Mars one mission could go horribly wrong — if it ever gets off the ground

Mars One

For the space-inclined, the week got off to an interesting start on Monday with a press conference from the team behind Mars One, the Dutch not-for-profit organisation that’s planning to broadcast the establishment of the first human settlement on Mars like a reality TV show. It was a fascinating conference, more for what the Mars One panel didn’t say than for what they did. And the public response was pretty interesting, too; reactions online were mixed between excitement from the average person and deep scepticism from those in the space community. So, after hearing the latest news about Mars One, do I think the mission is feasible? As much as I love space exploration, I have to respond with a resounding “No”.

For those of you who don’t know about the Mars One mission, here’s the gist. Beginning in 2016, Mars One will launch unmanned cargo missions to Mars to deliver all the things astronauts will need to build a habitat and establish a community on the red planet. In 2023, the first crew will arrive. They will use the pre-landed hardware and supplies to set up a habitat, start farming the land, and set up for the rest of their lives – this mission is a one way trip. After the first crew, Mars One will take advantage of favourable launch opportunities – there’s one every 26 months – to send more supplies and more crews. And the whole thing will be funded by TV revenue. From astronaut selection to their deaths on Mars, the world will be watching.

So there are a lot of reasons to view the Mars One project as insane.

Let’s start with the technology. The team behind the mission claims that the mission is feasible with existing hardware. That may be true, but “existing” does not necessarily mean flight ready, let alone suitable for a manned mission. Only the Russian Soyuz is currently able to take humans into space, and that’s not a spacecraft equipped to land on Mars. And the landing is another issue. Mars One says it will use retrorocket (rockets that fire to slow the spacecraft for a soft touchdown) and no parachute to land its crew on Mars. That’s a method that’s never been done. NASA’s Viking landers use retrorockets, but they also used a parachute in the early stage of their descent and weighed far less than a manned spacecraft. I can only imagine how much the fuel for a powered descent would weigh for a spacecraft not taking advantage of a parachute-assisted descent.

And that’s just the technical side of things. There’s a human side to take into consideration, too. Mars One has opened its astronaut application to everyone. If you’re between 20 and 40 years old and healthy, you’re qualified to fly on Mars One. Education and background doesn’t matter. Instead, a sense of humour and the ability to work well with others are key characteristics Mars One is looking for in astronaut hopefuls. It’s such an inclusive selection criteria because science isn’t the focus of Mars One, colonization is. There will be little to no science on the mission, said the Mars One team. Except, that is, for a long list of things the crew will have to do: fix anything that breaks; build and maintain their habitat; diagnose and treat injury and illness, and possibly perform surgery; and learn how to live off the Martian land. Not only does that sound like a lot of science, it sounds like a lot of very specialised science.

The other key piece of the mission the Mars One team skirted over at Monday’s press conference is funding. The first manned mission, they said, will cost six billion US dollars. They didn’t say whether that figure includes research and development or any of the early cargo missions, nor did they say what levels of funding they have secured. They only said that they will raise the money for the mission by broadcasting the whole process on TV. Their model for this decision is the Olympics. Last year’s Summer Olympics in London turned a profit of about $4 billion through TV broadcast rights and ad revenue. And as the Mars One team pointed out, that was only a three week event. The Mars One mission will be broadcast over years. The idea is that as we get to know the crews, we’ll be taken into their stories. It’s the human side of this mission that is so important. That’s the side that will sell.

The problem with the reality TV funding model is that the money will come after the mission has started, not before, which is when missions like this really need money. Mars One didn’t say anything about how they will deal with cost overruns, which are inevitable with an undertaking of this magnitude. The problem with the 2016 launch is that Mars One hasn’t said who will be providing the spacecraft and rocket, and the launch date is really close on the horizon. As far as we know, none of the hardware has been tested either on Earth or on Mars. If the first mission will launch in three years, Mars One need to start landing tests tomorrow. The problem with the open call for astronauts, at least from what Mars One is saying publicly, is that they might not have the right expertise for such a demanding mission, which could be catastrophic.

There are so many unknowns with this mission and so many possible ways the whole endeavour could fall apart. It will be an interesting mission to follow, but I suspect it will be another in the growing list of old and abandoned Mars plans that have been forgotten by everyone save a handful of historians.


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