Mars One Fizzles?

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

One of the craziest schemes to garner worldwide publicity and lots of contributions is having some new problems. Mars One has lost one of its final hundred to misgivings about the process by which he was chosen. Will more come out with similar stories? Is this the beginning of the end for Mars One?

The Mars One stray is Joseph Roche, an assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin with a PhD in, wait for it, physics and astrophysics. With this education and background, he’s not just a scientist well equipped with Carl Sagan’s famous “baloney detection kit,” he’s also a specialist in getting around the universe.

Mars One is a reach too far. Until I see plenty of funding and until I see that water mission and then see the first supply mission land successfully, I will remain cautiously skeptical. -H.K.

I have written plenty about Mars One and its challenges. In the end, I stated that its biggest challenge is not radiation or water or air or food but money. It’s not just the money to send that first expedition to Mars but also the money to keep sending more until the colony is self-sufficient. The first expedition requires several preparatory flights to deliver lots of habitat modules, freeze-dried food, solar panels, machinery, rovers, and more. Each of those unmanned preparatory flights will cost very large sums of money, likely a billion or more dollars apiece. 

The first manned expedition will cost even more than those earlier unmanned ones. In the meantime, Mars One is planning a miniature, relatively speaking, module landing on Mars to perform some tests and prove that they can send something — anything! — all the way to Mars successfully. The announced tests seem silly to me, but I’m not a NASA planetary scientist. Let’s put that issue aside because the larger issues overwhelm all the rest.

So far, Mars One has solicited contributions and attempted crowdfunding. They made some money on the latter, but the last time I was able to check, they had not reached their fundraising goal. Had they done so, I am certain a press release would have trumpeted the success. Now, Prof. Roche tells us that Mars One asks its final hundred to donate 75% of any fees earned from interviews to Mars One. They don’t have to, of course, but the request indicates funding issues that are not insignificant. Indeed, they indicate that the funds being raised are insignificant compared to estimated costs for the mission.

What is it that so upset Prof. Roche? He tells of a rather cursory interview in Skype as part of his screening, which also included completing a questionnaire, uploading a video to a website, and seeing a local doctor. He even was given the questions for the Skype interview in advance. It’s entirely possible that more scrutiny will take place when the next round is completed and results in just 24 candidates remaining, unless they change that number.

Maybe Bas Lansdorp, the CEO of Mars One, really believes in his mission. Perhaps, the round three testing had to be scaled back due to lack of funds to interview such a large number of people, around a thousand, in order to get to the current 100. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that Mars One is not a well-funded operation. It seems to be more of a hand-to-mouth struggle.

What’s in the future? Will Prof. Roche’s prediction that Mars One’s failure will set back the space program come true? Can Mars One really put four people on Mars permanently in 2025?

Mars Rhapsody: A Story about the People, Technology, and Science of the First Mars Colony, by Harry Keller

Mars Rhapsody, a novel by Harry Keller

It’s been clear from the beginning that Mars One was a bootstrap effort. Their plans to obtain considerable financing from a reality TV show based on their training and then landing and living on Mars was a stretch. As I suggested in my novel, other modes of funding must be found. Most people don’t realize how far it is from a million dollars to a billion. It’s the same ratio as going from a $10,000 salary to a ten million dollar salary. Think about that! A few million here and a few million there, and you haven’t even really begun to fund this program.

It’s not sufficient to obtain funding for the first unmanned missions and the first manned mission. Without continuous funding, those first four pioneers will be left stranded with no hope of living long past the two years until the scheduled first resupply mission that also is supposed to add four more people to the colony. Without the assurance of continuous funding, it’s the moral equivalent of murder to send anyone there on a one-way trip. They’re still working on the funding for that tiny lander that won’t even be mobile.

Let’s suppose that they do magically find money to move forward. What are they going to do about a landing site? The entire surface of Mars is as large as the entire land surface of the Earth. They have to choose a site that has higher than average air pressure. When terraforming begins, the added air pressure will be maximized that way. The seasons are less severe in the Northern hemisphere, and they cannot be close to the colder poles. These considerations reduce the choices a bit but still leave lots of area to cover.

The absolutely most important aspect of a future landing site is water. This has been true for human civilizations on Earth, and nothing has changed with Mars. The surface of Mars is outrageously dry. It’s seen no rain for billions of years, and any water on that very low-pressure surface has long evaporated or sublimated, the term for ice turning directly into water vapor. Estimates suggest that any substantial water must be at least a meter below the surface.

Exactly how will Mars One or anyone else find that water? They have to locate likely spots using basic geology, or should I say areology? Then, a mission to that area must drill or dig down deep enough to find any water or to know that prospecting for water at that location is useless. When you realize that settlers must dig away a meter or more of regolith to get water, you understand the importance of finding it near the surface and of finding lots of it.

Huge amounts of regolith will have to be moved, and that material can be piled on the inflatable parts of the habitat to act as a radiation shield. Still, the process will be slow.

The point here is that until Mars One or someone lands a water explorer rover on Mars, no one can plan to spend extended periods there. Sure, you can recycle the water in the habitat, and you can bring some along to replenish unavoidable losses. You can even estimate the numbers and provide for two years, but that adds considerable mass to the mission and increases the costs, while possibly restricting the sending of machines and supplies that are crucial for success.

No one has sent a Mars water reconnaissance mission to Mars. I doubt that Mars One has the funding necessary to do so before their first unmanned mission must lift off and land at the designated site. I also do not see any other group, NASA or ESA or Japan, choosing to do this soon. No one else is planning to colonize Mars before circa 2050.

My opinion has always been that Mars One is unlikely to raise necessary funds to do its stated project and, furthermore, they have a slew of technical problems to overcome, including water and gravity. The gravity issue is simply that no one has tested the long term response of the human body to 38% of Earth’s gravity, which is the gravity on the surface of Mars.

Yet I do not see their potential failure as the death knell for mankind’s future on Mars or even in space in general. Technical hurdles are being overcome. Private companies, notably those headed by Richard Branson and Elon Musk, are stepping up, and those notables are very sanguine regarding our future on Mars. New discoveries, such as oceans of water under the frozen surfaces of some outer planet moons, keep the public excited about space. We will go to Mars and eventually beyond. Mars One may do much more damage by succeeding than by failing because a partial success will be followed by some disaster that really will stymie our efforts to go to Mars for a while. Let the professionals do the Mars thing. So far, Mars One is all amateur hour augmented by smoke and mirrors.

I like the spirit behind the idea. I like hope and optimism. Mars One is a reach too far. Until I see plenty of funding and until I see that water mission and then see the first supply mission land successfully, I will remain cautiously skeptical. Mr. Lansdorp can convince me only by actions, not by telling us that he can convince any expert with 15 minutes of talking. I don’t doubt his charisma, just the realities of what he’s seeking to accomplish.

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