Mars One is a not-for-profit organisation based in the Netherlands that intends to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2023, by sending astronauts there on a one-way trip. Sound ambitious? Some experts certainly think so.
Their plan is to get funding by turning the whole adventure into a reality TV show. Adamant that the technologies to land the first humans on Mars exist, the Dutch start-up Mars One aims to spend an estimated 6 billion dollars to send four individuals to the Red Planet. They’ll be tasked with setting up a habitable outpost based on ready-made hardware that will be sent to the planet in advance. After installing their habitat, the members of the first colony outside our Earth will be expected to grow their own food, mine their own water and oxygen, perform research and of course, explore a whole new planet.
Various Mars exploration advocates, however, have expressed skepticism that such a proposal is feasible. With many of the technologies yet to be built, and with the physical effects of sending a human to Mars largely unknown, Mars One has a large number of challenges to overcome if they’re going to put their plan into action. Gernot Grömer of the University of Innsbruck, who runs the MARS2013 month-long simulation of a Mars landing taking place in the Moroccan desert, thinks they may have bitten off more than they can chew.
“The Mars One team lacks the expertise and knowledge how to approach such super-ambitious programmes,” he says. “Just simply recruiting and maintaining such a large astronaut corps is well beyond their capabilities, not to speak of launchers, habitats, spacesuits etc. Having big players like SpaceX on their back certainly helps, but there is no indication these are doing it for free. That means that even large TV companies won’t be able to afford such a multi-year programme, not to mention the challenge of keeping the public interest going for such a long time.”
Another proposal to send humans to the Red Planet is space tourist and millionaire Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars (pictured above), which intends to send a man and a woman on what has the makings of a historic mission lasting 501 days. They want to fly the crew of two people within 100 miles of the Red Planet, using technologies derived from NASA and the International Space Station, before returning them safely to Earth. The plan is to use the gravitational influence of Mars to slingshot their manned vehicle onto a return course to Earth. They will not land on Mars. The ship’s inflatable habitat module will be deployed after launch and detached prior to re-entry into our planet’s atmosphere.
“This is a truly ambitious plan,” Grömer says. “If you look at their papers where they describe the mission profile, it is well thought through and written by experts who are very good in their subjects. However, for trajectory reasons they have to keep the 2018 deadline.” That’s the big problem, says Grömer. Dennis Tito is only funding the first three years of that project until the really high financial demand kicks in. Will they then be able to get the big bucks that they need in the time required? “Developing a transportation system which brings people to Mars and back safely is something that will probably take more than the few years left to the 2018 deadline,” adds Grömer. “I honestly wish them all the luck, but I am pessimistic that they can really archive the super-tight schedule.”
However, it’s not all doom and gloom for manned Mars exploration. “It will be the most technically challenging journey our society has ever undertaken, but from the engineering and scientific point of view, we are almost ready [to go to Mars],” said Grömer. “In all our research we haven’t encountered a showstopper that told us ‘no – you can’t go’. This includes hazards such as radiation or human factors and, at the end of the day, I believe we have never been so close to human missions to the Red Planet.”
Grömer is convinced that landing humans on Mars is achievable, and expects it to happen within most of our lifetimes. “At the Austrian Space Forum we say that the first human to walk on Mars is already born. If you read a history book 200 years from now, the economic crisis might only be a marginal chapter, whereas in the long run, our time will be know as the time where we left the planet to discover new worlds.”
Images courtesy of Mars One (top) and Inspiration Mars (bottom)