcast like a reality TV show with ad revenue and TV deals funding the mission.
The plan is to launch the first unmanned mission in 2018. It will be a proof-of-concept mission demonstrating the key technologies future colonists will rely on. In 2020, a rover will land on Mars to seek out the best spot for a settlement, somewhere North enough for the soil to be moist but near enough to the equator for ample sunlight for solar power. Six cargo missions will launch in 2022 and land about 6 miles from the rover’s chosen outpost site. The rover will then use its trailer to move life support units into the right location, deploy the solar panels for power, and inflate habitat units. Once everything’s together, the rover will feed soil into the life support system, which will begin extracting the water and oxygen that will make the habitats habitable. The first crew will leave for Mars in 2024.
The incremental nature of the mission makes sense; send robots to scope out the area and get the vital pieces set up first so the human crew can focus on their main goal of colonizing the red planet. But there are still more than enough reasons to see Mars One as a bit of a fool’s dream.
Let’s start with the proposed price tag. Mars One says it can get the first crew to our planetary neighbor for $6 billion, a cost that includes all the hardware, operational expenditures, and margins. Having done the mission once, the price will drop to $4 billion for every subsequent flight. That is a shoestring budget, especially considering a lot of the technology doesn’t actually exist right now. The mission seems to be relying on technology taking a massive leap forward in the next decade, then being available off the shelf when it’s time to go, keeping the cost down. But that’s banking on a lot of things that are out of the company’s control.
And speaking of money, funding is another issue. There are investors and crowdfunders donating money, but the bulk of the funding is meant to come from advertising and reality TV deals. Not only does this sound unlikely, but it’s a funding model that doesn’t really support the mission timeline all that well.
The Apollo program makes a good benchmark; it’s the only massive scale space program we really have to use as a reference point. The total cost of Apollo was about $20 billion in 1970, which is about $120 billion by today’s standards. Yes, NASA was basically inventing every piece of the Moon landing puzzle as it went along and Mars One has the benefit of 50 years of human history in space, but the technology for what Mars One is planning to do is about as advanced as the lunar module was in the early 1960s. And the bulk of Apollo’s funding came in the mid-1960s; Apollo took up 61 percent, 66 percent, 70 percent, and 64 percent of NASA’s total budget in 1965, 1966, 1967, and 1968 respectively. Those were the years where the bulk of the necessary technologies came to be and were extensively tested. After that, flying the missions was comparatively cheaper. By 1972, the year the last two missions flew, Apollo was taking up just 24 percent of NASA’s total budget.
Mars One’s model of gathering funding during the training and flight phase by broadcasting it on TV means the most money will come in after the big technological development phase. That means that the money to actually develop all the hardware and systems is coming from some mystery source. Even if it is taking advantage of existing technology like rockets and spacecraft, Mars One is quite cagey about what that existing technology is. The website only says it will secure these pieces from experienced suppliers. Who and what that technology is remains unclear.
There’s also the human side to consider. The 100 finalists were selected largely for their personalities and willingness to work with others. They aren’t necessarily scientists because science has never been the focus of Mars One. It’s a mission of colonization, but the crew will still have to maintain and repair their habitats and possibly themselves while learning to live off the Martian land. Not only does this demand a lot of specialized knowledge, it demands an exceptionally even and tolerant personality since the four crew members will spend their lives isolated together.
Mars One’s schedule has already slipped, and there are still a lot of unknowns and a lot of details about the proposed flight that aren’t clear. It’s that because Mars One is a private mission there’s a chance the team is actually doing all kinds of cutting edge work and just keeping it away from the public, but it’s more likely that this mission will join the list of unrealized spaceflight proposals historians will write about a century from now.
Ultimately, the reason to go is also unclear. The money being put into Mars One would be better spent on some robotic exploration mission that would help us understand our Solar System such that when we do have the technology to send humans to distant worlds we know exactly what we’re dealing with and how to do it.
The only positive about Mars One is that it’s getting people talking and thinking about interplanetary flight, but the proposed mission is so far from reality that it’s almost doing a disservice.
(Photo Credit: Mars One/Bryan Versteeg)